Abe and Josie Connally are full-time makers who have been homesteading for the past 12 years. They’ve built their homestead from the ground up by hand and are raising their two boys completely off-grid. The Connallys are true makers who research, learn, build, and then take pride and joy in sharing their knowledge with the maker community. They’ve shared 11 projects on the pages of MAKE, the first of which was the Wind Generator back in Volume 05. They’ve also shared 19 projects on Instructables and have won four DIY contests.

In their own words:

Somehow our culture teaches us that experts are needed to do each type of job, but we discovered that was not true. With research, effort, and a little courage, you can do almost anything. … We learned how to build a house, catch rain water, produce our own electricity, have a garden and raise animals. … The more we did, the more we felt we could do. And we discovered that we loved doing it all. It was a life that was so rewarding and peaceful that we knew we would never be able to return to a town or city. We became full blooded off-griders.

From the ground up, we have built our home, trying to use as many different styles and materials as possible, so that we can continue to learn. We have gardens, trees, mushrooms, and animals for food. Our water comes from rain catchment, and our electricity from the sun and wind. … We are now set up with all the basics, so we just need to embellish them. Every year we try to add something to the homestead’s systems, integrating them all for added efficiency. We’re not 100% there yet, but we have a great life and are enjoying the challenges along the way.

And as we move towards our goal, we try and document things as fully as possible, so that others like us can benefit from our experiences.

One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. Actually, we consider the project we’re working on right now to be our masterpiece (so far!). We’re calling it Food Web, and it’s all about integrating different food-producing components into one smooth, holistic, efficient system. Every part adds to and benefits at least one other piece of the puzzle. All the knowledge we’ve been accumulating over the years — with animals, plants, building skills, etc. — has come together to realize this project, and we’re super excited about seeing it completed.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe Connally’s hand-built mountain home.

vela creations home

Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. A mistake we have made over and over is that of estimating how long a project will take. Logically speaking, you look at all the different parts of any job and figure out how long each should take. Then you add all the parts together, giving you a ballpark figure for time until completion. Correct? No. Just because x is 2 and y is 2, that doesn’t mean x+y=4. There are a million unknown factors that always seem to crop up and turn you on your head. So now, after 12 years of homesteading, we have learned that a project will take exactly the length of time it takes, and not a minute more, but guessing that time in advance is for fools!

2. Probably the most memorable mistake we’ve made occurred a day or two before we got married. We’d been putting up a metal roof on our first home and a huge rain storm had appeared out of the blue, literally. We managed to get us and our tools down in time, but as soon soon as the rain passed, Abe was anxious to check if everything was OK up there. Josie wasn’t so keen. Abe’s answer to her concern was to remove his shoes — you know, for extra grip. So, barefoot on a wet, metal roof — a very fast 15-foot drop resulted in the groom having to limp down the aisle (which was actually in our house under the very roof he fell from).

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe Connally’s homemade rocket mass heater.

Three books you think every maker should read:
These books are really geared towards homesteaders, which is just a glorified word for full-time makers.

1. The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery. This has been our go-to book for almost everything involved in raising our own food. It is so diverse, with so much information on land, plants, animals, diary products, etc. A must-have for people serious about their own food production.

2. Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollison. An excellent resource for anyone wanting to truly live with their land, and make the most of what you already have. It goes into detail on every aspect needed to create a sustainable, holistic environment for you and yours. This is really where potential homesteaders should start.

3. The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure by Joseph Jenkins. This book has played a very important role in our lives and deals with a topic that is very much under-discussed. Showing people not only a responsible way to deal with human waste, but also one that benefits the soil and plants around you is a great gift. Thank you, Mr. Jenkins.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAbe and their solar food dryer.

Four new ideas that have inspired you most lately:
It seems like years since our to-do list got any shorter, and most jobs have to go on a waiting list before they’ll even get considered. So, when something jumps immediately to the top of the list, it means it was pretty inspiring. Some recent (or upcoming) examples are:

1. Free diesel. Getting fuel for free, or almost, is an idea that has definitely gotten us excited. There are several ways to do this, and we want to try several of them. For the time being, however, we’ll start off cleaning and using used oils. We now have local(ish) sources of used oil and all the equipment (including a diesel truck we’ve recently bought!). We just have to do the work, and then move on to wood gas for the little truck!

2. Hydroponic fodder. This was an idea we read about not too long ago and have already put into use. Basically, we sprout seeds, like wheat, to grow a grass year-round for our animals. It’s extremely high in nutrition, much cheaper and healthier than concentrate foods, and the animals love it. Win win.

3. Integrated systems. As we’ve gained knowledge and experience in homesteading, we have begun to understand the wonders of integrating all our systems. Several sources, mostly holistic, have been an inspiration in this department, as have first-hand experiences. The key is to have the waste of one thing feed another in some way. You end up with a more efficient, streamlined system.

4. Peer-to-peer business models is something we’ve been watching recently. Although they haven’t exactly inspired us to do anything, the movement has been fun to watch. It’s never a bad idea to keep your eyes on a trending technology, especially one that is truly revolutionary.

vela creations cisternThe Connally’s 6,000-gallon cistern, the grand prize winner in Instructables’ Be Prepared contest.

Five tools you can’t live without:
1. Perhaps the most important tool that we have at our disposal is the internet. It’s the largest brain in the world and we always consult it before starting on something new. Research is the first step to any project we consider.

2. A tape measure. That may sound a little basic, but it really is a tool we use on every single project we do. Get a good tape measure in both metric and imperial units. It’s best to have a few of different lengths.

3. Abe has a calculator watch that we have come to depend on. We’ll be out viewing the site of a future project or in a store buying materials, and he can do any kind of calculation on the fly. It’s awesome.

4. A water level is a long, clear hose with water in it. You have a person on each end, watching the bubble of water. Hold the bubble up against the thing you want to level to, and the other person marks the equivalent place wherever they are. It’s a very useful tool for building, making swales, etc.

5. We recently won a Dremel tool in a competition and have been surprised at how often we use it. It’s a great little machine for lots of small and detailed projects.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe Connally boys, Leo and Nico, in their homemade FunFort.