I love seeing and hearing of folks who, in spite of their less-than-ideal situations attempt to raise their own food with what they do have! Raised beds or balcony gardens, backyard birds or rabbits, joining a farm share or helping out at a neighboring farm, I give these folks my respect. They make things happen.
And there are those who currently save every penny in hopes of one day owning an acreage, cottage or homestead. They like their backyard birds, their garden beds and crave more. While I cheer these folks onward, I also have a slight hesitation. Its easy to romanticize the farm life! Edited photographs, charmingly written articles and blog posts, even visiting a neighboring farm can leave folks with wonderful ideas and visions of how rich and full this life is!
It’s true. Returning to the land does hold unique charm and purpose. You do more acutely feel life! Watching a mare pant, groan and work to deliver a dazed colt to the world is something to behold. Sowing tiny seeds in bare soil and gaining enough food to overwinter the family brings a sense of empowerment, accomplishment. There’s plenty of humor on the farm! Watch a young calf kicking up its heels or listen to the young cockerel’s attempt to crow. Humorous indeed!
But sometimes this natural life is harsh and unforgiving. It can batter and break, is often bloody and heart-wrenching. Like sickness that causes half the beef cows to miscarry, the old but faithful family dog that you didn’t see and hit with the tractor, the early morning morning light revealing the nighttime work of a predator. There’s also financial losses, disappointments, investments-that-fail because of nothing you did wrong, but because of nature’s unexpected twist.
To be sure, its these difficulties that make the beautiful moments so beautiful. In fact, all too often we don’t appreciate beauty or accomplishments to their full potential until we’ve seen the other side, the repulsive mess that life often sets upon us. Terrible as it is, there is good even in the ugly, in failures, in loss or death. It illumines the beautiful, the success, life itself. Experiencing the dark side is part of what makes living on the land so rich.
Yet no one wishes for loss. No one desires failure. It would be foolish to waltz into a new lifestyle without preparing, without asking if you have not only what it takes to live it, but to live it well! The essentials that start new folks on the right track are not specifics, but rather principles to live and govern life by.
Never Stop Learning
This is a key trait of even experienced and seasoned homesteaders! You are never too old to learn. Those who think outside the box, look for better and newer ways to do things, who take advantage of change will most likely do well. Ask questions. Look at other folks’ system, particularly those within your valley. Don’t be afraid to implement their proven methods on your land or animals. The best homesteader is a humble homesteader.
Tailor Information to Your Current Situation
Its easy to sit back, read, research (particularly with all the homestead blogs available today) and think we know something. Research is wonderful, but don’t think you know it until you’ve personally tried it. Every community, farm and parcel of land has its specific quirks and quags. Research, but be sure to spend time getting to know your specifics. Always, tailor others’ information to your situation and especially, financial capabilities!
Ask for Help When the Going Gets Tough
The tough times will come. They will. There’s no shame in asking for help from a friend or neighbor, particularly those who are educated in the area of struggle! These folks will most likely be better resources than bloggers and authors. Asking for help is a necessary character trait of a true homesteader (read about it in Four Life Lessons from Homesteaders of the Past).
Learn to walk before you attempt to run! Not only do folks end up wasting resources and money by stepping in too fast, but often they are discouraged from attempting an activity in the future due to a bad experience. Its a process to learn, to understand your land and animals. Take it one step at a time! Begin slowly. Find your rhythm with each activity. After you’ve got it nailed down, move on.
Don’t Take on More Than You Can Manage
Experienced land dwellers are smiling. Its bound to happen. We know! In truth, particular seasons are crazy. Its part of the package. Animals do get sick. Accidents happen. Nature throws inevitable twists into our well-functioning system. Its part of living the life! Alleviate your pain by taking on only what you can manage well, and when those moments come, you’ll have excess energy to deal with the crisis.
Make Wise Financial Decisions
It you are going survive this life, you must make wise financial decisions in regard to homesteading activities. The cost of feeding chickens may not be regained through the selling of eggs. Depending on the amount of pasture you own, selling butchered beef may not offset the cost of raising it. Before you throw yourself wholeheartedly into schemes of making money on the land, talk with locals. Chat with someone who has been around for a while, who knows the area and the activity you wish to make money with! Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, but remember: if there’s a quick and easy way to make a dollar, it could be that other like-minded folks in your community have already met the demand!
Calculate the Cost of Your Homesteading Activities
Also be sure to record homesteading expenses! This includes the set up for gardens or animals, cost of maintenance, of yearly feed. Don’t assume that raising food yourself is always the cheapest option. Perhaps your farming activities are helping you get ahead, but all too often they turn into expensive hobbies. Tracking costs often pushes folks to find cheaper alternatives, saving money in the end. Sometimes, it helps you see that a particular homesteading activity can’t pay off because of your situation (land, feed costs, etc). Regularly track expenses in a notebook or journal. Calculate and evaluate at the end of each year. Was it worthwhile?
Expect a Slow Return for Your Money
If there’s one story that rings true when living on the land, its this: it takes time to see a return for your money! Purchasing a setup for a garden, crops or animals does cost and all too often, putting the setup to use costs even more. Expect it to take (at least) several years before these things begin paying themselves off. Homesteading is about long-term investments. And often, homesteading activities require upfront cash, yes, even with food preservation methods, such as root cellaring or canning. My favorite podcast is Pioneering Today by Melissa K Norris, and in a recent fascinating episode, she covered the cost of canning, the return you make, the money it saves long term. Be sure to check it out: Is Home Canning Really Worth It?
Invest Into Sources That Give a Return
The highest on this list is a garden. Purchasing seeds for very little, it takes only time (lots of it!) and water to yield a very bountiful harvest. Nothing compares to the quick return of a garden! Try adding in a few heirloom varieties so you can practice seed saving. Legumes and squash are two of the simplest! Invest into animals that not only produce food for you, but breeds that can also re-produce. Sell their offspring to bring in a dollar! Fast growing meat birds are often unable to reproduce (ducks, chickens, broad-breasted turkeys). Interested in large, reproducing meat bird? Look into heritage turkeys (see blog post Heritage Turkeys vs. Broilers).
It Takes Sacrifice
This life isn’t for the irresponsible or faint of heart. In order to make this lifestyle pay off, you must manage your money, spending, time and efforts well. It costs. Often you go to work, only to come home to more work. How are you wired? Do you thrive off of caring for animals or the garden? What matters most to you? What matters to your spouse, your children? It takes sacrifice, from everyone! But if everyone is on board, its good. So good!