Homestead Series V—Living on Your Homestead

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
  • Homestead—self-sufficiency

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.


Homestead Series IV—What to do Next

You planned, purchased, built, and are living on your homestead. What’s next?

Homesteading can be summed up in one word: self-sufficiency. Decide what you need to become self-sufficient. Shelter—you’re living in it; water—done, as you have your infrastructure in place; and food.

Food falls into two categories, what you grow and what you raise, and you need certain things for each of those categories before you begin to produce.

Your garden should be on a well-drained section with plenty of sun, fairly close to your house—you’ll be walking back and forth a lot, eventually carrying all those vegetables. You’ll need access to water during the summer months, but even a hose (or three) coming from a hydrant will do the trick; of course, you can also install a fancy watering system, or even not-so-fancy using PVC pipe—but that can get in the way as you work the dirt. And speaking of dirt, it’s not a bad idea to buy an inexpensive soil testing kit so you’ll know what your dirt needs—or not. Our ancestors didn’t use them, after all.

First, you need to determine what size garden you need, and what type: traditional, raised beds, hoop house, greenhouse, or what not. Any state extension website can usually tell you how much to plant per person—and it’s a lot more than you’d think. For the record, I use a traditional layout and a greenhouse for seedlings and over-wintering herbs and flowering plants. During the winter, even in southern Missouri, I use two heat lamps—that means you might also need electric at your garden; ours is a plug on a pole and an extension cord, simple and cheap.

Second, you’ll need to plow or till and fertilize, if that’s the route you’re using; we happen to have plenty of horse manure. Break up the sod, rake and smooth, and pick up all the rocks—don’t worry, if you live in the Ozarks, plenty more will surface over the years. Might be our best crop.

Third, and I can’t stress this enough, you need a deer fence. That’s a 7.5-foot fence, at least, and if you skip this step, the deer around your place will be very well fed and you will not. Additionally, we put chicken wire all around the bottom to keep out the rabbits, and held that down with a ton of those rocks we pulled out of the garden area. Now that I mention it, almost everything on our homestead is surrounded by rocks, either for decoration or practical purposes. Use what you have, after all.

And finally, you’re ready to plant. Plant what you like to eat—eventually, as you get better at gardening, you can plant cash crops or even more of what you like to give away or sell. Don’t get carried away, because this garden is just getting started.

Throughout the next six months, you’ll be tilling, weeding, watering, trimming, picking, and processing, over and over. You might be hoping the darn plants will just die, because you’re so sick and tired of all this, like I did this year with never-ending jalapenos…but if you’re homesteading, you need to look at the big picture. What if this was the ONLY food for your family?

Before you invest in livestock, whether it’s cows, horses, goats, pigs, sheep, rabbits, or whatever, you need to A) know what you’re doing, B) have a place for them to shelter, and C) be able to feed them.

That means more fencing, shelters, access to water, pasture, feed and feed storage. Depending on the critters, you may need more. You may already know how to take care of these animals, or you may need to learn about them. Do all these things BEFORE you purchase and bring them home.

And always remember, the nearest vet is probably not 15 minutes away, and the animal in need of medical care may not fit in your SUV. Fortunately, most vets out in the country make farm calls, and it’s not very expensive. In fact, we generally have ours come out once a year for the horses, and while they’re here they also take care of the cats and dogs. Barring any unforeseen illness or accident that we can’t handle ourselves, that’s it. And yes, you should know basic first aid and how to give a vaccination for any of your critters. Self-sufficiency covers all aspects of homesteading.

Another fun fact about raising livestock is that their care and feeding continues 24/7, 365 days out of the year. You don’t get to leave for the day or the weekend or take a vacation unless you have someone come out to feed twice a day, keep an eye on things, and who is prepared to chase/corral them if they get out.

Let me put it this way: you generally eat three meals a day; how would you feel if you had to skip dinner one night, and breakfast the next morning? Or if your next meal was delayed by hours? Sometimes, when you’re homesteading, this can happen, but you’re a human and can reason the why of it. Animals cannot. Animals are dependent on their human caretakers to keep them safe and well.

Homesteading isn’t all day, every day, all year long—but it’s darn close. Because if you aren’t gardening or taking care of animals, you might be mowing, trimming, cleaning, gathering, hunting, cutting firewood, fixing fence or tools.

Check back next time for tips and tricks and guidance on managing your time—and money—on a homestead.