Cob Carleton wasn’t looking to move to an off-grid community when he signed up for the visitor program at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northeast Missouri. Instead, the serial entrepreneur agreed to tag along with a friend who was looking to make a move but didn’t want to visit alone.
“We fell in love with the place,” Carleton says. “The way the people in the community interacted with our children [then ages 5 through 12] … was so authentic. It was the right place and the right time. And it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for us.”
Carleton has been a resident of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage since 2007.
The off-grid community near Rutledge, Missouri, is home to 60 residents and includes such sustainable amenities as:
- solar power and wind turbines
- straw insulation
- composting toilets
- wood heating
- extensive recycling programs
- community gardens
- a car-sharing co-op
A New Way of Thinking About Off-Grid Living
Often, the idea of living off the grid conjures up images of remote retreats that require trading food deliveries, ride sharing apps and neighbors for acres of land and total seclusion. Off-grid communities offer an alternative, providing infrastructure for ecological living along with neighbors who share your sustainable beliefs.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is one of a growing number of off-grid communities around the world where residents can achieve their goals of living more sustainable lifestyles while satisfying their desire to live in communities.
“Living off-grid can mean being a hermit at the top of a mountain,” says Peter Moore, business director for Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat in Detroit, Oregon. “Off-grid communities are the opposite. They are highly social. You have to know what you’re looking for.”
Living in tight-knit communities requires finding the right fit. Thsi is especially true for those where members share space, resources and meals, and might even work together in community businesses. Here are five things to consider when searching for an off-grid community.
1. Research the Options
Before you start scheduling visits to off-grid communities, make a list.
Consider your ideal location. Some off-grid communities like Earthhaven Ecovillage in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and, the Greater Earthship Community in Tres Piedras, New Mexico, are located near established towns. They enjoy amenities such as restaurants, movie theaters, coffee shops and big box stores.
Others, including Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat in Detroit, Oregon, are quite remote.
What’s Important to You?
You’ll also want to think about which attributes of off-grid living are most important:
- Is your ideal community totally self-sustaining?
- Do you want an egalitarian community where all resources, including financial resources, are shared?
- Are you willing to give up your current career to work in a community business?
“It’s a very big adjustment in lifestyle,” says Courtney Brooke Allen, a resident of Earthaven Ecovillage. “You have to ask yourself what tradeoffs you’re willing to make and if it’s worth it for you.”
The Foundation for Intentional Community is a good place to research the diversity of off-grid communities around the world. Its “advanced search” tool helps narrow the options based on criteria such as:
- geographic location
- rural or urban setting
- housing options
- religious practices
- decision-making methods
- dietary preferences
Use the information to create a list of potential communities to visit.
“You have these complex relationships [in off-grid communities] because your next door neighbors are also the co-owners of the business, friends, lovers, teachers …,” Moore says. “You want to choose carefully.”
2. Schedule a Visit
Off-grid communities often offer several options to meet residents and explore community life. Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat hosts concerts, workshops and retreats. Earthaven Ecovillage hosts dances and potluck supper and the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia, offers three-hour tours and three-week visits.
During a visit, explore the community to learn about the amenities. Participate in as many activities as possible, and make it a priority to get to know residents. It’s a good opportunity to get a feel for community life.
“Not all communities have the same feel or culture,” Carleton says. “Even in two communities with the same organizational structure and rules, the residents are different. And that impacts how the community feels.”
Committing to a visitor weekend or longer, more immersive experience is often required as a condition of applying to join off-grid communities. These visits often include workshops highlighting the organizational and governmental structures and ground rules for decision-making while participating in community events and networking with residents.
Those interested in joining the Twin Oaks Community must participate in a three-week visitor period and commit to integrating into community life during the visit. This includes shared housing and transportation, communal meals, solar power and community gardens.
“During the visitor period, people work alongside members to get an idea of what it’s like to live and work here,” explains Valerie Renwick, outreach manager for Twin Oaks Community.
These visits provide great opportunities to decide whether living in an off-grid community is the right decision. They are also instrumental for deciding which one is the best fit.
Renwick, who has lived at Twin Oaks since 1991, suggests visiting nearby communities even if they don’t seem like an ideal match. She adds, “Short visits, even day visits, to as many communities as possible, even if it’s a community where you know you don’t want to live … gives you a lot more information about what community living looks like and helps hone your own sense of what you do and don’t want in a community.”
3. Understand the Rules
Twin Oaks Community is an egalitarian, income-sharing community where all 100 residents commit to working 42 hours per week in roles that range from childcare to working in the onsite tofu-and hammock-making businesses.
Residents don’t earn salaries for their work. Instead, the community provides for all of their needs from housing and healthcare to a small stipend for spending. Moving to the community means leaving a current occupation.
Residents at Earthaven Ecovillage can maintain their careers and aren’t required to share income. But residents must commit a minimum of 12 hours per month in community service hours and participate in nonviolent communication classes as part of their membership.
Understanding the rules, which are unique to each off-grid community, are essential. Carleton suggests asking questions about community governance, lease agreements, pet policies and other rules that can help in the decision-making process.
Review the bylaws, too.
“Inevitably, people will disagree and the community needs to have rules for working through that,” Carleton says. “When the going gets tough, people turn to the bylaws.”
Are There Fees?
Off-grid communities may also charge their residents fees, and the costs range from minimal to considerable.
At Earthaven Ecovillage, the fees include a $5,000 commons fee and $3,000 joining fee plus $30 per person, per month and $15 per vehicle.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage doesn’t have a buy-in fee. There, monthly fees are based on the amenities residents want to access. Standard fees include a $71.50 per month co-op fee to cover basics like road and fence maintenance and garbage disposal as well as dues that equal two percent of income.
Extra fees are charged for:
- shower facilities
- phone/message system
- car sharing program
- food co-ops that include food
4. Commit to the Process
Each off-grid community has its own application process. But there is a basic requirement that prospective residents are a good fit for the community. That means current residents are involved in the decision-making process.
“We’re all about being cooperative … and it means making sure it works for lots of people,” Renwick says. “It’s a two-way process.”
Twin Oaks Community asks visitors to take a one-month respite at the end of their three-week visitor period to reflect on the experience. At this time, they decide whether the off-grid, egalitarian community is the right fit.
During this off period, community members meet to discuss prospective residents and their suitability for the Twin Oaks Community lifestyle.
“It’s not that common that people don’t get accepted,” Renwick says. “Occasionally, we’ll ask someone to do another visit. Even more rarely, we’ll tell someone that it doesn’t look like it’s going to work out.”
5. Be Patient
Even when you find the right off grid community, the timing might not be right. Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat requires prospective residents to participate in working interviews that last from several days to several weeks.
Someone may be an obvious fit, but Moore notes that the community may not have a job opening for someone with their specific skills.“There has to be a match with skillsets, too,” he says.
Currently, Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat is not adding any new members because a 2020 wildfire destroyed half of their buildings. It left the community without critical infrastructure, including housing. Until the community rebuilds, new resident applications are on hold.
As the interest in off-grid living has increased, Twin Oaks Community has seen an uptick in applications. The community has a limited number of bedrooms. This means the number of residents it can accommodate is limited, too.
“We’ve had available space so there’s been a waiting list,” Renwick says. “As soon as a member leaves, the first person on the waiting list is invited back.”
The average residency period at Twin Oaks Community is eight years. Renwick has lived in the off-grid community since 1991. One resident has been with the community for more than four decades.
Moore has been a resident of the Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat community since 1978. But some residents stay as few as three years.
Take the Time to Integrate
It also takes time and patience to fully integrate into an off-grid community, according to Allen. Earthaven Ecovillage offers three- to six-month leases to new residents to allow time to decide if a long-term commitment to an off-grid community is the right fit.
“It takes time to get into the rhythm of a place,” Allen says. “It’s like getting into a relationship with 100 people. It’s an extended family situation. You need time to figure out if it’s going to work.”
For Moore, living in an off-grid community was a great decision. But he knows that it’s a significant lifestyle change. And this makes it essential to do due diligence before making the move.
“Some people visited for a decade or more before applying [to become a resident of Britenbush Hot Springs Retreat]. And some people fall in love on day one,” he says. “An off-grid community is not just place to live … it’s a lifestyle.” This article appeared in Living Off the Grid, a 2021 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Living Off the Grid includes stories on permaculture, growing plants without seeds and long-term produce storage. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Urban Farm by following this link.
This article appeared in Living Off the Grid, a 2021 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Living Off the Grid includes stories on permaculture, growing plants without seeds and long-term produce storage. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Urban Farm by following this link.