If you’re like me, you’ve probably dreamed of someday selling your home in town, moving onto a large tract of land somewhere out in the boonies, growing your own vegetables, hunting for your meat and living happily ever after while enjoying the fruits of your labor of love.
Go ahead. Admit it! It sounds great, doesn’t it?
While many of us dream of such a thing and might even have it on our bucket list for some time down the road, freelance outdoor writer and photographer Ron Spomer and his wife, Betsy, are living their off-grid dream in the mountains of Idaho.
And they love every bit of it.
Living the Dream
After several years of preparation, the Spomers sold their Boise home in the summer of 2018 and moved onto ranchland that they purchased in a remote area of Idaho. It was something Ron had dreamed of for many years.
“I had been thinking about it more than my wife,” Ron says. “I’ve always lived in the country pretty much. I’m a country boy. I had places out in the country—5 acres, 25 acres, stuff like that. And my wife had a career as a nurse in a hospital in Boise, so we had to stay there for quite a few years. But I said, ‘When you’re done and we retire, I want to get back out in the country.
Ron wanted to get back up to northern Idaho, which he really loved. But two of his daughters moved into the Salt Lake area and had five grandkids. He had to decide if he wanted to move farther away from the grandkids or closer.
“So, we drew a circle around Salt Lake, X’d out all the parts that were in Utah and found this place about 14 or 15 miles from the Utah border,” he says. “We’re right off of I-15, so we can just zip right down there and see the kids inside of two hours.”
While Ron was all-in for the idea from the start, Betsy was still somewhat hesitant as preparations were being made. But that soon changed after she found out how much she loved country living. She always liked gardening, and when they got there, she started planting. Then she thought it would be cool to get some chickens.
“She just sort of got involved and fell in love with it,” Ron says. “I think she likes it more than I do now.”
Read more: Getting off the grid has never been easier!
The ranch is located in a fairly dry area of the state in the foothills of a mountain range that takes portions of the property up to several thousand feet elevation. It already had a 20-year-old house on it, although it was larger than what the couple needed.
Still, the opportunity was hard to pass up.
“The place was spring-fed, and it was all pretty primitive,” Ron says. “It had a nice house on it—too much house for us—but we were like, ‘Well, the house is there. The land is there.’ It’s got a couple of streams running through it.
“There are some draws: It’s pretty hilly and pretty rough. You get the mountain air coming down to cool things, even though it gets hot and dry in the day. It’s not a bad option for the evening. So, we don’t have air conditioning. We save some money on electricity there.”
Far Off the Grid
“Off the grid” means different things to different people. For the Spomers, it means that they’re pretty darned self-sufficient when it comes to providing their own utilities and the like.
“Of course, it’s all off the grid, so we have to make all our own energy,” Ron says.
They mainly use solar for off-grid power. The place had a wind turbine on it, but that soon went belly up. After some research, Ron realized that wind wasn’t really the way to go.
“There’s just too much maintenance for what you get back,” he says. “And, of course, you’re at the whims of the wind.
“You have to take it down and maintain the turbine and all, then put it back up again. And that requires a vehicle, a bunch of pulleys and things, and is a bit of a job.
“And then the darned thing goes out. It burned out inside of two years, and the blades were cracking prior to that, so that would have been another replacement. After two years of that, we realized it just wasn’t worth replacing. And it was cheaper to go with more solar.”
Ron admits plenty of people regularly ask him what they do for electricity on cloudy days. The key to getting enough power living off the grid, he says, is having enough solar capability to store plenty of electricity if the need should come along.
“You’re picking up some energy even on the cloudy days with the solar panels,” he says. “So we put in new solar panels to augment what was already here until we’ve got to the point now with our battery storage, we can last for about three-and-a-half to four days with no power coming in, just off what we’ve saved.
“And in a sunny climate like this, that generally works out. We’ve got an emergency backup house generator that runs on propane. Llast year, it only started two times.”
In the winter, they heat the home with a wood-burning fireplace. And they’re fortunate enough to have all the wood they need without having to cut down any trees on their property.
“We’ve got four good-sized maple woodlots,” he said. “Out here in Idaho, we’ve got maple trees, but they’re called mountain maples. There’s a fairly small range in which they are native, but we’re right in the heart of it.
“So I’m burning old maple logs that have been dead and lying on the ground here for years and years. They just last forever in this dry environment.”
A Special Surprise
Despite making their own heat and cooling, the Spomers do have one unexpected modern convenience. “This place came with fiber optics,” Ron says. “We’ve got better internet service than we’ve ever had in the city. It was some kind of federal project to bring fiber optics to a rural community, and this one was a demonstration community. We had no idea.
When they were looking at the place, they thought they were going to have to get a satellite and have slow service. The real estate agent, however, informed them about the fiber optics going all the way up to the house.
That really helped seal the deal.
Living the Off-Grid Lifestyle
Despite what some might assume, there’s not a typical day in the life of the Spomers on their Idaho ranch. Because Ron still writes for a living, things vary from day to day.
“There aren’t any normal days,” he says. “Anything could happen. I could wake up at 5 a.m. and have four deadlines, and spend all my day sitting in an office with the great outdoors just a pane of glass away.
“Or I could get up and not have deadlines, but I actually do have a deadline: I need to get something planted in the garden or something cultivated or some food plots put in. Going out for firewood takes us quite a bit of time every year to get four cords of firewood piled up.”
Despite all the work it takes to keep a place like theirs up and running well, Ron and Betsy haven’t ever regretted their decision to move from town out into the boonies. There have, however, been some challenges that made things difficult—especially at first.
“We really haven’t [second guessed], which is kind of surprising,” Ron says.
“I guess [we were worried] a little the first few months we were in here, when all the old stuff ... started going on the fritz. The solar quit working, the turbine broke, then the emergency generator threw a rod. Even the fireplace started leaking smoke into the ceiling. It turned out to be a small problem, and I was planning to put an insert for efficiency into it anyway.
“But we got all that fixed. And we had more than enough work getting things repaired and up to snuff. So we’re not having any concerns with boredom around here!”
The Reward of Self-Sufficiency
The upside to the couple’s way of life is far greater than any downsides Ron could think of. In fact, it’s easy for him to put into words his favorite part of living and working off the grid and on the ranch.
“It’s got to be that satisfaction of owning your land and knowing that you’re not beholden to anyone else other than the taxes,” he says. “I think most people can instinctively understand that. After all, this country was formed by people who wanted to have their own land and not be at the beck and call of the king or the lord.
“It’s an old story, but I think it’s a part of human nature. You want to control your destiny and have your own territory, as small or as big as it is. It’s just that incredible feeling of security that you have.
“Add land where you can grow some crops, raise some livestock, go hunting and improve the habitat for wildlife and all those fun things that we enjoy. But at the same time, you know that you are banking for your survival and your family’s. If the stuff hits the fan, we’re in pretty darned good shape. And that’s a wonderfully secure feeling.”
Surrounded by Nature
Ron’s second favorite thing about ranch life is what brings many to move out of the city and into more of a country lifestyle, albeit not on quite as grand a scale as the Spomers and their choice to live off the grid.
“[It’s] just being close to nature,” he says. “Anyone who enjoys the country, hunting, the outdoors, birding and all the things that we do, when you’ve got a place like this, you step out the door in the morning and the birds are singing and coming to the feeders, and the deer are walking across the fields.
“And, your dog can go out and do whatever she wants without your neighbor complaining about your dog doing her business on their lawn. It’s just the incredible freedom you get with something like this.”
You Can Do It, Too
While many people believe getting away from it all and living off the grid is probably beyond their reach, outdoor writer and photographer Ron Spomer and his wife, Betsy, don’t think that’s true.
“Don’t Give Up”
The key, Ron says, is prioritizing and planning. That’s advice he is happy to share with others.
“First is, don’t give up on the idea, because it’s definitely doable,” he says. “Second, start budgeting for it and saving for it. Don’t just dream about it. Make it happen. And the way to do that is to have some discipline with your buying…. Give up the super foolish things you really don’t need, and keep that dream in mind: ‘We are going to make this happen.’”
Get Your Land
Quickly escalating land prices in some areas can make the process more difficult. So if you can pull the trigger on a move sooner rather than later, you’ll probably be doing yourself a favor.
“If you can, get a place,” Ron says. “Even if you can’t move onto it right away, just get that property. Because land prices can escalate so quickly and so dramatically that you end up going, ‘Wow, we thought we had enough money. In 10 years we were going to buy, but the price of the place has doubled.’
“So if you can, get the property now. You can always build on it later.”
Homestead Health Care
All in all, Ron and Betsy love their backcountry way of life—especially sharing it with their kids and grandkids, who love visiting Grandma and Grandpa at the ranch. The off-grid lifestyle comes with lots of hard work, but it’s work that is enjoyable and also helps keep them healthy.
“We’re going to just keep plugging away here,” Ron says when asked what comes next. “We’re starting to talk about how long can we last and stay on the place before they wheel us off to a home somewhere.
“Actually, I think it’s part of your health care, the fact that you’re out in the open air, and that you’re physical and working all day, not just sitting around. Plus, it’s the enthusiasm that one has for this lifestyle that I think keeps you young and keeps you going. You just want to be out there doing things, so it’s not a big hassle.
“It’s not like you have to plan a trip, load up the RV and head out for a two-day drive to get somewhere to do something like this. We can just walk out the door anytime we want. So we’re constantly being active outdoors.
“And I think we have things organized well enough that we can stay out here for a good, long time.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.