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Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton – Modern Homesteader Profiles

By: Everett S

I am fascinated by people who have successfully leveraged the internet to finance a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. I consider the couple below to be the King and Queen of this type of homesteading, which is why I am happy to present Mark Hamilton and Anna Hess as the first in a series of profiles I will be publishing on this blog, which will eventually become chapters in book about what it takes to be a successful modern-day homesteader.

Walden Effect: Trailorsteading Chicken Waterer Moguls

Mark, Anna and Lucy

Mark, Anna and Lucy Photo by Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography: www.BrokenBanjo.net

Mark Hamilton and Anna Hess are living mortgage-free on a 58-acre property in southwestern Virginia, where they eat well on homegrown organic fruits and veggies, pastured broiler chickens, fresh eggs, and the occasional deer. Exercise comes in the form of rewarding hard work. Leisure comes in the form of whatever Mark and Anna feel like doing on the four days each week when they aren’t earning money by building and shipping their automatic, “poop-free” chicken waterers. Increasingly, Anna’s writing and Mark’s tinkering are turning into profit. After reading their blog from my cubicle every day for six months, I began corresponding with the inspirational duo. They were living below the poverty line at the time, yet had a lifestyle I envied. They continue to live that lifestyle three years later, but now they’re making a six figure income from their internet business, blogging and eBooks.

Me, Mark and Anna

From left to right: the author, Mark Hamilton, Anna Hess, dinner. On my first visit to the Walden Effect homestead in July, 2010 I helped process chickens. A lot has changed since then, but Mark and Anna are as kind and humble as ever, and I still try to learn everything I can the dirty way when I visit.

About Mark and Anna

With plenty of good food, exercise, fresh air, and stress-free leisure time, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mark Hamilton lived to be a ripe old age. It did, however, surprise me when he said he expects to live to be several hundred years old. He wasn’t joking. Mark, now in his early-40’s, has faith in the regenerative power of the human body. Like most tools, our bodies can often last longer when they are taken care of. A guy by the name of Peter Thiel also believes that genetic research and technological advances are close to “solving the problem” of the inevitability of death, and has donated millions to the Methuselah Foundation, whose goal is to reverse engineer aging in humans. Mr. Thiel also co-founded PayPal, loaned Mark Zuckerberg the money to launch a public Facebook, and now sits on the board of a 2.5 billion dollar company that provides software to help the government track down terrorists. So if Mark is crazy at least he’s in good company. You may, as I do, think a few hundred years is far-fetched even for the healthiest, most genetically-gifted people of today. But try telling that to a guy who can keep lawnmowers, golf carts, rakes, pumps, motors and shoes in working condition many years after the rest of us would have sent them to dump and bought new ones. To Mark, the body may not be much different.

Fly Wheel Shaft Key Victory

Mark often demonstrates homestead repair and make-do activities on the Walden Effect blog.

With his dark blonde hair, perpetual three-day beard and laid-back attitude, you could easily imagine a younger, thinner version of Mark as a sagely surf bum in Hawaii. These days he looks more like an Appalachian moonshiner, but with the same easygoing mannerisms. He doesn’t move his mouth any more than he has to when speaking, sometimes only bothering to move the left side if the right isn’t required for a particular string of words. Mark seems relaxed wherever he is sitting, though you get a sense of an enormous amount of energy contained somewhere within him. Indeed, the energy that belies his calm presence is swirling around in his head waiting to come out if the right topic should present itself – i.e., philosophy, physics, consciousness, or the failure of mainstream media.

Mark has a blog called Cosmic Cookout, which he describes as being about “the physics of consciousness and the disclosure movement”. Anna just refers to it as “Mark’s conspiracy blog.” Anna is a type-A workaholic, and Mark has helped her learn to let go and enjoy the moment. She helps Mark focus his energies on attainable goals, and applies the scientific method and her logical mind to taking the edge off of Mark’s more conspiratorial theories. Despite their differences of opinion regarding the motives behind city governments spiking drinking water with fluoride, Mark and Anna are a match made in frugal-living heaven.

Mark and I complement each other very well,” Anna says. “He’s an outside-the-box thinker, able to come up with new inventions and ideas. I’m the more analytical side of the team, in charge of making sure people get what they order, and of keeping the web empire running.

Anna Picking Strawberries

Anna Hess picking a bumper crop of strawberries – time to make fruit leather!

The Weekend Homesteader BookAnna grew up in rural Virginia and has the southern-Appalachian drawl to prove it. Her father was a Quaker. She dresses plainly, for comfort, budget and utility. The braided pigtails holding her long black hair give her a Native American appearance. She and Mark live in a previously-abandoned single-wide trailer on a nearly-inaccessible property in one of the most rural areas in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. When speaking of Anna, the word “simple” comes to mind, but not in a “backward” sort of way. Not at all. Anna also has a Biology degree, and as part of her Thomas J. Watson fellowship has spent a year studying and drawing plants in England, Australia and Costa Rica. She was a grant writer before excelling in her full-time homesteading career, and is a published author. As a professional online marketer myself, I am amazed at how she runs circles around me and my colleagues when it comes to promoting their websites, books and products. She does this by focusing on quality, consistency and community.

Anna has a very logical, scientific and inquisitive mind, which is precisely why she compliments Mark’s theoretical approach. He puts on a tinfoil hat while she calculates the average daily exposure to harmful waves and determines that tinfoil is not an adequate protective barrier.

Mark Holding Chicken Waterer

Mark with an earlier version of the Avian Aquamiser – Photo by Trav Williams, www.BrokenBanjo.net

It was Mark’s invention, an automatic chicken waterer for backyard flocks based on the scaling down of technology used in massive industrial chicken-houses, that finally allowed Anna to quit her grant writing job. The chicken waterer also allowed Mark to focus on other inventions, like a half-dozen prototype designs of a mechanical deer deterrent. By that time they had already pulled the trailer across the creek and through the swamp with the help of friends’ heavy machinery, convinced the phone and electric companies to bring in service, planted a garden, and started a chicken flock. Without a mortgage and free of all debts (other than a few thousand Anna still owed on the land itself) this uber-frugal couple was able to live on a modest $12,000 combined annual income (Mark gets health benefits from his time in the Navy). They made little, but they also needed little. And instead of working “off the farm” to make more money to buy more stuff, they chose to invest their time and energy in the development of a burgeoning homestead and online business.

About Their Homestead & Lifestyle

Walden Effect Front Yard

The Walden Effect Homestead front yard – Photo by Trav Williams, www.BrokenBanjo.net

The Walden Effect homestead looks cobbled together at first glance, but it is actually an extremely efficient, organized, purposeful ongoing experiment in permaculture and other agricultural / gardening theories. Anna keeps records of the food they preserve each year, but not necessarily everything that comes out of the ground. Part of the year food goes from the ground onto their plates with little time to weigh and record yields.

Anna's Freezer Chart

Anna’s Freezer Chart

Anna keeps careful notes, and a type of grid-map, of what she has in her freezer. “Using a piece of graph paper, I list the name of each vegetable at the top, then hash off a square for each cup, pint, quart, or gallon (depending on the food) as I throw the day’s produce in the freezer.  Once winter comes and I start pulling food out, I cross off the squares for food I’ve used.  That way I have a quick visual estimate of what I’m getting low on and don’t end up eating all of the green beans in December and ignoring the summer squash until February,” she explained in a post from 2009. This also has the benefit of helping her plan for their needs the following year. For example, here is what she planned to “put up” in 2010:

Anna's Frozen Veggie Table

The container sizes are planned to provide a convenient meal for two people.

This year the couple grew: arugula, basil, bush beans, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, corn (sweet), cucumbers, garlic, kale, lettuce, Malabar spinach, mung beans, mustard, okra, onions, parsley, peas (snap), peppers, poppies (bread seed), squash (butternut & summer), sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, tatsoi, tokyo bekana, tomatoes, and watermelon. Their orchard is still young, but this year they managed to harvest blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples, figs, and peaches.

Anna estimates that they produced about half of their food for 2012: 98% of their vegetables, 25% of their fruit (more each year as the trees age), 60% of their eggs (usually more, but she admits to letting their hens get old), and 90% of their chicken. Hunting covers about another 5%-10% of their total meat. They buy 80% of the rest of our their red meat from a friend who grows lamb on pasture, and from the grocery store to fill in the rest of the gaps.

The Chicken Tractor

A chicken tractor built from scrap wood. Their brooder is made from a junked dryer. Mark and Anna keep laying hens and “meat birds” – Photo by Trav Williams, www.BrokenBanjo.net

There are as many ways to quit your job and move back to the land as there are people who daydream about it, but I’ve found that they tend to use one of three strategies: 1. Just do it. Worry about everything else later. 2. Set an attainable goal of savings and other resources and make the leap as soon as you hit that goal, even if you still don’t feel prepared. 3. Wait until you are fully prepared and feel safe enough to make the leap, no matter how long it takes. Mark and Anna definitely belong to the first group. For the record, I don’t know any successful homesteaders who fall into the third group.

Walden Effect Back Yard

This is the back yard, grocery store, agricultural laboratory and one of the gardens. In-fact, the entire first zone of their property is like one big garden – Photo by Trav Williams, www.BrokenBanjo.net

Anna and Mark purchased their 58 acres in 2008 for $600 an acre, having taken the time to find just the right piece of land: away from conveniences, no infrastructure, wooded, neglected, swampy, nearly inaccessible, and – above all – cheap. Then they went to a nearby trailer park and asked if there were any old “junk trailers” left by previous tenants that they wanted hauled off. This netted them a free trailer, for which they had to spend about $2,000 to get onto the property.

$10 Root Cellar

Mark and Anna never pay for something new or expensive when they can make due for less. Here I am helping them fill in around their $10 root cellar made from a gutted refrigerator – about which Anna wrote an eBook.

Their frugal attitude and willingness to make do with what is available is the foundation of Mark and Anna’s success. Without it, the need to make more money would have kept them too busy to reach where they are today. Sure, they live in a single-wide trailer, share an older model vehicle, don’t have a television and aren’t sporting a trendy wardrobe – but they are genuinely happy, and it isn’t difficult to see why. As Anna told me, “I love being able to spend my time in the garden, and I think Mark most loves the freedom of not having to answer to a boss. I also love being surrounded by trees and wildlife, and being able to do just about anything I want in my own yard without the neighbors seeing or caring. It’s a major plus that Mark and I get to work together every day.”

I asked Anna what she would like to be doing differently in five or ten years, and her response was one of rare contentment and realistic expectations: “Except for a long list of big-picture farm projects, I wouldn’t mind at all if we were in exactly the same place in five or ten years. My writing and our websites have been bringing in a larger percentage of our income this year (nearly a quarter of the total), and I’d expect to continue that diversification so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.”

About Their Businesses

Marka and Anna's Businesses

Mark and Anna have several businesses in their “online empire” and do a great job of cross-promoting the products, which are in similar niches. This also allows them to use their blog as a hub for most of their enterprises without alienating their readers. Above all, these businesses represent their interests.

The chicken waterer business is very seasonal, since people tend to start with chickens (and need chicken waterers) primarily in the spring and early summer. During their best week so far 2013 they sent out 93 waterers, or kits. As of October, 2013 they have sold 2,110 chicken waterers or kits for the year, which averages out to about 220 per month. It has been a little over four years since starting their Avian Aquamiser business, and Mark and Anna have gone from below the poverty line to making well over $100,000 per year.

During the highest peak of the year they each spend about 6-8 hours per week putting together the chicken waterers. Mark spends about 2-3 hours mailing them, and Anna spends about 2-3 hours doing additional administrative work, including keeping up www.avianaquamiser.com, www.waldeneffect.org, and their other sites. Anna estimates this could jump as high as 8-10 hours per week each during the busiest part of the year, but during the winter months it’s more like 3-4 hours of work each. For this effort, they bring in about $134k gross, and netted $82k, from the chicken waterers. That is not including the earnings generated from blog advertising, book sales and other revenue streams. Anna refers to it, somewhat embarrassingly, as their “online empire”.

Selling a niche product over the internet is fundamental in allowing this couple to live as simply as they do. Anna explains, “So many homesteaders try to make a living by bringing their eggs (or other farm products) to the farmer’s market, but you’ll be hard-pressed to even make minimum wage with that technique, which means you’ll be working long hours and won’t get to enjoy the life style you’ve chosen. Modern homesteaders have a better option – we can let the internet do the selling for us. But to make it in a global marketplace, you need a product that’s different from everyone else’s, and you need to understand how the internet works.

EZ Miser

The New & Improved EZMiser has side-mounted nipples to allow for easier set-up and refilling.

Another piece of advice Anna gives often is to understand the difference between your wants and your needs. “Because if you think you need to start with $50,000 a year you’re going to keep your full-time job and try to fit your new business into the little corners. And I don’t know if you’ll ever reach that point where you think that you can finally quit your job and do what you love to do. On the other hand, if you realize that you don’t mind living in a trailer… it’s not a big deal. If you can live out in a beautiful place like this and have over half the week for yourself to do what you want to do, then it makes it a lot easier to start a business,” she said.

Mark echoes this sentiment with his own story. “I think I sat on the sidelines a while reading books and seeing those infomercials about the guy who makes a fortune in classified ads. It took breaking away from a corporate job to finally change my way of thinking, because if you work in a 40-hour a week position for so long you almost get programmed in a way that is difficult to break out of. After that it still took me several years because there was a series of failures.

Anna points out that those failures were actually good lessons. One of these lessons was their short-lived business selling daffodils on eBay. The property had thousands of them and they sent out 50 daffodil orders in the first week. “So we thought, hey why don’t we become daffodil farmers,” says Mark. The daffodil idea expanded to include ferns and other plants, most of which were shipped to buyers on the west coast. After a while they noticed that the amount of work they put into the process meant they were only getting about minimum wage. Anna knew they needed a “niche” product that every garden center in the country didn’t carry for half the price, but it continued to elude them until Mark discovered a solution to one of their own problems – chicken poop and bedding clogging up the waterer.

Mark with an earlier version of the Avian Aquamiser

Out of the desire for poop-free chicken water the Avian Aquamiser was born. Their start-up cost in November, 2008 was about $500, mostly for a banner add on a backyard chicken forum, which barely paid for itself. They bought the pitchers and nipples one at a time for the first couple of months. The bootstrapped business took about fifteen weeks to break even. Mark continued to substitute teach on the side, and Anna kept her grant-writing job for the first month – after which they both quit their jobs and lived on about $4,700 in savings.

To risk everything with less than $5,000 in the bank would scare the pants off most of us, so of course there was some fear involved for Mark and Anna too. But they were already living off a meager $12,000 a year and had virtually no bills. Their window to make this work was approximately five months. Only by trimming away all unnecessary expenses, and by being naturally budget-conscious people to begin with, were Mark and Anna able to take the one leap that would make the difference between drudgery-work for low pay in a rural economy, and where they are now.

In 2012 I was inspired by their book Microbusiness Independence to try a microbusiness idea of my own. Along with my neighbor Tommy, I was going make and sell top-bar bee hives. We made a few prototypes and sold a couple of hives before doing the math and realizing it wouldn’t work out for us. This was one of many failures lessons that year.

Everett and Anna Looking at a Top Bar Bee Hive

I gave Anna this top bar bee hive to test out as a prototype. She prefers other hive types and now uses this one primarily to trap swarms. :-/

Their blog, The Walden Effect, is the hub of Mark and Anna’s homestead-scale online empire. From there all sorts of projects branch off, including chicken waterers, several eBooks, a print book with Skyhorse Publishing, t-shirts and more. Anna credits her brother’s blogging platform, Branchable, as the most-used tool in her arsenal. She also uses Facebook and Pinterest, as well as her two email lists (one for the chicken waterers and one for her books) and guest posts on other blogs to drive traffic to Walden Effect and their other sites. Her eBooks are nearly exclusively marketed and published on Amazon and their blog. Anna has a profile on Goodreads and a few other literature-related sites, but doesn’t push her own books very much.

On my last trip out to Mark and Anna’s place I finally got around to asking them what their secrets to success were, or what they wanted to share with readers hoping to work for themselves to finance a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity…

Mark and Anna’s Success Tips

  • Partner up with someone (spouse or friend)
  • Minimize wants and needs (drastically)
  • Delete mainstream media (helps minimize wants)
  • Find something you’re passionate about (like poop-free chicken water)
  • Sell a niche product online

I have noticed a few other things that may have contributed to their success, many of which are (so far) indicative of the type of person I have profiled for this series…

What They’ve Done Right

  • Decided not to have children while building a new homestead
  • Stuck with one property and kept making progress on it each year
  • Got rid of all debt and minimized expenses to a combined $12,000 a year
  • Both are remarkably intelligent and hard working
  • They balance each other out (Anna would overwork and burn-out if not for Mark)
  • They have realistic expectations
  • They took calculated, big risks instead of waiting for the “perfect” time to jump

 

Photo courtesy of Willie Davis, Making Connections News

In addition to Walden Effect and the Avian Aquamiser site, Mark and Anna have several other properties. There’s Wet Knee Books, the umbrella under which Anna publishes her books, including:
The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency
Trailersteading: Voluntary Simplicity In A Mobile Home
The $10 Root Cellar: And Other Low-Cost Methods of Growing, Storing, and Using Root Vegetables
The Working Chicken and EATING the Working Chicken
Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics, Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook
Homegrown Humus: Cover Crops in a No-till Garden.
Growing Into a Farm: Read this if you want to know more about how it all got started!

Mark also has a few sites of his own, including: Cosmic Cookout, and Backyard Deer Deterrents, which features a few more of his inventions.

Some of the photos used with permission are by Trav Williams of Broken Banjo Photography from his Portrait of a Farm article on Stewards.

Stay tuned for the next installment, where I’ll be profiling Nathan Mackenzie Brown, an internet marketer and social/environmental activist who lives in an eco-village “commune” in rural Missouri.

Also, I am still at a loss for a title to the book. It has been the least of my concerns up to now, but I think it’s time the project had a name. Got any ideas?

This profile is one chapter to my forthcoming book. To be notified when the book is out, or when future chapters are published here on LASL, subscribe to our email newsletter below:

















Category: Homesteader Profiles

Comments (8)

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  1. Dan says:

    What’s amazing to me is the overall sense of joy beaming from their faces from such simple living. Truly inspirational.

  2. De says:

    Great write-up! Looking forward to the book :-) I really enjoyed getting the inside scoop, not to mention an overall viewpoint, on some of my favorite bloggers. It’s very helpful to hear about failures/lessons in addition to successes.

  3. […] I say “organization” but what I mean is “obsessive organization“. I thought Anna Hess was super organized with her planting calendars and freezer maps, but Nathan takes things to a […]

  4. mike vallano says:

    I love this profile and the idea of a book around the topic as well. It’s awesome to see examples of people making their lifestyle of simplicity work with the use of technology.

    Living with less stuff and more intention is a good idea in my opinion. Great case study and kudos to Mark and Anna for making it work!

  5. […] Modern Homesteader Profiles: Anna Hess & Mark Hamilton (by Everett) […]

  6. Clarke says:

    I would put some money towards you doing a profile on a family with a 4 or 5 year old child. I hope this is in the works as well. Contact me with the cost per profile in your book.

  7. Everett says:

    Hello Carke,

    I would love to profile a couple with a child. In fact, that is a missing piece that I definitely need to include. However, it has to be the right people. If you know of some good candidates please suggest them to me and I will certainly look into it. So far the cost of me doing a profile just involves travel expenses, which varies greatly depending on where they are. Anna and Mark live just a few hours away from me, while Nathan Brown lives half-way across the country. I am handling all of the expenses myself, but if you would like to contribute you can do so by buying the book once it comes out. I’m shooting for late summer, 2014. However, the profiles will be available on this blog as they are finished. Next up is Mike and Erin of Blue Yurt Farms.

  8. Clarke says:

    When I look at different eco-villages one of the first criteria that I look for is how many kids and what age are the children. In fact this primarily makes us look at eco-villages rather than just homesteading for the accessibility of same age child to child interactions not often found in the homesteading circles. Because I have a 4 year old daughter one of the biggest questions is how can I make the move out of the suburbs without sacrificing opportunities for her? A profile taking about how same age educational options are maintained (not just in house home school without access to peers studying the same materials like in a city home school group) and college savings accounted for without “well she will get grants and take out loans because we are poor” or worse “She does not need to go to college” would be invaluable.

    Another element on my wish list would be about division of labor with one family member involved in the development of the online business or telecommuting to allow the second partner the freedom and funding to practice permaculture then once set up both parties can work the permaculture. This would address the failure to launch element and account for when is the right time to start and how much funding both initial and reoccurring and for what duration is ‘optimal’ for a family with a child. Many of the profiles that I have read involved massive austerity (living in tents for years in all seasons, no access to running water or hot water, vastly limited food varieties and or total calories) on the part of the adults but I feel this is unrealistic to force on a child but acceptable for consenting adults.

    Another missing element from many profiles and those who I have met in eco villages is planning for retirement or more specifically the day where you cannot physically perform actions such tending to your farm or cultivating food. Most that I have met opt into two strategies. 1. I will never retire and work till my dying days without medical issues for myself and my family and 2. I am poor so I will be able to relay and live off federal or state benefits in my old age years. Neither do I think is a viable strategy and I have not been able to profile an old age family who lived in the village as their work life and not just retired to the village using vast savings or pensions from ‘the outside world’.

    The final thing that I think would be hard to find but would be great is a profile showing an overall income drop from $250,000 per year down to common eco village salaries. The reasoning and issues that came up and how they were addressed. I have seen a lot of profiles where people went from ~$60,000 dual income a year with debt and a mortgage to ~$30,000 dual income a year debt free and in the eco village but I am not able to find one that went from $250,000 single income with no debt or housing costs down to $30,000 single income.

    I know this is a big wish list but it would prove invaluable for myself and my family. I will buy the book but if you can find this it is worth much more to me than a $30 hard bound off Amazon.

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