Trying to Earn a Living While Living in the Country

By Cam Mather

Sometimes I write articles for the local paper that’s published every second month. It’s a great little newspaper/magazine but my most recent article elicited a tactful “please stop promoting your business(es) in your articles” from the editor and publisher. And herein lies the great, eternal country living/homesteading dilemma… how do you earn an income in the country?

Rule #1 of this challenge is this: “It’s much harder to earn an income in the country.” There simply aren’t as many job opportunities and country jobs tend to pay less than city jobs.

Rule #2 – If you move to the country but have to commute to the city for work, does it detract from your overall country experience?

Rule #3 – If you want to make money in the country growing food, borrow a lot of money, buy a big piece of land and buy a really, really big tractor with lots of fancy attachments. Growing food on a small scale in a world of industrial agriculture is just not an easy way to earn a living.

Rule #4 – To reduce your need for an income in the country, work like a dog while you are living in the city and save every penny. If this takes you until you retire and you drop dead shortly after moving to the country, well, you kind of missed the whole point of wanting to move to the country in the first place.

Rule #5 – If you move to the country before retirement age and you haven’t won a lottery or received a big inheritance, your biggest challenge is going to be changing your relationship with money. This means you have to get used to having less. Sounds easy. It’s not.

This final rule is really, really hard and after 15 years of living in paradise, it’s still the one I struggle with the most. I experience ups and downs in this area. Sometimes I’m very “Zen-like” and I can rise above the money obsession. I can even watch those commercials that show retired people sitting on a dock after working and saving their whole life and I think about how many people I’ve known or heard of who have died shortly after retiring. When I hear those stories I am glad that I got out of the rat race at the age of 38, rather than 65. Odds are now I’ll have a heart attack within the next few weeks after writing that line.

But then reality will creep back in and I’ll stress out over it. In the words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, it’s always something. That car of ours is going to need replacing one of these days. It would be nice to contribute more to our daughter’s wedding. I’m really going to need a tractor if I’m going to keep attempting to earn a living growing food.

Michelle and I have had to resort to the “Anything for a Buck” motto for many years trying to find the right balance of work/income and trying to eek out a living here in our little piece of paradise. We have been experimenting and fine tuning it for years and with the economic collapse of 2008 and the on-going jarring changes in technology, especially in the publishing world, we have had to keep trying to tweak the income generating process.

It is difficult, but when we finally hit something that actually works it is incredibly gratifying. Getting there, though, can be quite a struggle.

Sometimes people who have read my books or attended one of my workshops ask me, “When is the right time to make the move?” I cannot give them a definitive answer. My inclination is always to say “right now.” But if you don’t have a source of income, or if you don’t want a 2-hour commute every day, you need to realize the tradeoff you’ll be making for that country experience. When I drive through suburbia I often think of the bliss that many suburbanites must feel, earning an income, spending it at the big box stores, taking a vacation to a warm place every winter and saving for retirement. And that’s all well and good, for them. Living in suburbia felt like a slow death for me so I got out while I was young. And now, slowly, little by little, I’m getting used to the fact that the government retirement plan that will be my only source of income, you know, that one that everyone says is going to be bankrupt, or is too small for anyone to live on… well, that’s going to be my retirement. And right now, it’s looking pretty darn great.

So to the editor of my local paper, you are correct. I write these articles to promote my various sources of income. I’d like to write shiny happy “Isn’t life in the country grand?” sorts of articles, but until I win the lottery, or you start paying me to write them, they are going to somehow be related to how I earn an income. Because you know, trying to earn an income is the focus for many of us living in the country and to avoid publishing articles such as this you ignore “THE” biggest issue facing country folk, or at least most country folk who haven’t won a lottery.

So I will be submitting this as an article to them for the next issue. They probably won’t publish it, which I fully understand. They may just want to cover the shiny happy country experience. If they do publish it, I want every one who reads it, especially those of you who don’t have the income worry because of city jobs, inheritances and lottery wins, to know that local business people really do appreciate your patronage. When you spend your money locally it makes a big deal to the local economy and the lives of local people. When you buy stuff from big box stores in the city it helps shareholders in far away places but not your neighbors. So please, when you’re making a buying decision, think of the local option, even if it costs a little more. Remember, some day the guy you rent videos from may be at your house extinguishing a fire on your porch in his role as a volunteer firefighter.

And to ensure that this article never gets published in my local paper, here are a few of the things that I do to earn a living. I sell absolutely amazing kindling to start your woodstove! It’s all sourced from a local sawmill and it’s fantastic! Michelle and I publish books about sustainable living which you can learn more about at our website We also run a CSA, which supplies local families with produce for 16 weeks each summer from our garden. It’s local. It’s organic and our members this past summer raved about it. We also do websites. If you’re thinking about a website for a business or organization you’re involved with, we can help. I do talks and workshops on energy efficiency, renewable energy and other topics related to sustainability. And in the fall and spring we offer a one-day workshop at our farm that covers renewable energy, sustainable food production and changing your relationship with money.

So there you have it, my sad and pathetic covert attempt at self-promotion to try and earn a living while living in the country. Actually, it wasn’t so covert after all …

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11 Responses to “Trying to Earn a Living While Living in the Country”

  • Shreesh:

    Doesn’t renting a tractor work in your part of the world? In India, it is pretty common place as we have many small farmers who cannot afford to buy it.

    A tractor should ideally be used only the first time you are preparing a field. Subsequent years should be no-till or manual-till cultivation. You must have heard of Permaculture and food forest, right?

    BTW – a facility to subscribe to alerts for new comments to a specific thread will be pretty helpful. (I think RSS will be for entire site, no?)

  • I don’t think Cam is reluctant to use a tractor… we just can’t afford to buy one! 🙂

  • Shreesh:

    Generally agree with all you said, but couldn’t understand your reluctance to use a tractor. We live in a world driven by cheap fossil fuels. Trying to lead a life with absolute adherence to our principles of sustainability seems impractical … its like fighting with both hands tied behind your back. Use the tractor – use it frugally – just enough to help you maintain your competitive edge against the factory farms. After all, don’t you use the internet which is powered by fossil fuels? Or your car to commute to the city?

    Or else be ready to lead a super-spartan life. And I am not saying that’s bad … just not sure how many of us are ready for it.

    Another approach is to live in a community – really helps improve the quality of life. Have you thought of using the great land you have to try setup a community of like-minded people? I currently own some farm land which I am in the process of developing, but am also trying to be part of an eco-village which is being setup.

  • Jeff:

    Wait, that was Bentonville, AR – There’s also a Benton, but not the right place.

  • Jeff:

    I agree totally with Pam. I hired a local hobby-farmer friend of mine to install my wood stove last year, and I’m ashamed to say that that was after we exhausted our resources for local contractors. He did a more-than-fantastic job of the install, and not only charged us half of what the contractors quoted but we helped them make a living as well. They try to run a CSA also, but money for them is tight, and that was a big part of our decision to go with them. The wife and I are so glad we did! Support your local small-time farmers, and stop sending money to Benton, Arkansas! (you know what store I mean) 😀

  • cat:

    There is no such thing as a free lunch, someone has to pay.

  • Yep, yep. That’s what I was afraid of… Gotta think of SOMETHING hubby can do instead of retail!

  • That new paper should consider that making a living in the country is part of the whole experience. I am always wondering how some people do it. It is always a question when I read a story or blog. Would be nice if there were a list of things you could do in the country to earn a living or how to deal with a lack of company supported health insurance. This is the one thing that is the hardest to deal with here in the U.S. It is what keeps people tied to their jobs. I don’t work but have a paltry income that I spend 25% of on health insurance and it goes up every January. There will be a huge jump this February when I turn 60. That probably means I will have to find a part time job to support this insurance company. That also means I will have to cut back on my “country” activities such as gardening and animal husbandry. If that newspaper doesn’t get it maybe your time would be better spent in the garden or on some other endeavor.

  • Catherine:

    I LOVED your article, Cam! I haven’t been in the country since I was a little girl. My mom and I lived waaay out in the boonies, and life was tough. I remember the drought that kept us from having enough food on the table, as well as the severe flooding which also kept food out of the larder – but supplied abundant blood suckers in the garden acreage – and also kept us from getting into town (doing a 3-1/2 mile walk because we didn’t have a car). We didn’t have electricity for a long time because the power lines hadn’t made it out that far. We had a kerosene stove in the kitchen and a wood-burning pot bellied stove in a central part of the house. The house was ALWAYS cold in the winter, and we had to use a huge feather bed as well as a night cap which was connected under my chin. The outhouse was about 50′ from the house and it was a horrible job getting to it in the winter snow drifts; and dangerous at night because of the wild animals. We had a “chamber pot” so we didn’t have to risk life and limb getting to the toidy.
    Money, as you mentioned, is a hard thing to deal with, especially when you’ve had it and then don’t. We “recycled” long before the word ever came into anyone’s imagination. Clothing that couldn’t be used anymore was cut up into pieces for a quilt, or barring that, into tiny pieces for a pillow stuffing or to use as patches for other clothing.
    There are hundreds of memories I still have of that time, and you know, after living in the city with all its refinements, I think I’d like to go back to the country. Those early years made me into the resourceful and practical woman that I am. I know those skills will be well used in the near future for what’s coming in our “land of milke and honey”.
    Keep up the good work, Cam. God Bless us, one and all!

  • Wow! To reply to all that you wrote would be too lengthy so I’ll just say that you absolutely nailed it! Every word you wrote is correct. My husband and I live in the country on a farm. He works full-time off the farm and also raises Limousine cattle. I work from home. Part-time transcribing audio files for law enforcement agencies. Part-time running an Ebay store that sells cross-stitch and quilting kits and patterns. And part-time running a small quilting business. In our “spare” time, my husband hunts so we have game to process and eat. We grow a large garden and can/freeze the vegetables from it. Chickens for meat/eggs. And somehow each year we do a bit more to our old (read drafty) farmhouse to make it more comfortable. Although we are not yet off grid (that’s a goal), we do not have a furnace, central air or anything like that. We heat with wood. And do a million other little things to conserve. And, yes, we have had to rethink our relationship with money and spending. It’s a great life!!

  • Dave W, Mayo SC:

    There is nothing wrong with self-promotion. It works in the corporate world and is sometimes required as well.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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