Start with bright October sunshine and a blanket of blue sky. Add to that nearly 150 vendors and their wares, 50 speakers and more than 5,000 attendees, including several hundred children.

Add a few dogs, chickens and goats, enthusiastic volunteers, lots of smiles and laughter, the smell of popcorn, freshly ground coffee and homemade soap, and you have a picture of the Homesteaders of America (HOA) at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Front Royal, Virginia.

Once you pass the grassy parking lots crowded with hundreds of cars, vans, and pickups, you enter a vast, flat expanse covered in vendor tents, trails teeming with veterans and hobby farmers, and table pavilions. picnic to take a load on your feet, eat and chat with friends and strangers.

Those who have attended previous conferences – this year marks the fourth event – are renewing friendships, and newcomers find themselves drawn into conversation with complete strangers. The spacious building for conference speakers fills with people seeking advice on topics ranging from working dogs to non-toxic living, practical food storage, composting or swarm catching. bees. And right from the start, people you’ve never met in your life are smiling at you or nodding at you, like you’re friends passing each other on the streets of a small town.

In the colorful 52-page guide to the conference, founder Amy Fewell writes, “Our goal here at HOA is to help you in every way, but also to have an impact on our country and beyond. To be a voice and a light where there was no voice for this community and this way of life.

Believe me, there is now a voice for this community, and you can hear it loud and clear this afternoon.

Various activities were planned for the children, ranging from learning how to milk a cow to raising rabbits. (Courtesy of Homesteaders of America)
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A young child holds a chick. (Courtesy of Homesteaders of America)

Sharing and Learning

To help those new to the concept of homesteading and to hone the knowledge and skills of veterans, salespeople play a key role. Some sell their products directly there, while others, especially those with larger items such as electric fences or farm equipment, distribute brochures about their products or take orders for delivery. All these people clearly know their trade.

At Bee Guy Supplies, for example, the woman running the stand, Mrs Crow, explains to me why they sell special hives for carpenter bees, explaining that these bees do not make honey but help to open some flowers. for the bees. Her husband, Brian Crow, owner of this Londonderry, Ohio-based business, first became interested in beekeeping 14 years ago. He attended a lecture on bees at a garden club, became fascinated by the subject and befriended the speaker, and for eight years owned a farm, which now houses 40 beehives. . He and his family operate an on-site store selling honey and beekeeping supplies. Every third Thursday of the month, Bee Guy hosts a seminar where different beekeepers share information and teach others about beekeeping. All are welcome to participate.

In addition, the family raises quails and chickens for meat and eggs, as well as rabbits.

“Everyone shares,” says Ms. Crow. “And they want others to learn.”

Which was true for every salesperson I spoke with that day.

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Family skills are wide and varied, from gardening to beekeeping. (Biba Kayewich)

written words

Others share in different ways.

Jeremy Kroening is associate editor of the online magazine Homestead Living. “About 80 percent of our articles are ‘how to’,” he says, “and the rest is about the farm lifestyle.”

He reports a huge increase in visitors to the site over the past two years due to COVID-19, with many people particularly interested in healthier living and growing their own food. Although he, his wife Amanda (a professional weaver) and their three daughters, ages 9, 7 and 6, live in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Jeremy does more than edit a homestead magazine. The family bought an empty lot next to their property in town, where they laid out a 20-by-20-foot vegetable garden. One day they hope to add fruit trees and a chicken coop.

“The most appealing thing about homesteading for most people is the connection to the natural world,” he tells me. “As for me, I think it’s important that we have a better understanding of taking care of each other and the world we live in.”

Like Jeremy Kroening, other vendors promote magazines and websites and sell books on all sorts of topics, including guides to major disasters.

Community

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Homesteading offers a connection with nature, family and with the community at large. (Biba Kayewich)

Most conference attendees come for the wisdom and technical skills they can take with them, but Angie and Steve Helton of Paintsville, Ky., were here for a different reason.

Husband and wife have long been drawn to the farm, in part because they grew up on farms. They also got interested, Steve says, because of “the quality of the food and the independence.” Their three children, two daughters and a son, all nurses, are out of school and working, and the couple began planning to buy a farm.

Then, as with so many, COVID-19 hit and derailed those plans. Steve contracted the virus and, although he felt little effect from it, he later caught pneumonia. He ended up being hospitalized from September 2021 to March 2022, spending most of his time breathing through a tracheal tube. At first he was not expected to live, he pulled through and today feels and looks healthy, but their dreams of homesteading have been put on hold for now.

If so, I wondered, then what brought them to Front Royal?

“We came to experience the community,” Angie said. They had attended other conferences – they described this one as by far the largest, with many more booths of vendors and people – and they had come from Kentucky to connect with friends they knew. were done earlier.

“Everyone here has a common bond,” Steve said.

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A group of friends at the conference. (Courtesy of Homesteaders of America)
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The adults also benefited from numerous practical demonstrations. (Courtesy of Homesteaders of America)

Assume personal responsibility

During my visit, I was fortunate enough to attend part of a talk given by Wyoming resident Jill Winger, founder of The Prairie Homestead, an online site with over a million monthly visits. . She told her audience that we live in a time and place where many people seek the easy and “our culture is biased against effort…it equates hard with bad.” The responsibilities that come with the farm, she said, are an antidote to that attitude.

After explaining that “embracing responsibility gives meaning to life,” Winger also reminded his listeners that homesteaders “take actions that make a huge difference” and that they have “a greater sphere of responsibility.” influence than they recognize it”. Others see what we are doing, she says, and want to join us.

In an article included in the program, Winger also addresses the idea of ​​“ease” in our culture. She writes, “When you’re a homesteader, homeschooling parent, or business owner, the buck stops with you. And as seductive as the abdication of responsibility may seem, it is not the answer. Neither for me nor for you. She ends her brief essay, “So the next time you find yourself saying the words, ‘I wish someone would do something about…’ My friend, consider that someone might just be you.”

This self-contained, doable code is probably as good a summary of the homeownership philosophy as we’re likely to find.

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Speakers at the National Conference of Homesteaders of America held October 7-8, 2022 in Front Royal, Virginia. Jill Winger of The Prairie Homestead, pictured center (with long blonde hair), spoke on the topic: “More Than Mason Jars: How Homesteading Can Redeem Our Culture.” (Courtesy of Homesteaders of America)

Count me… but count me

Unlike all of these people, I have no desire to raise chickens, plant big gardens, or milk cows, although I strongly identify with Winger’s remarks about responsibility. My wife and I homeschooled our children, and for most of my life I operated small businesses.

But despite my lack of interest in becoming a homesteader, I’d be heading back to next year’s conference in a heartbeat. Here’s why.

As I walked around this village of vendor tents, I saw several women wearing cross-shaped pendants on their throats. Two schoolgirls wearing hijabs skipped over to an ice cream stand. Black boys and white boys were playing a game of touch football in a nearby field. Old and young were mingling, and I saw several men and women sitting in one of the shelters who were obviously strangers to each other but were on their way to becoming friends.

And the only mention of politics I heard all afternoon came from a young chicken vendor, bearded and with a ponytail. I missed the first part of his conversation with a client, but in passing he pointed to a T-shirt for sale on the tent wall and said, “That’s my political philosophy. The T-shirt said: “Free Range”.

All the time I walked these fairgrounds, I felt lighthearted. Here were men, women and children from all walks of life and walks of life learning, sharing and having fun. The bitter divisions we read every day online were nowhere to be found in this crowd. They were united by a common interest and cause, a desire to make things grow and prosper.

Here, I thought as I walked to my car, this is America as it’s meant to be.

This is America as it can be.