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Meet the radical homemaker: Goodbye rat race, hello vegetable garden

Stay-at-home dad Rick Juliusson with sons Galen, right, and Zekiah: He quit his executive director job one and a half years ago and moved his family to a five-acre farm where he tends chickens and cows, and grows vegetables.

geoff howe The Globe and Mail

It can get a little awkward when people ask Rick Juliusson what he does for a living.

"I - I'm a stay-at-home dad," is his standard reply.

Mr. Juliusson notes he's also many other things - an independent farmer, a writer and a contract consultant for non-profit organizations. But since he quit his job as an executive director of a Vancouver-based international development agency a year and a half ago and moved his family to a five-acre farm in Duncan, B.C., Mr. Juliusson considers his main role as a father to his two young boys.

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"It's very hard for people to slot me in as 'Dad,' " he says. Even though he embraces his identity as a stay-at-home parent, he says, "to get out of the habit of defining myself by what I do to make money - that was the habit that's hard to break."

Yet Mr. Juliusson proudly counts himself among a new breed of homemakers, a growing movement of men and women who are choosing to give up the rat race in favour of looking after their families and communities. In pursuit of a more personally fulfilling and ecologically sustainable lifestyle, these so-called "radical homemakers" are relying less on monetary income and are, instead, picking up domestic skills such as vegetable gardening and cooking to help meet their basic needs.

But don't think radical homemakers are falling into the same trap of mindless drudgery and relentless servitude suffered by 1960s housewives, says Shannon Hayes, U.S. author of the new book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. Although today's homemakers are returning to the home front, they're doing it "with a sense of not being consumers in the home but being producers, which takes a whole other level of sophistication," she says.

When Mr. Juliusson decided to step off his career path, his wife, a childbirth educator, became the family's primary breadwinner. Although that meant slashing the family's income of $90,000 a year to about a third, the couple have also cut down on their consumption and learned to grow much of their own food.

Mr. Juliusson tends cows and chickens and grows his own fruits and vegetables. He also intends to learn how to keep bees.

Their lives are much richer as a result, he says.

"Our income went down, but I don't think our standard of living has dropped a bit."

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Jes Goulet of Cobble Hill, B.C., made a similar choice. Instead of pursuing a career in information technology, she decided to become a stay-at-home mother, while her husband, an IT manager, became the main earner. To care for her family on a single income, Ms. Goulet grows her own food, bakes bread, sells handcrafted jewellery and barters her sewing services among her community for eggs, milk, honey and other goods.

She also makes her own laundry detergent, toothpaste and shampoo.

"The tradeoff is that nobody's paying me for the work I'm doing," Ms. Goulet says. "We're still getting all the things we need, but I'm having to pull it out of my own back pocket."

Ms. Hayes says radical homemaking families vary widely. Some live on farms, while others in urban settings, yet all live according to four common tenets: environmental sustainability, social justice, family and community, she says.

Instead of diversifying their financial portfolios, radical homemakers think in terms of diversifying their "well-being portfolios," she says.

"[They]realize that your well-being is not tied to finances. It's tied to relationships, it's tied skills, it's tied to creativity, resourcefulness and a sense of peace, intellectual challenge - these are the things that enable our well-being," she says.

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While researching her book, Ms. Hayes met many radical homemakers across the United States who live on incomes of as low as $10,000 (U.S.) to $12,000 a person in each family.

In British Columbia's Cowichan Valley, Zane Parker, a father of one who lives on a 10-acre farm with three other radical homemakers, says he aims to reduce his reliance on his work as a sustainable energy consultant. Instead, he says, he'd like to open a local blacksmithing business and trade his services among his community. At present, he estimates he earns about $20,000 (Canadian) a year.

Even though he enjoys consulting, "I don't want to have to do that for money," he says. "I guess for me to be able to stay at home on a sunny afternoon and go for a walk is more important than having a solid corporate pension plan or something."

While that means less financial security, "I think there's much more real security in terms of having more control over your circumstances," Mr. Parker says.

But living on a drastically reduced income can be stressful, radical homemakers say.

Ms. Goulet says it causes tension between her and her husband.

"He doesn't like being the sole provider financially," she says. "There's conflict about it. It can be really stressful, but we kind of pull through it. … He also recognizes that what I'm doing has value."

Mr. Juliusson, meanwhile, felt the crunch last fall, when he realized the family had only $250 remaining in its bank account.

The revelation spurred him to start up an at-home consulting business to help charities raise money, while the family cut costs in every way it could. They reduced their monthly budget for food and household supplies from $500 to $300 by relying more heavily on their supply of dried, frozen and canned homegrown produce.

"It was a brief panic moment and then it was a roll-up-our-sleeves moment," he says.

In spite of these challenges, Ms. Hayes says it's possible for radical homemakers to retire without a lot of money by relying on their resourcefulness and their relationships with their families and communities. She believes the latter are more stable than financial institutions.

"Who would you rather trust?" she says. "Would you rather trust that your pension fund isn't going to get whisked out from underneath you or would you rather trust the relationships that you've invested in your family?"

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