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Lessons in Homesteading

Before you start homesteading or jump into life on a farm, there are an overwhelming number of things to consider. You can spend a lifetime reading about the lifestyle and making notes of what you need before you begin. Some things are repeated over and over again, but some of what I’ve learned I never hear talked about.

Below you’ll find a short list of what I think are the most important things to know before you make the leap into this lifestyle, and some things I wish I’d known before I began.

It takes all kinds

This should go without saying, but homesteaders are made up of a diverse group of people. We’re from all walks of life and backgrounds, ideologies and identifications. And beyond where we come from and who we are: we all do homesteading differently. Some of us are plant based, some of us focus on meat production. Some of us are converting an acre urban plot and some of us are farming huge plots of land. There’s no right or wrong way to pursue a more sustainable or simple life, just as there is no right or wrong kind of person to do it. Let go of preconceptions about what you think you need to do in order to be a successful homesteader before you begin this lifestyle.

You always need buckets, hoses, jars, and fencing

I’m sure there’s more to put on this little list, but there are certain things you just can’t have enough of on a farm. On our farm some of those things include buckets, hoses, jars, and fencing. They’re the kind of items you purchase annually, adding to your collection over time. Some things, like fencing supplies, are expensive, so a slow build up of your stock makes sense for your wallet. And some wear out over time, buckets being the prime example, so you keep getting more as the old ones pop holes or lose handles.

Most things homegrown (all?) are seasonal

While you can keep yourself in eggs and milk with some careful planning and breeding/hatching schedules, nature does move in cycles. Hens take a break from laying during the dark days of winter. Cows and goats are not generally milked while they’re growing the next year’s calves and kids. The garden is put to bed in winter. You can struggle against this, or you can embrace it. Isn’t part of the point to be more in touch with nature and our food sources? The rhythms of the seasons are signaled not just in the changing of the sun’s angle or the color of the leaves, but in what is on your plate. Winter tastes like root vegetables and syrup-sweet preserves, while summer is creamy and lush with greens.

You need to breed goats or cows to get milk

A dairy animal isn’t just a non-stop producer of milk. They’ll need to be bred annually, which requires keeping or renting an intact male; they’ll give birth every year which can be an intense and stressful time; and then you’ll have to figure out what to do with the offspring. All of this should be considered before adding any dairy animals to your homestead or farm. Where will the offspring go? How much time and money do you have for assisting animal births? How will you house an intact male the rest of the year, when you don’t want him breeding your females? There’s much more to dairy than milking.

Pests and predators are a constant struggle

Every time you find the solution to one pest or predator, another pops up. It isn’t just predator threats to livestock or your chicken flock, in fact those are often the most easy pests to deal with. The most insidious tend to be insects which either bite you and your animals or eat your plants, and rats. Keep all feed in metal cans with lids or you’re just feeding the rats, who carry it home and grow their numbers. Here in Maine we must innoculate apple and oak trees or spray for Brown Tail Moths which not only kill those trees but cause a painful rash. Going outside in the spring, summer, and fall means you have to do a thorough check for ticks which carry deadly diseases. Elsewhere there are other threats, and the fact is that if you’re living an outdoors lifestyle and working in tune with nature — nature is going to throw some hazards at you.

There’s often an area of focus on a farm/homestead

While some homesteads focus entirely on self sufficiency, which by its nature is a little bit of everything, most farms tend towards a focus. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is a key to success if business is part of your farm plan. A vegetable farmer rarely has time to invest in also keeping livestock, and vice versa. If you’re doing something to its full potential or hoping that it will become a source of income for your farm — it’s probably taking up most of your time, and that’s ok. You don’t have to do it all. You may also find that you simply prefer certain parts of homesteading and (see the first point) that’s fine too!

A place for everything and everything in its place

Homesteads and farms quickly become messy, with many projects going on at once. It is amazing the difference you’ll notice when you take the extra time to put things away and stay organized. Yes, it takes extra effort and sometimes, at the end of the day when you’re exhausted, it doesn’t seem worth it. But the next day when you go to find the tool you need and it’s in the right place and you don’t have to search for it — life is so much easier, and you’re saving yourself time. Even better, checking that things are sharp and in working order when you put them away will save you even more time and effort in the long run. If there is one secret to a smooth running homestead, it is prioritizing this.

You can’t do it alone

In the quest for self sufficiency, you will find you cannot do it alone. You’ll need sources for the things you cannot or do not produce yourself — such as hay for your animals, firewood to stay warm, etc. And you cannot learn to do everything, so you’ll want to make connections with people whose skills compliment yours. And you also simply cannot do it all, and sharing the load of chores and big projects keeps you from burning out. Farming is a community effort, especially if it is to be successful. Part of building a small farm or homestead is cultivating the farming community around you.

You will need quarantine spaces, and animals aren’t always friends

The biggest thing I wish I’d had before I brought home animals is quarantine spaces and “safe areas” for animals within a herd who are sick, who are expecting to give birth, or who are being bullied. It is not enough to simply have plentiful open space for your animals. You must be able to separate and divide them when necessary. Otherwise disease can spread quickly and animals can get injured. And while it is wonder to see animal friendships within herds or across species, don’t expect it to always happen. Some animals are bullies. Some just can’t be around others. For example — our ram will always ram our livestock guardian dog, so the sheep cannot be kept with the dog (who lives with the goats). We’d hoped all three species would live in harmony, but we had to adjust.

You don’t need everything you see on the internet

If there is ONE thing you take to heart in this piece, it’s this. Do you have a use and a need for dairy goats or a cow? No? Don’t get one! It’s not good for the animal or your mental health if it’s an unnecessary extra chore on your farm. Do you need a kitchen aid and a food dehydrator and a pressure canner? No! How ridiculous is that? Did the people who in theory homesteaders wish to harken back to have all those fancy kitchen gadgets? You can do it without blowing all of your money on the latest equipment. You can build up an equipped kitchen and a collection of machinery for the barnyard — and yes, it will make life easier — but you don’t need any of it to succeed.

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