Book review: The Resilient Farm and Homestead is a gateway to homestead preparedness

Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead has completely changed the way I view prepping and homesteading. There are many permaculture books on the market, but this is the first one I’ve found that teaches permaculture principles from a preparedness angle. As the proprietor of the Whole Systems Research Farm in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, Falk has hard-won practical experience putting these principles to use.

Falk doesn’t beat around the bush: he sees the current societal order as unsustainable and is fully preparing for a collapse. Describing the book in part as a preparedness manual, Falk says, “If our goal is a peaceful, just society, self-reliance at the home and community levels must be a central focus of our lives.”

But while so much of doomsday prepping and survivalism paints a dreary picture of families huddling down in underground bunkers, Falk paints a brighter picture. “When the bad news of the world starts to overwhelm me, I always remember one piece of overwhelmingly good news; that in this work of facilitating abundance, life wants to live.” Life and community building are central precepts of Falk’s outlook.

I’ve lived on a small five-acre homestead since 2017, and while I’ve had successes in gardening and chicken-tending, I’ve struggled with the concept of true self-reliance. I want to figure out how to turn these semi-related bits into a connected system that works to sustain my family.

More: Beginner’s guide to survival gardening

Falk’s book doesn’t have all the answers I’m looking for, but it’s changed my thinking in a very real way such that I now have a better understanding of what I need to do. This review only touches on some of the high points of the book. Falk discusses so many topics related to homestead resiliency that it’s impossible to outline them all.

Summary:

  • Falk teaches regeneration — creating abundant life on your homestead — as a key to resilience.
  • Much of the book discusses designing landscapes that build soil and are resistant to drought.
  • Falk emphasizes reconnecting with nature as a way to build resilience. He recommends spending more time outdoors (even sleeping outdoors), keeping windows open, and negotiating steep terrain.
  • Scything is recommended as a resilient way to cut grass and harvest hay and grain without being dependent on outside inputs.
  • Falk touches on food preservation, emphasizing low-input methods like drying and fermentation over high-input methods like canning.
  • An entire chapter is dedicated to wood as a fuel for heating, cooking, food preservation, and even heating water.
  • The appendices are some of the best parts of the book, full of lists of things you can do to make you and your homestead more resilient.

More: Falk recommends learning first aid and how to find and filter water. You can learn both right here with our Austere First Aid and Water Essentials online courses.

Regeneration and resiliency

The two core themes of the book, established from the start, are regeneration and resiliency, and Falk makes the case that the two are intrinsically connected.

Regenerative agriculture seeks to actively improve the environment by building soil and increasing biodiversity. By comparison, mechanized “traditional” agriculture has destroyed, and continues to destroy, topsoil at an alarming rate — to the point some experts think we’re only decades away from a complete agricultural collapse.

In simple terms, regeneration means fostering life from death, like throwing rotting vegetable matter into a compost pile, which then fills a raised bed, which grows your garden.

In Falk’s view, more life equals greater resiliency. Dead systems experience entropy over time. Wood rots, metal rusts, and plastic cracks. But living systems can actually develop higher complexity over time. With greater biodiversity, your living systems become more resilient.

For instance, if all you grow is chestnuts, your orchard could easily be destroyed by blight. But if you grow a diverse mix of different trees, bushes, and other crops, one particular disease or pest isn’t that big of a threat.

Falk’s ideas have made me think more about turning my land into my own personal shopping mall. He encourages growing your own food and medicine, especially in the form of low-maintenance perennials, but his ideas have inspired some of my own. For instance, I now have the notion to grow gourds, which I could treat with beeswax from beehives to turn into bottles and containers. It’s also renewed my interest in green woodworking: building things out of the trees on my own land.

Beyond regeneration, Falk recommends a number of practices to increase your own resiliency: creating living systems on your land to capture water and energy, heating with wood you grow yourself, passively cooling your home, sleeping outside to better acclimate yourself to the natural world and boost site awareness, and climbing ladders and steep slopes to condition yourself.

Falk is big on lists, and he offers many different lists of rules, guidelines, and recommendations. Here’s his core list of guidelines that guide the rest of the book:

  1. Empower Yourself: Reskill and Reattitude
  2. Establish a Land Base and a Community: Put Down Roots
  3. Harvest and Cycle Energy, Water, Nutrients
  4. Develop Passive Shelter
  5. Learn to Cultivate and Wild-Harvest Food, Medicine, and Fuel
Permaculture principles and land design

Permaculture is a difficult thing to narrowly describe because it spans so many disciplines and various practitioners have different sets of guidelines. In short, permaculture revolves around developing living systems that reduce dependency on off-site inputs.

Falk offers his own list of 72 points for both homestead design and life. A few:

  • Maximum outputs for minimum inputs
  • Transform dead matter into living
  • Biological complexity, technological simplicity
  • All design should be modular
  • Using oil available today to build resilient systems
  • Practice survival skills as part of your daily routine
  • Cheap tools are too costly
  • Home as dehydrator

It’s a thoughtful list, and one I plan to refer back to often.

Falk spends a great deal of the book discussing homestead design, both the how and why. Falk guides you through identifying design goals, tracing a map of your property, and how to design a resilient homestead.

Much emphasis is placed on minimizing soil erosion and capturing and retaining water in order to make your land resilient from drought. Falk is a big fan of digging swales to capture water runoff and build soil. He also recommends digging ponds and growing rice in paddies.

I found this part of the book a bit overwhelming at times. Some of Falk’s ideas here are pretty radical, like tearing down an existing sub-optimal forest, digging swales, and then replanting the entire forest. These sorts of projects shouldn’t be taken lightly, as you could cause serious problems. However, I do like the idea of digging a pond, and will investigate that further.

Seaberry is a thorny problem

Falk is a proponent of seaberry bushes, pointing out many of their amazing attributes. The berries are citrusy, like oranges or grapefruit, and contain a great deal of vitamin C and other medicinal goodies. But unlike most citrus plants, seaberries can grow just about anywhere (they’re originally native to Russia). They are nitrogen fixers, so can grow prolifically in poor soil, and can even help regenerate that soil.

But there’s a big drawback he sort of glosses over in the text: seaberry bushes have serious thorns. Kevin Wallace shared his negative experience with seaberry, including the fact that the thorns are so large and sharp they regularly punctured his tires. That makes seaberry amazing for living fences, but you have to be careful about where you place them. They’re also a pain to harvest, as you can tell by Ben’s video above.

Grazing, scything, and the importance of mowing

Another focus of the book is land management and choosing animals. Much of Falk’s talk on animals focuses on his own personal experiences and what has worked on his farm. It’s interesting to read, but not necessarily transferable to your situation. I like the idea of animals grazing around my fruit and nut trees (called silvopasture), but the fencing would have to be rock-solid, especially for goats.

More: Homesteading misconceptions: Why having goats is harder than you may have heard

Something Falk emphasizes is not letting your fields go wild, because it actually reduces biodiversity, as a handful of resilient plants tend to take root. And once your pasture beings the process of turning back into forest, it’s very difficult to reclaim it as usable pasture for animals. Falk, originally being adverse to mowing and seeing it as a pointless chore, said he learned this lesson the hard way.

Falk recommends an old-fashioned but highly resilient method of mowing: scything. Scythes don’t need gasoline, and the European-style scythes he recommends can be maintained by thinning with a hammer (called peening) and honing with a stone — no grinding required.

I bought an old American-style scythe when I moved to the farm, but scything always felt more LARPy than practical. Falk changed my mind on that, and I’ve since ordered a scythe from Scythe Works out of Canada (the vendor Falk recommends). I’m glad I ordered it too, since I somehow broke my old scythe while cutting brush.

Broken scythe
Scything may be more resilient than mechanized mowing, but it’s not bulletproof.

Canning isn’t the end-all-be-all of food preservation

Falk only briefly discusses food preservation, but he still managed to change my thinking. Before, canning was our go-to food preservation method, but Falk points out some of the problems with it: it’s input-intensive, time-consuming, and has to be performed during the peak of summer when you really don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all day. Falk instead points toward drying and fermentation, which are low energy and low effort. I’m experimenting with both methods this summer, especially since we have a newborn and my wife doesn’t have time to run the canner.

Falk isn’t completely anti-canning. He uses it for treats like pickles and hot sauces, but it’s not his go-to food storage method.

Wood heat

Another resilient system Falk recommends is a wood stove, for heating, cooking, and even heating your water. Falk also points out other uses for wood heat, like making biochar for gardens and drying food.

While some other parts of the book are a bit vague or mostly detailing personal experiences, the chapter on wood heat is thorough, covering everything from tips on splitting wood, moving it, storing it, and how to effectively run a wood stove.

In an earlier chapter, Falk recommends growing trees for fuel, most notably black locust, since it burns well and grows fast.

I like the idea of growing my own fuel, but wood heat scares me a bit, at least in my current house, which is largely constructed of flammables like drywall. Plus, I have rambunctious children running around who would probably suffer a few burns before learning not to touch the stove. But if I ever build a house, it’ll be a top consideration.

In the meantime, I rely on the Mr. Heater Big Buddy propane heater we recommend in our guide to the best portable space heaters.

The Appendices

Some of the most interesting parts of The Resilient Farm and Homestead are the appendices. In many books, the appendices are an afterthought or sometimes a useful reference, but in this case, these appendices are almost like an outline for another book. (Falk hints at a future book on preparedness, but The Resilient Farm and Homestead is eight years old with no sign of said book yet.)

There are seven appendices:

Appendix A is resiliency aptitude quiz that evaluates your physical and mental state and various homestead skills like raising animals and construction. It’s a helpful tool that you can use to compare with others and identify areas to work on.

Appendix B is a short, but useful curriculum on homestead design that instructs you to inventory all of the plants and animals on your site, identify the sunniest areas, etc. If you’re overwhelmed at the prospect of homestead design, this is a good place to start.

Appendix C is a crucial skill list for emergencies. This covers a large swath of disciplines, from growing food, hunting, wildcraft, first aid, construction, and so on. Falk identifies what he calls the “durable ten,” which are skills that can help you survive almost anywhere:

  1. Making and keeping a fire
  2. Finding and securing water
  3. Germinating seeds and raising vegetables
  4. Building soil
  5. Storing food without refrigeration, electricity, or fuel
  6. Planting and raising trees
  7. Felling and bucking trees, splitting wood
  8. Basic carpentry: Wood framing, masonry, structures
  9. Making stone walls
  10. Hunting, fishing, and wild foraging

Appendix D is a list of recommended tools and materials for both your homestead and an entire community. He also offers recommendations on specific brands and ones to avoid.

Appendix E is a homestead vulnerability checklist and strategy summary. This is a hodgepodge of tips and things to watch out for. He outlines what to look for in survival crops, the best foods to store for long-term use, generator considerations, recommended tools, etc.

Falk demonstrated the resiliency of his homestead in a video where he demonstrated living a normal life in the freezing Vermont cold despite the power being out all day.

Appendix F is a glossary of some of the more esoteric terms Falk uses in the book.

Appendix G is a list of resources. The first part is “earth engagements and daily practices,” where he recommends things like outdoor exercise, being outdoors as much as possible, improving your diet, and other means of getting fit and connecting with nature. The second part is a list of books, essays, videos, and other resources to learn more.

You would do well to refer back to these appendices often, as well as the principles outlined in pages 32 to 45. They will assist you in your resiliency journey and help you identify ways to harden your homestead.


  • 14 Comments

    • CR

      Very interesting! Will check this one out, although it will likely be largely out of reach in ideas for our severely drought stricken and pancake flat region. Thanks for sharing.

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      • Josh CentersContributor CR

        It may help more than you think. There’s an entire chapter on water, and how to store it, slow it, and sink it.

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    • David Dabney

      Wow! I’m so glad you came across this. I happen to live in Vermont, so I hope to visit their farm at some point. Does he give any advice about choosing land for a homestead or transitioning from a more “normal” American lifestyle to a more resilient lifestyle? 

      Thanks also, Josh, for all your great posts. My wife and I used your resources to start a vegetable garden this year. Baby steps…

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      • Josh CentersContributor David Dabney

        That’s awesome! How’s the garden doing?

        He doesn’t address choosing land directly, but I think you’ll come away with a good idea of what you want based on the principles therein. Falk does property evaluation. It’s not cheap, but probably cheaper than buying the wrong property. The info page offers some good tips.

        I’d say yes, he offers a great deal of advice about transitioning to a more resilient lifestyle, though maybe not in ways you would expect.

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      • David Dabney Josh Centers

        Thanks for the reply!

        The garden is doing great! Just one raised bed to start with, and some grow bags for potatoes, but the plants are growing like crazy. Your article on raised beds was especially helpful. 

        Thanks for the info- my copy of the book is arriving today 😀

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      • Josh CentersContributor David Dabney

        Glad to hear! What all are you growing?

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      • David Dabney Josh Centers

        This year, just tomatoes, kale, summer squash and zucchini in the bed. We got a bunch of free starts from our neighbor so we just went with those, plus potatoes in a few potato grow bags. I really wanted to do melon pits and some butternut squash but we couldn’t find a good spot for them. Next year I want to put a couple of those galvanized watering troughs in our driveway, because our driveway is longer than it needs to be and is actually the sunniest spot on our lot.

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      • Conrad B David Dabney

        Sounds like you have some exciting plans for this next year David. What do the potato grow bags look like? I’ve grown some in a 5 gallon bucket before and that worked out well.

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      • David Dabney Conrad B

        Cool, I thought about using 5 gallon buckets. I attached a link below. The cool thing about these bags is you can roll them down when you first plant them, and then unroll them as you add soil in the following weeks as they grow.

        https://www.gardeners.com/buy/gardeners-best-potato-grow-bag/8589785.html

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      • Josh CentersContributor David Dabney

        You might be better off growing your squashes in a bed. I have not had good success with the melon pits. Then again, many people around here are having trouble with squashes this year, apparently some kind of blight.

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      • David Dabney Josh Centers

        Oh that’s good to know, thanks for the tip. I remember you wrote something about your soil not draining well, and that’s the case with the soil on my property as well. Maybe I’ll just add another bed next year. I’ve seen some cool pictures online of people growing winter squashes out of a bed or container and up a trellis. Seems like a recipe for disaster to me with all the weight, but it’s a cool idea!

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    • brownfox-ff

      Thank you for pointing out this book. I borrowed it from the library to check it out. Falk has a fantastic philosophy:

      > “A self-reliant nation is built upon a citizenry living in resource-producing and relatively self reliant communities”
      > “Self-reliant households are the basic building blocks of any culture” (or species?) “that is viable over the long term”
      > “If our goal is a peaceful, just society, self-reliance at the home and community levels must be a central focus of our lives”

      His outlook is very uplifting. e.g. “Those who learn fast, adapt to challenges in their lives, and are generally successful tend to have some traits in common:

      • They believe in themselves and act from a place of confidence, not fear
      • The treat change as an opportunity
      • They do not bemoan challenges or loss
      • They look ahead
      • They look practically at the future – sober in what challenges it may bring and hopeful in what opportunities may emerge”

      I am enjoying the read and finding this book very useful.
      This has helped me step up my hobby gardening to consider what perennials and more permaculture-type improvements we can make in our small space.
      Thank you for the inspiration.

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    • TraceContributor

      Solid review Josh, about a book we hadn’t even heard of (we have a lot of “prepper/homestead” type books). We ordered it to add to our collection, and to see what more we can learn. 

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