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Earn a living doing what you love: these backwoods breadwinners offer guidance for thinking outside the box to make a living in a rural setting or from your home.

The readers of Mother's pages are drawn to simpler, hands-on lives that reimagine the 9-to-5, cubicle-enclosed lifestyle. They choose instead to find fulfilling work by repairing a trusty piece of equipment, clearing a garden of weeds, or creating a functional table from scrap wood. Care to join them? You may desire to live in the country on some acreage or in a small, quiet town. We hear from many of you, however, that making the switch to living out your rural homesteading dreams is a challenge. Often, the biggest obstacle is a lack of dollars and sense--you need money and inventiveness to support a homestead.

This feature is dedicated to exploring the diverse methods of making ends meet--whether you're way out in the sticks or settled in a rural community. We've compiled the research and experience of several successful modern homesteaders who have made it work, each by following a unique path.

Beginning with jobs in small towns and rural areas, Ann Larkin Hansen provides an overview of full- and part-time positions, along with seasonal employment opportunities that rural residents can patch together to make a comfortable living. From elder care to grain mill operation, there's something for everyone.

Next, author and DIY expert Steve Maxwell explains how digital-savvy readers can make a living from their laptops. He calls these homesteading technophiles "digital peasants" because of their ability to couple old-time skills with modern technology.

Cam Mather, another longtime Mother Earth News contributor, details how he and his wife make ends meet by running a 50-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Finally, we round out the article with advice from the exemplary entrepreneurial couple John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist. Co-authors of nearly a dozen books and innkeepers at Inn Serendipity, this team tackles how to make a living from your kitchen with a cottage food enterprise. We hope these stories and practical pieces of advice will inspire ideas for how you, too, can earn income creatively and independently.

Small-Town and Rural Jobs

You've got to have some cash.

No matter how self-sufficient, homesteaders still need money for property taxes and services or goods that are difficult to scavenge, grow or make--such as canning lids, new chains for the chainsaw, dental work and coffee (necessary for me, at any rate). Selling the excess goods that your homestead produces, such as free-range eggs, vegetables, meat or body care products is one option. But if you aren't ready to do that or don't plan to run a full-time farm, you'll need some other income sources. A part-time, seasonal or even full-time job off the homestead can provide greater financial flexibility for you and greater economic stability for your small community. Fortunately, more earning opportunities exist in rural areas than you might imagine. If you explore your options, you'll likely find several ways to bring home what comedian WC. Fields called the "elusive spondulix." Here are some big-picture statistics on where to find rural jobs, and a chart listing some of the employment and entrepreneurial possibilities available (see Page 24).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service's (ERS) 2014 edition of Rural America at a Glance states that although rural and urban unemployment rates are pretty much the same, the types of jobs available in rural areas are different. Rural areas have fewer professional and managerial jobs but have more jobs that require manual labor and technical training. Although these jobs are lower paid, they offer more part-time, seasonal and self-employment opportunities that may fit better with a homesteaders schedule. Many country dwellers live on a patchwork of part-time and seasonal rural jobs, such as planting trees in spring; welding in summer; and trapping, plowing snow, and running the road grader in winter.

The available jobs in any specific rural area vary widely according to population density, the natural resource base, and the dominant types of agriculture. The sparsely populated Great Plains offer fewer opportunities, while the more populated regions east of the Mississippi River support service jobs, such as house painting and elder care. Wooded regions have jobs in logging and wood processing, while scenic, tourist-driven areas have opportunities in property management and at resorts, marinas and restaurants. Fruit and vegetable farms hire seasonal labor for planting and harvesting. Dairy farms employ year-round farmhands, milk truck drivers and workers at processing plants.

Tom Hertz, an economist with the ERS, notes that although manufacturing jobs, once the backbone of rural areas, continue to decline (down by 15 percent since 2003), self-employment is the fastest-growing sector of the economy in both metro and nonmetro areas. In 2013, 23 percent of all rural jobs were non-farm self-employment. Agricultural workers with technical skills--including veterinary technicians, animal nutritionists, soil scientists and farm managers--are in short supply, he says. A recent USDA report noted that only 35.000 students graduate with agriculture-related degrees each year, but nearly 60.000 jobs are available.

40-Hour Weeks

In many small towns across the country, the gold-standard jobs--full-time, with benefits--are concentrated in schools, hospitals, clinics and government agencies. Schools not only need teachers; they also require cooks, custodians, music and art aides, bus drivers, secretaries, and library staff. If a hospital or medical clinic is located in town, it needs receptionists, cleaning staff, lab technicians and nursing assistants. Retirement homes hire cooks, aides and activity directors. County-level government agencies employ secretaries and custodians, and counties and municipalities hire for road maintenance and repair, waste disposal and recycling, and sewage treatment. Local postal service jobs are also available.

Banks, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and retailers along main streets and highway interchanges need help, as do less-visible enterprises scattered along the outskirts and back roads, such as grain elevators, feed mills, excavators, body shops, welding services, hairdressers and butchers.

Technical Skills

If you possess or can acquire skills and training that are in demand in your area, you'll find opportunities for regular employment or self-employment at a higher pay scale. Technical and community colleges offer training in all sorts of highly employable skills: small-engine repair, truck driving, electric power line maintenance and repair, and more. Local agricultural extension offices may offer short courses or know of apprenticeships for nearby farm jobs that require specific training. Sheepshearing, hoof trimming and tractor-safety education are a handful of options.

In small towns, the right training will open many doors to self-employment and small business opportunities, such as real estate, insurance, accounting and tax services. The predicted demise of small, local printing and newspaper companies has not occurred, and such places still offer dependable rural jobs. Your success will depend on having enough of a population to support the particular enterprise you choose, and also on your skills. Word travels fast in small towns, so if you're reliable, responsive and efficient, you'll have customers.

Some jobs, such as data entry and call-center positions, require no experience, while others, such as medical transcription and media management, depend upon more advanced training or skills. A friend of mine, who has made a career of home remodeling and roofing, just started a well-paying job as an online insurance-claims reconciler. Because of broadband Internet, that family is moving closer to its dream of living full time in a cabin 40 miles from the nearest town.

Logistics of Going Solo

Before pursuing any self-employment venture, make sure you're knowledgeable about licensing and certification requirements, state and federal tax laws, and funding opportunities. Don't forget that you'll be responsible for your own health insurance. Your local community college or extension service may offer business classes. Check out the U.S. Small Business Administration (, the USDA Rural Business Development Grants (, and the Internal Revenue Service's page for small businesses and the self-employed (

Ann Larkin Hansen has been raising livestock and growing vegetables on her Wisconsin homestead for more than 20 years. Along the way, she spent six years as a staff writer for a farm newspaper and has been a freelance writer all the while. Her book The Organic Farming Manual is available on Page 80.

92 Options for Backwoods Breadwinners

Let this list get your brain churning about the jobs in your community that you could cobble together to make ends meet. For job seekers with little hands-on experience or start-up capital, the left-hand column, under "Rural Jobs," provides a list of entry-level careers that are sorted by specialty (and may require a small amount of training): construction and repair; agriculture and livestock; and other miscellaneous jobs, including elder care, retail, and digital telecommuting positions. The right-hand column, under "Business Opportunities," is a comprehensive list of rural employment prospects that may require a shop and inventory, more extensive training or experience, and often a license or permit.

Rural Jobs


Part time to fulltime

Asphalt paving; concrete work; excavating/bulldozing; interior painting; well drilling and repair; fence installation and repair; irrigation system installation, service and repair; masonry; sawmill work; electrician; auto mechanic; farm equipment mechanic; power line work; machinist; plumbing; welding.


Exterior painting; road grading/snow plowing; roofing.


Part time to full time

Hoof trimming; auction service; artificial insemination of livestock; veterinary technician service.


Planting and harvesting crops; logging; nursery and greenhouse labor; sale of farm products.


Part time to full time

In-home care/elder care; emergency medical technician; hospice service; grocery store/retail service; fuel oil and liquefied petroleum gas delivery; truck driving; property management; catering; barber/ hairdresser; butcher; data entry; product testing; survey taking; claims adjustment; editing/writing; medical transcription; website design.

Business Opportunities

Appliance repair; arboriculture; baking; bookkeeping/accounting; building inspection; cablnetmaking; carpet cleaning; computer software/hardware repair; custom farm work (tillage, haymaking); driving service; electrical installation and repair; fiber processing; firewood processing; grain milling; gunsmlthing and firearm repair; handyman; horseshoeing; house cleaning; hunting/camping/fishing outfitter or guide; HVAC service; Insurance sales; landscaping; land surveying; lawn care; livestock hauling; locksmithlng; meat processing; mini-storage; nursery/ greenhouse service; plumbing installation and repair; portable sawmill operation; poultry processing; property appraisal; redecorating; remodeling; scrap metal salvage; septic installation and service; sheepshearing; shoe repair; sign-making; skid loader service; small engine repair; tailoring/alterations; taxidermy; trailer sales and service; trapping; water and fire damage restoration; window washing.

A Self-Proclaimed 'Digital Peasant'

In 1985, I signed paperwork to make a 91.5-acre piece of rural farmland and forest my own, with two aspirations in mind. First, I'd work from home without leaving the property. Second, I'd make a living doing something I love. For almost 20 years, I've supported my family, now seven people, on a single income earned from my laptop. I've secured hundreds of online freelance gigs from home. 1 produce stories, photos and videos for magazines and websites, including my own. I have no "boss" and do entirely independent work. Through the content I produce, I teach people how to build everything from houses to furniture, how to fix things, and how to grow food and thrive in the country. These are the activities that shape my days anyway. I love my work, and I spend one-third to half of my time at a keyboard--often sitting under a tree. When I'm not telecommuting, I'm getting dirty building things, growing things and making the homestead life happen. On the rare occasions when I travel, my work goes with me. All I need is Wi-Fi.

I call myself a "digital peasant," and I have four main pieces of advice for anyone who'd like to claim the same title. First, begin with (or develop) passion, knowledge and hands-on skills that you can teach to others. Second, develop effective digital communication skills: Writing, photography and videography are the clear stock in trade of the digital peasant, but so is salesmanship. You need to convince people to buy what you make. Skills and entertainment are what you'll be selling. Third, invest in good tools: computers, quality cameras, and other digital hardware and software. The world has more than enough blogs and videos created with mediocre equipment. Properly using good gear is one way to make your work stand out.

Fourth, expect success to take time. I lived on our homestead for three years before I realized that working at a computer was the best way to keep checks showing up in my mailbox. Then, I worked for seven more years before my digital income was high enough for my wife to quit her nursing job and stay on the homestead full time. Today, my oldest son is financing a life for himself and his new spouse on our family homestead doing the same kind of work I do.

Is being a digital peasant for everyone? No--but what venture is? If you like the combination of computer work and hands-on living, and you'd like the freedom to make a living from anywhere on planet Earth, then maybe you, too, can snag some online work from home, and another digital peasant will be born.

Steve Maxwell calls himself "Canada's Handiest Man." He connects with a worldwide audience to share his carpentry and DIY expertise. He lives with his family on Manltoulin Island, Ontario. Follow his work online at

Running Our CSA Venture

Our community-supported agriculture (CSA) program reduces the financial risk of selling solely at markets or growing one main crop. By using the CSA model, were guaranteed an income upfront because members pay in advance for their weekly vegetable boxes. We don't harvest more produce than we can sell, and we don't compete with other market-bound growers. In our CSA venture, each member gets a proportional share of the harvest, and we waste little produce. This model allows us to maximize income from a smaller property by growing intensively and using continuous or succession planting during the growing season. Our income is modest, but the CSA system is easily customized to our space, production and revenue goals.

For a delivery date at the end of June, we require our members to pay half the cost of a membership share on May 1 and the remaining half on June 1. Asking for payment before delivery seemed awkward to us at first, but we've yet to see anyone hesitate. Delivering to a central pickup location, or to several in a city, is a common practice with CSA programs. We found a local store with complementary products to ours, and the owners were happy to allow this regular stream of potential customers to pick up from their store. You could offer home delivery, too--just make sure to factor the time and fuel requirements into your program's cost.

One of the biggest challenges for new growers is finding the right farm or garden property, which needs to be close enough to an urban center to conveniently reach customers (as country folks with their own gardens are less likely to join), but far enough away that land prices aren't prohibitive. You can run a reasonably sized CSA program with 1 to 5 acres under cultivation, so you won't need a huge piece of land. Remember, the more rural your location, the longer your drive will be, and the more you'll spend on fuel to deliver weekly shares.

One of the keys to success is to keep your overhead low; paying cash for your property is one way to do this. If property is too expensive where you want to grow, ask a local farmer whether they'll let you rent a couple of acres. Many industrial farmers don't have their own food gardens and may even offer you some land in exchange for a weekly box of fresh produce.

Marketing your CSA program will be crucial. You'll likely need to continually advertise for new members because some turnover will occur each year--people will move, start growing their own gardens, or decide they don't like vegetables after all. Farm tours, work parties, a good website and presentations about your farm will all help.

Many CSA programs are starting to offer winter shares, which can include greenhouse-protected, cold-weather crops and storage vegetables, such as kale, potatoes and squash. Because many of your potential winter members will live in urban areas, they probably won't have space to store foods for long; a biweekly or monthly box will be perfect for them.

As the CSA model has become more common, many farmers have diversified by adding other homegrown products, including meat, dairy and eggs. Many CSA customers are aware of the realities of industrial animal agriculture and the health benefits of eating higher-quality, pastured meat products, so the idea of paying premium prices for eggs, dairy or meat from happy, free-range livestock is all right with them. While these products can broaden your potential customer base and revenue stream, they will also entail an additional level of complexity, including government food-safety regulations, refrigeration, knowledge of animal husbandry and a less seasonal schedule. Plan how you'll handle these details before diving in.

Our 50-member CSA brings in more than half of our income, and we earn the rest via contractual writing assignments and sales through our small book-publishing company. (If you're interested in supporting your family solely through vegetable sales, see "Market Gardening: How to Make a Living on 1.5 Acres" at We also dedicated a number of years to cutting expenses and fully paying off our mortgage. We couldn't be happier with our decision to transition to this lifestyle; we're gratified each week by filling boxes with fresh, organic produce for our members. Plus, I can eat a pie per day during the growing season, and the pounds still fall off!

Cam Mather and his wife, Michelle, homestead on 150 wooded acres in Ontario, where they run a 50-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and a publishing business, all powered by sun and wind. See page 80 for his book Little House Off the Grid or visit to learn about the in-depth CSA workshop he'll be teaching in spring 2016.

Work from Your Kitchen with a Cottage Food Business

Nearly every state in the country now has cottage food laws on the books. These laws allow people to produce and sell certain "nonhazardous" food items made in their own home kitchens. Cottage food laws vary a lot by state--for a streamlined explanation of the cottage food laws in your state, visit No matter where you live, answer the following four questions before you jump in.

What's on the menu? Your state's legislation will specifically outline the nonhazardous food items a cottage food business is allowed to sell. Generally, this list includes high-acid, canned food products (preserves, pickles and salsas) and low-moisture baked goods that don't require refrigeration. Sometimes, the legislation will specifically itemize what you can and can't sell, and it may even include candy or dry mixes. Focus on what you can legally make, and don't waste time, energy and money spinning your wheels on what you can't. Of course, you can always dedicate yourself to potentially changing your state's laws to better meet your aspirations; many more-liberal laws came about because of such active citizenship.

Who are your customers? All cottage food laws allow direct sales to the public, and, in more than a dozen states, you can also sell products through indirect or wholesale channels, such as restaurants, specialty food shops and local cooperatives. You can (and should!) provide free samples of your products at a farmers market or another legal venue unless specifically prohibited at that site.

Where is your "store"? Each state's cottage food laws dictate where you can sell your products. Farmers markets and special community events are among the most common venues. However, even if your state's laws permit sales at a farmers market, that doesn't mean the market must allow you to sell there. Some farmers markets have bylaws or rules that exclude cottage food enterprises. The states with the most venue options also usually allow direct orders, at-home pickups and mail orders.

Is there a sales limit? Most states have an annual gross sales cap on the products a cottage food business can sell. This refers to the maximum gross sales your cottage food operation can reach each year without upgrading to a commercial space--this number can range from $5,000 to $45,000. Some states have no sales cap at all but might have more requirements for regulatory oversight and inspection.

After you've answered these questions and you understand your state's cottage food laws, you'll need to figure out whether the edible item you have in mind is worth selling. If people are clamoring for your crusty artisan bread or sweet strawberry jam, then you're off to a great start.

Selling Your Story

The most effective marketing efforts are those that combine the following seven P's into one cohesive and clear plan: Products, Price, Place, Promotion, People, Partnerships and Purpose. Making a great-tasting product is only the first step.

Products. Begin by testing your favorite recipes. Besides taste and flavor, you'll want consistency. Determine what makes your products stand out from others. If you use homegrown produce, a "Nonhazardous" food products, such as dried noodles and homemade bread and jam, are ideal cottage food candidates. treasured family recipe, or ingredients that cater to those with allergies or food sensitivities, be sure to highlight those features.

Your state's cottage food laws will dictate exactly what must be on the label of any canned products. In addition to a list of ingredients (in order of amount used by ingredient weight) and a processing date, most states require a sentence with your name and contact information, plus a statement similar to "Manufactured in a home kitchen." Always choose packaging that will ensure the product's safety and a compelling presentation. Remember, we eat with our eyes first.

Price. Setting a price for your products can involve researching your competition, establishing market value, and calculating a cost-input value that captures both your ingredients and time. Pricing is often a combination of these three approaches.

Place. Clearly defined by your state's cottage food laws, the locations where you can sell your products usually include farmers markets, community events and other venues that will allow you to sell directly to customers. Only select states permit indirect sales or wholesale distribution.

Promotion. Your target market is the potential customer base you want to reach, serve and satisfy with your products. This market is defined by demographics, such as age or geography, as well as psychographics, such as attitudes, beliefs and values. Your products will occupy a niche in the larger market, so you'll want to "position" your products for the most visibility.

You don't need to empty the bank to reach your target market. Depending on your skill set, comfort with a computer, time and budget, you can take advantage of many free (or nearly free) promotional opportunities. Most cottage food operations quickly set up an attractive website to share their stories. You can build one free with Wix, Weebly or WordPress. Social media platforms also provide free avenues for you to reach potential customers and build ongoing relationships.

People, Partnerships and Purpose. Customer referrals and word-of-mouth endorsements are the most powerful forms of promotion, which is why many food entrepreneurs follow the "80/20 rule." Successful businesses recognize that 80 percent of their business comes from 20 percent of their customers, whom they identify and then keep happy and engaged.

You can magnify partnerships, especially if you're able to connect with likeminded organizations. If you sell fresh bread, connect with a jam-maker at the market--or vice versa. Collaboration can go a long way toward boosting sales and caring for customers.

Finally, let your passion for your products sing through everything you say and do. Your sense of purpose should be part of your inspiring story, and it will help your customers connect a face with the food items they savor.

Everything you need to get started is probably in your kitchen right now, and it's likely you already have a food product that people are clamoring to buy. Joining the cottage food movement represents more than an enjoyable way to secure a new income source. You'll also be boosting the local food movement in your community. Best of all, thanks to cottage food laws, "Fresh from the Farm" and "Homemade" on the label can mean exactly that.


For more information about cottage food enterprises, including valuable advice about bookkeeping basics, kitchen organization, legal structure for beginning businesses and more, purchase a copy of the authors' book Homemade for Sale, available on Page 80, or visit the links below.

Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko are co-authors of Homemade for Sale, Farmstead Chef, Rural Renaissance and ECOpreneuring. They operate a cottage food enterprise from their home kitchen and are the owners of the solar- and wind-powered, award-winning Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast in Browntown, Wisconsin.

The Happy Tomato: Bringing Back Spaghetti Night

It's a simple claim found on the Happy Tomato label--"It's the sauce that makes a difference." In 2012, owner Liz James set out to launch a home-based food business that could help families connect around their dinner tables over simple, quick and healthful meals.

Liz lucked out by living in Virginia, a state that has flexible cottage food laws for small-scale startups and also offers a "home food processor" license, which allows home cooks to function like a commercial operation. While this license involves many steps, inspections and fees, it enabled Liz to reach her goal of selling wholesale relatively quickly and efficiently.

Liz's story exemplifies how deep a role local resources and support can play in championing a startup's success. "Hands down, I wouldn't be here today without the support of my local community," Liz says. Various nonprofit groups provided business-plan workshops and marketing advice, and a $2,500 Kiva Zip loan provided partial funding, which Liz used to purchase canning jars, cooking supplies, and a suitable gas range for heating stockpots. Kiva Zip is a project of Kiva (www., in which the general public serves as lenders and collectively makes micro-finance loans directly to borrowers via the Web.

While Liz sold directly to customers at a farmers market, she simultaneously built a wholesale business selling to area retailers, including her local Whole Foods Market. By 2014, she had transitioned exclusively to wholesale and was focusing her marketing efforts on in-store demonstrations and sampling. "I find the biggest bang for my time is when I do in-store sampling. Shoppers are much more likely to walk away with jars of my product," Liz says.

Thanks to loyal wholesale accounts, the Happy Tomato is gaining ground on Liz's goal of producing 135 to 150 cases (with 12 units per case) weekly, which would enable her to scale up to a commercial facility and hire more help. Liz held several part-time jobs as she launched and grew the Happy Tomato, and is slowly cutting down her hours at those positions as her profits grow. "For the first time in my life, I'm earning income while simultaneously doing something I truly believe in: providing a reason and a means for getting families around the dinner table again," Liz says. "You can't beat that feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day."

Liz's special sauce is based on an old, Sicillian family recipe, using plum tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, onions, garlic, basil, rosemary and spices.
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Date:Feb 1, 2016
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