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Modern homesteading: A Rhinelander man's journey to sustainable, self-sufficient living

Erin Gottsacker
Mike Haasl is a modern homesteader. His goal is to live as sustainably and self-sufficiently as possible.

Homesteading can bring to mind images of pioneers trying to survive on the American frontier. But it’s a lifestyle that hasn’t disappeared from the Northwoods.

Mike Haasl’s backyard is full of life.

Chickens bustle around a steaming pile of compost.

A few vegetables start to sprout in a 60 by 120-foot garden.

A small orchard will produce fruit later this year, and Haasl will forage for nuts and berries and venison.

Erin Gottsacker
A dozen chickens bustle around a steaming pile of compost in a coop in Haasl's backyard.

A maple syrup shack just closed for the season. Next to it, three carefully constructed towers of chopped wood will heat his home.

Haasl is a homesteader.

“Homesteading is kind of like living a little closer to nature and knowing where your food comes from,” Haasl says. “It’s like Laura Ingalls Wilder, only with appliances and tractors now.”

He and his wife try to live as sustainably and self-sufficiently as possible.

“My motivation for doing this was resilience and just feeling like we’re taking care of ourselves,” he says.

Haasl wasn’t always a homesteader though. He started out just by harvesting sap from the maple trees in his yard. Then, he started foraging too, and over time, these small projects became a lifestyle.

Seven and half years ago, Haasl and his wife left the city to become fulltime homesteaders.

“The goal is just to keep doing this,” he says, “to try to live really inexpensively by heating ourselves and feeding ourselves.”

stack of wood
Erin Gottsacker
Mike Haasl keeps stacks of wood to heat his home.

The couple are not alone in their desire to live off the land. Since moving to northern Wisconsin, Haasl says they’ve met dozens of people with similar aspirations.

Many are their neighbors.

“Just within a half mile of our house, I think there’s at least three homesteads,” he says.

The number of people interested in gardening and raising chickens and foraging motivated Haasl to start a homesteading club four years ago.

Hundreds of people have signed up.

“For the population of this area, to have 200 people on an email list, I think that says there’s a fair number of homesteaders,” he says.

Homesteading has experienced a revival in parts of the U.S.

It dates back to the Homesteading Act of 1862, when the federal government granted 160 acres to anyone willing to live off that land for at least five years. At the time, it was an effort to populate western territory.

Modern homesteaders partake in many of the same activities as long-ago pioneers.

But Haasl says homesteading today doesn’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach.

Now, it’s less of a necessity to survive and more of a way to stand up to over-consumption in a return to self-sufficiency.

“It’s hard to change the world as one person, but if you’re sustainable and other people find ways to do their thing sustainably and that spreads, then that’s great,” Haasl says. “Sustainability for all.”

“At the same time, if you’re resilient or off grid or taking care of your own needs, on a community and regional scale, that means as a whole, we’re less dependent on the natural gas pipes working and food getting shipped through a port. We do it for both reasons, and both reasons feed together to help Rhinelander and Oneida County and the Northwoods be more stable.”

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Erin Gottsacker joined WXPR in December 2020. As a morning edition host and reporter, Erin reports on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.