Homesteader Amy Stross stopped teaching to become a student again
Amy Stross wasn’t happy with in her profession as a high school teacher. So, she did something bold: she quit, and started part-time jobs in landscape gardening and farming. Through that change, she learned how she could turn the homesteading lifestyle into her new career.
Even though her property outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, was small — hence, the name of her blog, Tenth Acre Farm — Stross decided to apply what she had learned through her new gigs to create her own permaculture landscaping at her home in the suburbs. Now, she is a published author, popular blogger and workshop leader who aims to guide other beginner homesteaders looking to make the same lifestyle change she did.
In our Q&A with Stross for our Behind the Homestead Blog series, Stross talks about “dirt therapy,” designing edible landscapes and her advice for homesteaders who want to write books of their own.
Hello Homestead: What inspired you to start homesteading?
Amy Stross: Before I started homesteading, I was a high school teacher. I wasn’t happy in my job, and increasingly it was affecting my health. So, at the end of a particularly grueling school year, I quit.
I took the summer to figure out what I wanted to do next. I call that period my “dirt therapy,” because all I wanted to do was have my hands in the dirt and play in my garden.
I was also starting to learn about the benefits of a homesteading lifestyle — more self-sufficiency, more control over the quality of my food and health, smaller ecological footprint, etc.
HH: How did you learn the skills necessary to become a homesteader?
AS: I will always be learning new skills, but during my first summer off, I picked up a couple of part-time jobs. The first, as a landscape gardener, I learned a lot about plant selection and design through installing edible landscapes, herb gardens and other interesting projects.
My second job was as a manager of a [Community Supported Agriculture] farm project. Customers pay an annual subscription to the farmer in exchange for a weekly share of produce throughout the growing season. I helped manage the program that fed 100 families with organic produce, and I learned a lot from the farmer about the commitment and coordination it takes to feed that many people.
During this time, I also became certified in permaculture, which is a system for designing agricultural landscapes that work with nature. Permaculture helped synergize my thoughts and ideas about how to grow food efficiently while improving biodiversity.
HH: What were the first projects on your homestead?
AS: At first I did small things like sneak vegetables into the landscape and grow crops in containers on my patio. As I became more confident, I ripped out the traditional landscape and replaced it with edible perennials. A hedge of currant bushes now lined my front porch, while a mini row of black raspberries lined the front of the house. Later, I added rainwater catchment systems, raised beds, a composting operation and several fruit trees.
I started documenting all the things I was learning on my website [Tenth Acre Farm], which was named after the size of our property — one-tenth of an acre.
HH: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of homesteading on a small piece of land?
AS: The advantage of working with a small property is that it is very accessible. A food-producing landscape can be created fairly quickly, and because it is a manageable size, there is less overwhelm.
The disadvantage is that you have to be super intentional about how you use growing spaces. My backyard was quite shady, so I utilized my front yard as much as possible, which is not very private. I had to learn how to grow food more publicly and talk to my neighbors about my projects. I used an edible landscaping approach as opposed to a vegetable garden appearance.
HH: Now, you have over 3 acres of land. What opportunities and challenges did that transition open up?
AS: I did recently move to three acres, but I still think of myself as a micro-farmer because most of the land is steep, wooded hillside not suitable for food production. I’ll still be growing food in smaller, concentrated areas. On the plus side, I have more privacy, but my biggest challenge is now the deer.
HH: You write that homesteading allowed your household to eliminate the need for a second income. What are your tips for managing your budget for other homesteaders that want to make this a reality?
AS: My husband and I worked really hard to follow Dave Ramsey’s program to get out of debt and to “live our wage.” Because I was not working full time, I was able to analyze our household budgets and look for ways to get costs down.
I did this through smarter shopping (finding the best price for each item we regularly purchased), making unnecessary items treats rather than staples, and becoming more of a producer than a consumer. Meals were more from scratch from our garden, herbs were turned into medicinal products and excess food was preserved.
HH: Even in light of your career change, you continue to teach — but now, you teach about topics like permaculture and gardening. What are the similarities and differences between your experience teaching high school and your experience teaching these classes?
AS: My passion for growing food shines through in all that I do, and I love talking to people who are genuinely interested in the subject matter. Teenagers, on the other hand, need to be inspired and coaxed into learning things that they are not particularly interested in. They are there because they have to be. I applaud all school teachers who thrive on that challenge. For me, I am better suited to work with the first type of student.
HH: Tell me about your first book, “The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People.” How did you decide on the topic?
AS: As I developed my Tenth Acre Farm homestead in the suburbs, I discovered there were a lot of people who were challenged with obstacles like small spaces, sloping land, poor soil, shade, limited time, dealing with neighbors, etc.
I wanted to help others be successful because growing food has been such a rewarding experience for me. I wanted to offer resources to deal with these challenges so they could create successful homestead gardens and experience the same joy and satisfaction that I’ve experienced from my gardens.
At the same time, I realized that permaculture design was essential to my success, and I wanted to share actionable, easy ways for applying permaculture to homestead gardens.
HH: What was the writing and publishing process like?
AS: Writing a book was really hard for me! I have a lot of energy and a hard time sitting still, so it took a lot of commitment to sit down and write for long periods of time everyday. But the sense of accomplishment is fantastic, and I’m so glad that I followed through, because it has been so helpful to others.
HH: Any advice for bloggers looking to write their own books?
AS: There is a bit of a life imbalance that happens during the production of a book. There are late nights and times when you question whether it’s worth temporarily neglecting your regular life. Focus on why you’re doing it and who your book will help. My best advice is to set a writing schedule and deadlines and stick to it. If it was easy, everyone would have a book!
HH: What are you doing on your homestead right now that you really enjoy?
AS: Currently, I am learning about the forest on our property — what kinds of foods and medicines I can find there, how I can help the forest stay healthy, and where pockets of sunshine could be planted with edible perennials for foraging.
I’m also enjoying the process of designing the new homestead using permaculture, and weighing the various strategies to coexisting with the deer. There are a lifetime of projects here, and that seems really exciting.
HH: What do you hope for the future of your homestead?
AS: I’m excited to continue researching and demonstrating helpful strategies for the food-producing challenges we all face on our homesteads. I love connecting with others who find innovative solutions to problems. At the end of the day, we are all scientists, running experiments and learning from our successes and failures.
This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.