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Home Sweet Homestead

If you’d asked Anna Hess ’00 during her Swarthmore days if she’d ever live in a 500-square-foot metal box, the answer would have been a definite no. After all, she’s a homesteading gal, a biology type who likes to muck about in wetlands and lovingly spread chicken poo in her organic gardens. 

Three years after graduating from Swarthmore—age 24 and close to broke—Hess searched out the cheapest land she could buy (58 acres of wetland and swamp in Scott County, Va.) and began dismantling the decrepit house that came with it. Hess envisioned straightening every nail, saving every board, and transforming the wreck into a snug, sweet homesteading cabin.

Ten years later she’s actively homesteading, although the cozy cabin is nowhere to be seen. 

“We’re ‘trailersteading,’” Hess says, a word she coined as well as the title of her new book. 

It’s also a growing trend among folks searching for simple housing so they can have the freedom to pursue more fulfilling goals, whether it’s back-to-the-land living, early retirement, or more time for travel and family. 

Hess and husband Mark Hamilton work only 30 hours a week, split between farm chores like tending the goats, chickens, orchards, and gardens, and income-producers like Anna’s writing or Mark’s nifty automatic chicken-waterer invention, the Avian Aqua Miser. 

This leaves them plenty of time to observe frogs as they lay eggs in the pond, to pursue their creative itches, and to watch their honeybees gather hazel pollen. 

It’s the homesteading life Hess always dreamed of, even if it looks very different from what she—or anyone else—originally dreamed.

“To be honest,” Hess says, “I embarked on Trailersteading: How to Find, Buy, Retrofit, and Live Large in a Mobile Home as a bit of a joke.” 

She was startled when her how-to e-book found worldwide fans, then a New York publisher. It’s billed as a more satisfying alternative to the materialistic mansion-and-mortgage lifestyle—“Anyone can really achieve self-sufficiency,” says Hess.

Hess’s homesteading roots go back to her childhood. She was born into a back-to-the-land family who espoused “voluntary poverty” and a life she remembers as paradise. 

“There were strawberries to eat, cows to name (and then cry over when they went to the slaughterhouse), and hillsides to climb with book in hand,” she says.

Hess now homesteads to the hilt, harvesting everything from crookneck squash, cabbage, okra, and sorghum (for the goats) to Egyptian onions, gooseberries, and raspberries along with 40 other types of edible plants. She hunts deer, raises chickens for meat and eggs, and milks two friendly goats named Abigail and Artemesia.

She’s also a cheerleader for what she calls “the gentler, modern version of homesteading.” This includes suburban families with chicken coops in their backyards and city dwellers with vegetable gardens. In fact, her first book, The Weekend Homesteader, offers simple projects like using logs to grow mushrooms, installing rain barrels, or building an under-the-sink worm bin.

Today, Hess is where she wants to be, home at the trailerstead: sipping soup made from her own chicken stock, splitting firewood, or embarking on new experiments, such as tapping black birches for their sap to make a new type of syrup.

“It’s one of the greatest gifts,” she says, “knowing that life at the poverty line is not only possible, but full of joy.”