At 85, Lloyd Kahn is a living legend. Lloyd first started homesteading over sixty years ago. He’s been a passionate advocate of living better with less both in his personal life and through his book company Shelter Publications; a publisher of DIY building and fitness books for over 45 years. While most of his books have focused on other people, his new book The Half Acre Homestead, focuses on he and his wife Leslie’s home and is filled with useful how-tos, pictures and illustrations. In this article he shares practical tips and reflections around the tools and lessons he’s learned over the past six decades.
Off Grid Living
KTV: Today it seems living off the grid or just homesteading without municipal water or power has become more fetishized than ever, but your place is incredibly utilitarian. Is this a product of experience? Did you start out like more dreamy and then get to that level?
Lloyd: Yeah we’re not off the grid. But we’re solar powered here so we generate all of our own electricity. I started when I was around twenty-two years old and bought three-quarters of an acre in Mill Valley. And then I just kinda kept going because if I’d been able to buy a house and it was okay, I might not have gotten into all this. But it was always cheaper to build something for myself with materials I’d find than thinking about having a normal job and paying someone else to do it. And I was able get the sort of house that I wanted to live with. I started in 1961. So, that’s almost sixty years now. I’ve learned a lot of things as I’ve gone through these years and I want to pass along these things to other people so they don’t have to make the same mistakes I did, but it’s always an ongoing process.
“It was always cheaper to build something for myself with materials I’d find than thinking about having a normal job and paying someone else to do it.”
KTV: What aspects of your pursuit towards self reliance, from food to waste to energy to water, have you found to be the best balance between making it happen yourself versus depending on the grid?
Lloyd: Doing anything for yourself takes a lot of time. It’s like you’re walking a tightrope between how much time do you have and where is the money going to come from to buy what’s better to buy? But anything you do for yourself is gonna be better quality and cheaper in a lot of ways.
Back in the ’70s, we wanted to be self-sufficient, and pretty soon I found out that you can’t be self-sufficient. I mean you can raise your own wheat. We did that. We’d mill it as well as rice and other grains. But pretty soon, you realize there are certain things you can’t do. So, I figured out that you can’t be self-sufficient, but you can work in that direction. And that’s sort of what we do. It’s kinda like me and all my friends, including you and Foster up there, we all look at something and try to figure out how we can make it ourselves. And some things, you know, like in dentistry, you’re not going to do yourself.
And so, for all these years that’s what I’ve done. And it’s kind of paid off now to where we’ve never paid any rent, and we’ve never had a mortgage. We never had to deal with a bank. And that was possible because back in the ’60s and ’70s it was so cheap to get by. It was so easy to get by. You didn’t need much money to live on. There was no internet, you know, no fax machine even. And so you could take the time to do stuff for yourself.
And also the land and basic things were cheap. Not only were living expenses cheaper, but land was cheap, and materials were cheaper. And the building codes weren’t as ridiculous as they are now. My land here (on the Central Californian coast) cost $6,000 when we bought it, and the building permit was $250, and the water connection was $200. And a water connection now in this town is $200,000 to $300,000.
The Half Acre Homestead
KTV: What inspired you to make your new book “The Half Acre Homestead”?
Lloyd: When I started working on this homestead book, I was thinking, “does it make any sense nowadays for people to do what we did?” And back then, in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of the ideals that we came up with in the ’60s and were carried out in the ’70s. Back then we wanted to find ten acres in the country and be as self-sufficient as possible and have goats and chickens and bees. Nowadays, if I were a young person, I would probably look around in a small town that’s distressed, or a working-class town, or in neighborhoods where buildings are maybe a little run-down, or maybe a neighborhood where the crack dealers have just moved out and you find a house on the West Coast for couple of hundred thousand dollars, instead of a million dollars, and then you fix it up. And maybe you get a couple of people to build on the same block and you have a vegetable garden together. I think that’s one possibility. And in the book “Small Homes” there’s a guy that found a house in LA for only $200,000. It was falling apart, and he fixed it up, that’s what I would do now.
And then another approach is like Jay Nelson did in San Francisco is two people buy a house and turn it into a duplex. And he did that legally in San Francisco. So, that way you cut your price in half.And then the third thing I’d say to people is just, you know, get a warehouse or a loft or something or even just fix up an apartment that you’re renting where you could rent it for a reasonable price and with the understanding that you were gonna fix it up.
So, there are alternatives to buying a bare piece of land and building a house from scratch, but people have got to be clever. And also, they also have to work. I was actually an insurance broker in San Francisco and I started building on the weekends and after work. I’d rush to get home on a summer night and work until dark. And then Saturday and Sunday was house work time. I still think that the more you can do with your own hands the better off you are and the more satisfaction you have and the more money you can save as opposed to paying high rents or paying out a lot of interest payments to a bank.
“I still think that the more you can do with your own hands the better off you are; the more satisfaction you have and the more money you can save.”
KTV: In your book, you call your kitchen “the heart of the house.” Your kitchen is incredibly well-designed. My favorite feature is your dish storage which instead of being a cabinet above the sink you have a dish drying rack which drips down into your large stainless steel sink basin.
Lloyd: I did a video on washing dishes showing the dishwashing technique that we use here, which is when we had goats. I installed a dishwasher because you really have to keep things clean when you have dairy animals. And I realized that, you know, we were practically washing the dishes before we put them in the dishwasher, and it was using a lot of water and electricity. So, I took it out, and we started doing dishes in a Rubbermaid tub. And so, I’ve got this system where it uses very little water.
One of the things I really like in our kitchen is we use nails up above the sink, there’s maybe 20 finished nails that we hang things from like the egg beater and bottle openers and whisks, and that really works well. And a really good stove. After all these years, we paid $3,000 for a BlueStar stove, and it’s one of those life-changing things when you have a real good stove especially when you make everything from scratch.
KTV: What are your and Leslie’s favorite cookbooks?
Lloyd: The Fannie Farmer cookbooks she uses a lot. And I’d say Alice Waters has a number of cookbooks that are really good. “The Joy of Cooking” is, you know, a standard cookbook.
We did a cookbook which it never sold very well, but it was a pretty good one called “Mrs. Restino’s Country Kitchen,” and it was about cooking out of your garden, you know. And like that’s what we do. We go out and look around at what’s growing, and, “Okay, that’s gonna be dinner tonight.” And we also hunt and fish.
“I think we’re getting by on $3,000 or $4,000 a month [together]… And we could cut that down if we had to.”
KTV: What is your guys’ monthly budget?
Lloyd: I think we’re getting by on $3,000 or $4,000 a month. We’re actually kinda living off of Social Security right now. Because the last couple of years we’ve gone into debt. Neither Leslie nor I have had a salary for probably a couple of years now. But we don’t have any rent to pay and no mortgage. We each have a car and so there’s gas expenses. And we could cut that down if we had to.
KTV: You devote an entire chapter to septic tanks and I was surprised to learn that you wrote a septic tank operating manual some years ago. You wrote that they are much better disposal systems than municipal sewage. What do you think the opportunities are in simple septic systems for human waste?
“I’ve retired from crusading against the unfairness of septic regulations.”
Lloyd: It’s called on-site wastewater disposal. People don’t realize what a beautiful system it is. There’s no motors involved. Gravity provides the power, and the microorganisms in the soil take care of the pathogens and anything that could be harmful in the fecal matter. And so, people who grew up in the city don’t understand how a septic system works. And we did a book that’s really the only book on septic systems. And there are, I think, over 20 million septic systems in the United States. So, it’s like a fifth of the people in the United States or a sixth have on-site wastewater systems. And if they’re maintained, they will really last a long time. And when I discovered it, I thought, “This is a beautiful system because it’s powered by gravity.”
And then, of course, what’s happened is that the regulators and the engineers have come along and said, “These systems don’t work, you have to hire us to do a $50,000 system.” I think my septic system cost $2,000, and it’s still operating now 50 years later. And I wrote an article for “Mother Earth News” years ago about how these regulators are fucking homeowners over. But I’ve retired from crusading against the unfairness of septic regulations.
KTV: Water in your neck of the woods is a huge consideration. How does your well, your gray water system, and your rainwater catchment all serve to meet some of your water demands? And where do they go?
Lloyd: Our garden is watered out of the well. We have a catchment too which catches rain water from our roof. We’ve got a real big tank, and then maybe three or four smaller ones. We have some friends here who have like 16 different tanks, and they have a huge amount of rainwater. But we have a 15-foot-deep shallow well for the garden. And then otherwise, we use city water, which comes from an arroyo outside of town. I have a solar shower outside, which is incredible. When you take a shower with water heated by the sun, it feels different. And plus, I’m thinking, “Oh, there’s no fossil fuel. There’s no electricity or gas propane used to heat this water. It’s just free.”
KTV: If you were to do it over again what would you change in your approach(es) to homesteading?
Lloyd: I’d love to build one more house. I would just love to do it, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I’m just kinda winging it you know. I don’t have solar heated water in the house. And I’ve had this idea, it’s basically a box with a tank inside it, and a polycarbonate glazing, to keep the heat in. And then I would have a coil in the wood stove to heat the hot water in the wintertime. My friend Louis has solar panels for hot water in the summer and then a coil in his wood stove for hot water in the winter. He’s also got a little water powered generator in the creek by his house that generates electricity. He is off the grid like a lot of people in Mendocino are. They’re way out there in the woods growing pot. I’ve seen people down in Mexico build a sturdy stand maybe eight feet tall and put a 50-gallon drum on top, paint it black, fill it up with water, and they’ve got hot water, especially in the desert. Ideally, you’d have all your hot water from either the sun or from a fire, which is heating your house, and as much electricity as possible.
KTV: You’re always building stuff on your property, what kind of woodworking tools do you recommend?
Lloyd: For power tools I like:
- Makita for drills, impact drivers and things like that. Some of my friends have DeWalt’s, and some people have Milwaukee. Everybody’s got their personal favorite.
- For other shop tools, I like Grizzly. They make really inexpensive, high quality tools.
- I have a thing for saws. I have all kinds of saws. My radial arm saw and my table saw are used Delta saws. My bandsaw is from Grizzly. Grizzly is a Chinese outfit. And speaking of cheap, Harbor Freight is amazingly cheap. But some of that stuff worries me because I think, “How the fuck do they…?”
You know, a while ago I bought a RYOBI set. It was like a drill, a saw, a flashlight, two batteries, maybe two types, maybe a little portable skill saw and a little jigsaw. And all of that was like $120. And I thought, “This isn’t right. This shouldn’t be this cheap, you know.” So yeah, I put some of my favorite tools in that book, and then also we put some of our favorite kitchen tools in the book.
For landscape power tools we use:
- A lawnmower
- A Stihl chainsaw weed whacker
- A Stihl hedge trimmer because we’ve got hedges all around our place.
- Husqvarna, I think for the bigger chainsaws. But I have a little Stihl chainsaw, I think a 14-inch or something that’s really good. Professional tree guys say a Stihl or a Husqvarna.
“The best thing as far as activity goes is to get some exercise, have fun and gather food.”
KTV: How do you balance office work, work from work around your property, and playtime? How do your days tend to roll out?
Lloyd: I work about a 40-hour week because that’s the time when I can get a hold of people. I have to do a lot of business stuff. I’m talking to people in the US and other countries to either include them in our books or for distribution stuff, or the printers of our books. The best thing as far as activity goes is to get some exercise, have fun and gather food. Getting mushrooms is a great way, you know, to go for a hike and the fun of exploring. Yesterday, it was really windy, but I’ve got this electric bike and I maybe went ten miles yesterday. I went out into the countryside here and picked nettles. We have a huge amount of bait anchovies here. I’m going to go down now and check it out later. All the birds are dive-bombing so that’s a good time to catch fish. I’m gonna take my kayak down and go fishing for striped bass or halibut, you know whatever I can find. I’ve been trying to get little fish like anchovies or mackerel because I think they’re the best fish to eat, and the commercial fisherman don’t want them, other than for herring.
For twenty years I did books on fitness, stretching, running, and weight training. So I had the luck of hanging out with jocks for a couple decades. I got really into training and running, especially in triathlons. And I always was a surfer up until the last few years. I don’t feel good unless I do something that stresses my body. And every time I do it, if I go for a paddle, I’ll think, “Oh, God, I gotta do this every day.” This guy made me paipo, or a wooden belly board. It’s 42 inches, and I’m just looking at it now. It’s made out of plywood, and it’s really thin. And I took it out last week. I couldn’t use it at all. I tried to swim across the channel with it, and it was…it didn’t float at all. So, I couldn’t get any… You know, I had fins on, and it was almost like it was pulling me down in the front. And I think that plywood maybe isn’t the right material for it. This guy made it for me. It’s got two little fins on it. It’s really great-looking. I’m gonna try it again in the shore break. I have my paddleboard. A 12-foot Joe Bark paddleboard that is really fun, and I love to paddle.
KTV: So, you’re now eighty-five years old now and you’ve published how many books?
“If I’m depressed what I find is if I go on a three-hour bike ride or anything long enough to feel sore that’s a really good feeling. And if you can do that without getting injured, then everything is cooking.”
Lloyd: Oh, 45 maybe. I mean, for as far as publishing goes, that’s not even a book a year. There’s some publishers that do 50 books a year. Our books are very slow to make them because we put so much time into them. I discovered they have a long shelf-life because we put so much time in the books.
KTV: Well, it seems like the current American paradigm has put off living to just work, and then you’ll be able to live. You’re a hard-working, self-starting kind of a person, you’ve taken that applauded Protestant work ethic and just applied it to things that you think are fun and meaningful. Things that you think are valuable to you and you stock functions. So, you get exercise, but you’re also learning about the landscape that’s around you.
You’re walking around the neighborhood. You’re investing in your community, which you can crowdsource or work together to find out either where a good berry-picking or mushroom-foraging spot is or a neighbor who has a mill or these different things. None of it’s getting lost or sent away or exported in your life. And that creates this pace, which allows you to take, you know, naps, and it keeps you invigorated because your life is enjoyable. And so, you want to show up to work. I think most people just get so tired of delaying gratification that they just give up.
Lloyd: Well, yeah, my work, I love what I’m doing. I love publishing. I mean, I just feel so lucky that I’ve been able to make a living at it for all these years because I’m basically a communicator. And I get really depressed sometimes, so it’s not all light and joy. But, you know, if I’m depressed what I find is if I go on a three-hour bike ride or anything long enough to feel sore that’s a really good feeling. And if you can do that without getting injured, then everything is cooking.