You could look up many fun facts about the original homesteaders, but did you also know that half of them failed? Half packed up and went back East or moved into a nearby town or maybe kept going further west, chasing an elusive dream. Ever wonder why?
Again, you can look up this stuff, and there were a lot of reasons—many pertaining to lifestyle factors back then, such as severe illness and no treatment, cure, or even a doctor within hundreds of miles—but some of those same reasons apply to today’s modern homesteader.
When most people, either active or wishful homesteaders, think about doing this, they romanticize the entire concept. They think it would be nice/wonderful/saving the planet to grow all their own organic food, live off the land, use the barter system, collect rainwater, raise goats or rabbits or whatever. Maybe they’d even like to do craft projects to sell for extra income, homeschool their kids, make their own clothing, and so forth.
These are all noble endeavors, and they all have many creative ideas, but the number one thing they don’t consider is the sheer amount of work involved. And this is what many of them have in common with our homesteading ancestors.
Let’s say you have a couple tomato plants on your back porch. You water them, move them into the shade when it’s too hot, watch them grow and flower, and one day you have actual tomatoes. Your family loves them, you eat fresh tomatoes for a few weeks, and you think “Wow, I could do this! I could grow enough tomatoes so we could eat them year-round, and I could even can some and make sauce!” Yes, you could.
And if you have a typical family of four, you’d have to grow a minimum of eight tomato plants per person, or 32 total, to accomplish this. You probably don’t have room on your back porch for that many, and so you’d need a garden—just those 32 tomato plants would take up about 300 square feet. And it takes hours and hours to care for those plants, for two and a half months even before they produce. Once you start picking tomatoes, you’ll need to eat them or can them—which takes more hours. When are most of those hours? Summer break for the kids, when you’re planning a vacation or the kids are off to camp or sports practice or lessons.
Now multiply those hours and the size of your garden by all the vegetables you intend to grow. Think long and hard about how the heat affects you and if you’re going to want to drag around garden hoses to keep your plants alive, day after day for five or six months. And still process all those vegetables.
But of course, that isn’t all you’ll be doing, right? Goats are cute. Until they aren’t. They’ll poop everywhere. They’ll climb on your car or maybe onto your roof. They will literally eat everything green.
So you’ll have to fence them in, or out; they’ll need a shelter. They’ll need attention and fresh water—even if you have to break the ice, and you will—and feed, every single day, twice a day. All year long. Oh, and of course, you’ll have to clean up after them. All year long. When it’s wet. When it’s freezing. When it feels like you could swim through the humidity and the temps are in the upper 90s.
Along with a few hours or so of gardening every day for six months, and animal care-taking for a couple hours a day all year, you still have to make meals, do laundry, keep your house reasonably clean. You may have repairs and general upkeep around the homestead, watering flowers, feeding the pets, cutting the grass (unless your goats escaped, in which case you can forget the flowers and the yard), fixing broken pipes or replacing shingles, or any and all of the things that go along with general home ownership. If you’re heating (or cooking) with wood, you’ll need to cut and split and stack a few cords for winter.
And let’s not forget the crafts you’re going to make and sell. Or those two kids who need some kind of education, whether it’s riding a bus for an hour one way or being homeschooled—which takes up another four hours a day, five days a week. Approximately. There are a lot of ways to homeschool and I won’t go into it here, but I’ve done it. Kids usually spend seven hours a day in school, but with only two in your classroom it actually does take less time. Plus, you can have them learn practical skills as part of the curriculum, like gardening, cooking, stacking wood, or animal care. Bonus, right?
My point is that you need physical and mental strength and stamina to homestead, and you can’t just take days off, willy-nilly. If it’s raining and your garden is six inches deep in muck, feed the animals and go run errands in town. Don’t spend a beautiful 75-degree day at the local Walmart, you’re wasting the weather and your time. All of these things you’ll need to do to be successful take commitment and hard work, every single day.
I believe those ancestors of ours who gave up on homesteading were often clueless about the amount of hard work, day in and day out, that was required. Some weren’t physically or mentally up to the task. Just because people in the 1800s didn’t have the tools and luxuries we do today doesn’t mean they were all pioneers, and riding around in wagons and building a homestead on the prairie from scratch. Just like today, many lived in towns and cities and weren’t familiar with farming or manual labor.
And you CAN do this—I just want you to realize what you’re getting into before you start, in case it just isn’t for you after all. Better to be prepared than to lose everything if you get in over your head.
I conducted a very unscientific survey last week in several homesteading groups I belong to on Facebook. Here are the results:
- Average number of acres homesteaded: 30
- Rural or suburban: 93% and 7%
- Garden: all respondents
- Livestock: 85%
- Day job: 76%
- Number of people: average of 3 (range 1-7)
- How long homesteading: average 8 years, median 5 years
The figures were self-reported, and I made adjustments based on the following definitions:
- Ranch—livestock operation
- Farm—crops for cash sales
In the purest sense, these are accurate descriptions, although there may be some overlap and some folks may prefer one term over another. If you’re a rancher, you primarily raise and sell stock as a business; if you’re a farmer, you usually grow row crops or perhaps even vegetables, intended for market on a large scale. Homesteaders do these things too, but self-sufficiency by its very definition means that you don’t depend on outside markets for your income—you make do, you trade and barter, you learn to do things yourself.
That’s not to say you don’t need an income, because this isn’t the 1880s after all, but the goal of homesteading is to provide everything that you and your family need, by your own labor and on your own land. That doesn’t, however, happen overnight; it can take years, and in the meantime, you need some amount of cash to build up your homestead and become secure in your knowledge and skills. You also still need to provide for emergencies, like any other person or family, because I guarantee you a doctor or hospital isn’t going to take a chicken for payment.
You need to get to know your neighbors, even if they are now half a mile down the road instead of right next door. Maybe they have skills or equipment that you don’t, or know someone else who does. We met the guy who lives across the road when his horses got loose, and he knew a guy around the corner who could salvage and take down a derelict house on our property. Didn’t cost us a thing, and now we can trade jobs with three or four other families if we need to do so and have people we can call on in an emergency.
My biggest “don’t” for aspiring homesteaders is “don’t” think you can buy some land with your last bit of cash, finance a cabin, and become self-sufficient in a year’s time, especially if you don’t have skills, knowledge, and physical and mental strength. Even something as small as a hornworm infestation in those tomato plants I mentioned can kill off all 32 of them—then you have to buy tomatoes, or trade zucchini, or whatever. But you also need to have someone with whom to trade.