Western Michigan University
Arts and Sciences Curriculum Committee

From:  Maynard Kaufman

Subject:   Rationale for Proposed Homesteading Courses November. 1977

I.  Background of the Proposal

   The proposal for homesteading courses at Western Michigan University grew out of the five-year experience at the School of Homesteading. This living-learning kind of educational experience was started by Maynard and Sally Kaufman in 1973 at their farm near Bangor, Michigan.  Its purpose was to demonstrate the possibility of low-technology, small-scale farming using organic methods of vegetable, field crop, and livestock production.  Students learn as they share the life, work, and food on a diversified farm and reflect on what they are doing, and why, through readings and discussions.  The groups of 8 to 10 students who have gone through the intensive 6-month terms at the School, from May 1 to November 1, found their experience helpful as a first step in the transition from an energy-intensive urban life-style to a labor intensive rural way of life emphasizing ecological modes of production and consumption.

    Since I was granted a half-time leave of absence from teaching activities on campus to establish an experimental homesteading school we had considered our School as a kind of pilot project.  Each year we have had many more applicants than could be accepted, and since the field experience component of the program has been fully tested on our farm, it is time for the homesteading program to be part of a regular curriculum rather than an experimental private venture.

    It is especially important that the proposed courses be offered as part of the Environmental Studies Program. The massive shift from rural to urban America during the past 50 years which was made possible by the industrialization of agriculture has also left us with social and environmental problems in the form of crowded cities, displaced rural refugees, ecological disruption caused by the use of agricultural chemicals and resource depletion due to energy-intensive methods of food production, processing and distribution.  The proposed courses in homesteading offer intellectual and practical steps toward the solution of these social and environmental problems. They should be offered in the Environmental Studies Program not only because of its environmental focus but also because it is an interdisciplinary program.  Homesteading is small-scale farming as a way of life, and not simply a means of production. The new homesteader must learn to think in holistic terms, work with nature, recycle materials, find satisfaction in frugality rather than in consumption, thrive on physical labor, and create a sophisticated agri-ecosystem in which poly-culture schemes imitate natural systems.  And since it is so often a kind of romantic nostalgia for the simple rustic life which attracts students to homesteading, it is especially important that they examine their values as they consider this way of life.  Homesteading actually requires extra effort and commitment in the search for a way of life which imposes less demands on the environment .  All this presupposes profound and educated changes in outlook and orientation, which in turn require a program of study which integrates humanistic concerns along with scientific inquiry.

Course Descriptions and Rationale

   The first course, ENVS 310, "Homesteading Theory" is to be offered during the Winter Semester as a prerequisite to ENVS 350, "Homesteading Practice," to be offered during Spring, Summer, and Fall.  The proposed Catalog description for "Homesteading Theory" is as follows:

"An introduction to modern homesteading as a self-sufficient way of life, why it is important in our time, and how it can be done.  The new homesteading movement is viewed as a complex cultural and agricultural phenomenon which reflects the pastoral ideal in American life, a concern for working out a more ecological agriculture, and the search for a rural way of life and appropriate technologies which are less demanding of energy and material resources."

   Readings, lectures and discussions in the course would focus on the following issues and topics:


   The proposed Catalog description for the second course, ENVS 350, "Homesteading Practice," is as follows:

"A field experience course in the arts and skills of self sufficient living which requires full-time residence on a homesteading farm during Spring, Summer, or Fall.  Learning activities, consisting of regular farm and household chores and whatever farm work is in season,will be supervised by qualified instructors who will suggest readings complementing farm activities , arrange for regular class discussions and evaluate student performance.  Students will be provided with room and board in exchange for their work."

(Perhaps the statement that "a modest fee for living expenses will be charged should" be added to this course description.)

The Field Experience Course is important for several reasons.


III.  Funding and the Arrangements with Michigan Land Trustees

    One major advantage of these proposed homesteading courses is that an organization outside of the University, Michigan Land Trustees, has agreed to provide housing and land for at least the first section of the Homesteading Practice course.  (A brochure describing Michigan Land Trustees is appended to the memo.)  The plan is for MLT to lease a farm to the Homesteading Instructor on a year-round basis for a nominal fee.  MLT thus provides the Homesteading Instructor with a place to live along with land and equipment with which to become self-sufficient in food production.  Virtually no capital outlay is thus required from the University.  Administrative needs for two additional courses can be provided by existing ENVS office personnel and facilities.  The University is being asked to provide instructional personnel for these proposed courses.  I would be willing to teach the Homesteading Theory course either on released time from my teaching load in the Religion Department or on an overload basis.  A Homesteading Instructor could also participate in the Homesteading Theory course and eventually assume responsibility for it.

    The salary for a Homesteading Instructor -- about $5,000 or what might be considered a half salary -- will also need to be provided by the University. If the Homesteading Instructor supervises learning activities for 10 resident students per semester, he is generating tuition fees in the amount of $4,080 for two semesters .  If he teaches 12 students each semester (assuming enough housing), he generates $4,896 in tuition fees per year.  Since these students do not use classrooms on campus and since the University also receives support from the state to help pay for the education of students, it can be argued that the Homesteading Practice course could be a financial asset rather than a liability.  And, as a year-round resident on the Homesteading Farm, the Homesteading Instructor provides continuity and surveillance for experimental projects non-resident students and faculty might carry out on the farm.

    Students in the Homesteading Practice course would also be provided with housing on or near the Homesteading Farm by Michigan Land Trustees.  Students would help with food production and processing as they learn, thus reducing the cost of their food.  They would be charged a very modest fee to cover the cost of incidental expenses such as insurance, repair, depreciation, utilities, etc.  These fees are likely to be higher during the first year in order to "start up" the farm and make it productive.  Special assistance from outside funding agencies and endowment funds is being solicited to reduce costs to students as the farm becomes productive.  Even if such help is not forthcoming, the cost for room and board per student per semester would be between $200 and $300 as compared to $720 on campus.

IV.   Implementation of the Homesteading Courses

   The proposed courses in homesteading are unique and will be attractive to students who want to live in a sustainable society.  The schools of agriculture in the land grant colleges have not yet shifted their emphasis from economic considerations to the development of an ecologically-oriented agriculture, and it is unlikely they will do so given their close links to energy-intensive agribusiness industries.  Very few courses or programs such as those outlined in this proposal are being offered, and the few that are emerging do so outside of the usual agricultural curricula.  This program could attract new students to Western Michigan University with a minimum of investment .  The regular flow of inquiries from prospective applicants to the School of Homesteading can be funneled into the homesteading courses.  Plans are also under way to publish notices of these course offerings in magazines devoted to homesteading and small-scale farming as soon as the courses are approved.

    To better facilitate the already existing contacts between this proposed homesteading program, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Technology, an Advisory Committee with members from these departments along with several other faculty members has been formed. The proposed courses could complement existing and emerging Environmental Studies programs and contribute vitally to a redeveloped Rural Life and Education curriculum.  Another example of such interdisciplinary inquiry is the series of programs last spring on "The Pastoral Ideal and the New Homesteading Movement" co-sponsored by the School of Homesteading and the Kalamazoo Nature Center with funds provided by the Michigan Council for the Humanities.  The homesteading approach is appropriate to the diversified
small-scale farming in the Southwest Michigan region, and it could grow into a model of national significance as we move into an era in which we recognize limits to industrial growth.

Maynard Kaufman, 1977

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