Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph RanchA Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
12.2.2018 Stronger sustainability with the Stongers: A Texas family story talks about their off-grid, independent lifestyle
Since 2011 Stewart and Shannon Stonger have been living off the grid north of San Angelo, Texas, since 2011, and they’ve chronicled their experiences in a book called The Do-Able Off-Grid Homestead: Cultivating a Simple Life by Hand . . . on a Budget.
This is Shannon’s fourth book, as she has crafted three cookbooks related to their experiences and is a prolific writer posting regularly on their blog, www.nourishingdays.com, a lifestyle blog. Native Midwesterners, they talked with Lone Star Lit via email (yes, they have power and have perfected their own solar panels!) about their decision, their journey, and what’s it like to be essentially to be self-sufficient.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Stewart and Shannon, I know you two aren’t originally from Texas, having settled here some years ago. Can you tell our readers where you grew up, and how you’d describe your younger years?
STEWART STONGER: I grew up in in Midland, Michigan. I had a fairly standard childhood, between school and Boy Scouts. When I was very young my dad had a garden in the backyard, and I remember planting peas with him one time where he got out his ruler to measure the spacing. My grandpa also had a fairly large garden, which was exciting to see every time we visited. I applied myself to schoolwork and planned for the typical college career path.
Shannon grew up in northern Minnesota. Her grandparents and aunt and uncle were farmers, raising dairy cows and crops such as corn and soy down in the southern part of the state. Some of her earliest memories are of the garden her parents grew in Bemidji, Minnesota, when she was very young. By the time she was seven years old her parents moved from their country home, but the country life always stayed with her.
Stewart, how did you and Shannon meet/marry/start out life together?
Shannon and I met at Michigan Technological University, where I was working after graduating and she was finishing up her bachelor’s in chemistry. We were both attending a Baptist church at the time and had some mutual friends, so those two things kind of brought us together. After a short courtship, we were married just after Shannon graduated, and then a job brought us to the Ann Arbor, Michigan, area.
From before we were even married we talked about how we wanted to homestead and raise our family in the country. We began our married life in the suburbs but did what gardening and preserving we could in our little duplex. We wanted to finish paying off student loans before making the move to a homestead, and when we did, we were finally free to move forward.
What made you decide to go “off-the-grid,” and why did you pick Texas?
Actually, going off-grid wasn’t really the primary motivation. Shannon and I had been looking for a church, but were not very comfortable with the doctrine and practice we saw locally. We knew some people in a local fellowship in Texas who were living off-grid. We also knew about a church in Wisconsin we were interested in… but in the end we decided to move to Texas and the rest, as they say, is history.
What was your first year like?
In 2011, Texas had just been in a terrible drought. As we drove from Michigan to Texas, the grass gradually (and then not so gradually) went from green to brown to bare parched earth. When we got to our plot of land it was quite desolate and disheartening.
We were living off of savings for a while so we could throw ourselves into building an addition onto our camper. Everything was very raw, exciting, and new. The A-frame outhouse we put up quickly blew over in a wind storm. Bucket baths as needed replaced that daily shower we were used to. Overall, though, it really didn’t take too long to adjust to a new way of living.
Four months after our arrival, our third child was born. Our first Texas summer saw us lose nearly every fruit tree we planted to roaming cows — and our entire garden to drought and grasshoppers — and a mild case of heat stroke overcame Shannon. It was rough.
Was there a turning point when you realized you were going to succeed?
Was that supposed to happen? Maybe we missed that turn towards success somewhere on the journey. But seriously, we haven’t really succeeded yet. We are still learning, growing, building, and trying (and often failing). There was a point where we had enough buildings and water catchment in place where we could actually water the garden with a solar water pump. That was a big turning point. Another big turning point was our two boys getting old enough to help with animals and gardening. It is amazing what an extra set of hands can do to relieve the burden on everyone else.
Some years still feel like we are starting over and are so very far from growing enough food; others are a little easier but still far from self-sufficient. In this climate, with the amount of land we have, and with the number of mouths we feed, I am not entirely sure we will ever “succeed.”
When did you start writing The Doable Off-grid Homestead? How long did that process take? And what was your first big break with the book?
Shannon started a blog called Nourishing Days before we moved to Texas. Over the years it became popular enough that she was contacted to write a cookbook by Page Street Publishing. That book is called Traditionally Fermented Foods. After that book was released, Page Street Publishing asked if Shannon would be interested in doing another book, and the topic landed on homesteading. We already had the bare bones of a book called “Project Greenhorn” in the back of our minds. That book sat on the backburner for years and so it sort of turned into The Doable Off-grid Homestead. Official work on the book didn’t start until early 2017, and it was released in July 2018.
We’ve had a few popular homesteading sites review the book. I’m not sure if you would call that the first “big break” or not. Somewhere along the line there was enough interest that the Austin American-Statesman interviewed us, which also seems to have generated more interest.
What is your creative process like? When and how do you write?
Shannon is the real writer of the family. She is much more of a natural writer and writes much more frequently. Sometimes she will write a blog post that I will read after she posts it, and I’m almost brought to tears. Of course, that isn’t the recipes like Fluffy Coconut Flour Pancakes… but rather posts related to the homesteading journey, our family, and the Lord’s mercies towards us.
Shannon’s writing process is a natural outflow of what she is thinking and feeling. When she gets a break from taking care of the children and all the household tasks, she pours her heart into her writing. Shannon doesn't consider herself a technical writer and only uses and records recipes and project steps if she absolutely must.
My writing process is basically in response to, “Hey honey, can you please get the project written up so we can get the book to the publisher on time?” So I sit down and write and rewrite. Then Shannon usually takes the rough edges off to make it a bit more personable and understandable.
What advice would you have for those considering going off the grid?
Don’t make it an idol. Keep everything in balance. Set your expectations low and then you are bound to be surprised on the upside. Off-grid living has some really great benefits and a lot fewer monthly bills, especially when your home and land and are built and paid for. Keep your expectations realistic and realize that you will lose some comfort but gain a lot in simplicity. Also realize that you can’t do everything overnight. It takes time to build an infrastructure, especially if you are going to try to do it debt-free.
Are you working on another book?
Shannon usually has several book ideas. “The Broken Homesteader” is one idea we have kicked around, which is more of the personal story behind the homestead journey rather than a “how-to.” Shannon has also considered writing (and started some recipes) for a gluten-free cookbook.
What's on your to-be-read pile on your nightstand?
I recently finished an excellent book by J.C. Ryle called Holiness. I’m actually looking for something new to read.
We recently welcomed our sixth baby, so Shannon says she has been taking any reading time she has to focus on her Bible and school books for the children. She also has a stack of books on gardening, herbal medicine, and raising various animals that she is hoping to thumb through if time (and sleep) become more abundant.
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Praise for THE DOABLE OFF-GRID HOMESTEAD
“I have yet to see an off-grid resource as actionable and practical as this one. Stewart and Shannon have gone above and beyond in providing a realistic roadmap for aspiring off- gridders. This is a title I will be sharing with my homesteading tribe for many years to come!” ―Jill Winger, founder of The Prairie Homestead and author of The Prairie Homestead Cookbook
“This book lives up to its title, making a small-scale homestead feel doable. This may just be the tipping point that sends you off in search of your own little plot of land.” ―Kris Bordessa, founder of Attainable Sustainable
“I loved this book. It reminded me that we are made who we are by the work we do and that significant things come from small steps.” ―Rhonda Hetzel, founder of Down to Earth and author of Down to Earth and A Simple Home
“If you’ve moved from dipping a toe into the world of homesteading to feeling ready to take the full plunge, then The Doable Off-Grid Homestead is the deep dive you need. Rife with practical, affordable solutions and projects for resilient, self-sufficient living, this book is the ideal companion for actualizing your dreams of off-grid homesteading.” ―Ashley English, author of The Essential Book of Homesteading
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