First Year of My “Self-Sufficient” Farm – Part 1, by SaraSue

Whewboy! What a year this has been. It feels like just yesterday that I got the keys. I can confidently say that I haven’t worked this hard since I had four babies, in quick succession, to care for. And even then, I don’t think I worked this hard. I did finally “crash and burn” recently and was sick as a dog for over two weeks and had to call for help just to keep animals alive. I think it’s interesting and helpful to take the time to review the year and make decisions about how things should go moving forward. Managing a small farm by yourself is not for the faint of heart. Hopefully, anyone dreaming about a homestead can pick up a few things from my story that will be helpful. The joke I make with my family is “I go, therefore, in order to set an example of what not to do.”

A Little Background

For those of you just tuning in, over a year ago I left Idaho, sold my cabin in the mountains, and moved to Tennessee. I did so because my children and grandchildren decided to move here and I didn’t want to be so far away from them. My roots are in Tennessee, my dad was born here, and I visited my grandparents and other relatives in these here parts when I was a child. I never dreamed I would come this way again as an adult. But, here I am. Previous to my Idaho respite, I worked in high tech as a professional and travelled the country consulting. I worked very long hours and was under tremendous pressure all the time. A series of serious illnesses stopped me in my tracks and I had to retire early. I was definitely in the “city girl” category and never imagined that I would become a “country girl” in my retirement years.

When I found this small farm, I felt like God said, “This is what you wanted ever since you were a little girl, right? You wanted a farm like your grandpa had, and you wanted animals to care for. Here you go.” I was pretty ecstatic at the time. And I am still grateful and still feel like I was given a big present. I had no idea what I was doing though. Which has made everything that much more interesting. I laugh a lot. I laugh at the sense of humor God has. I laugh at myself for thinking I can do anything I want. I laugh when I’m overwhelmed and every muscle is screaming at me. I do sleep well, though!

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

I guess the first question is: would I start a small family farm, at my age (60 something), if I had it to do over again? I can still say, yes! Would I do anything differently? Yes, just about everything. Honestly, no matter how brave you are, you just don’t know what you don’t know. You can read books, and watch movies and videos, and read blogs, and talk to people who farm, and you still won’t understand the full breadth of the undertaking unless you’ve actually worked or grown up on a farm. Until you have physically hauled water in five gallon buckets, until you have picked up dead chickens that were ravaged, until you have stood or squatted at the hind end of a birthing cow, until you have dragged hundreds of feet of hoses to get water out to different areas, until you have shoveled manure and stared down an animal 6x larger than yourself, until you have just missed stepping on a giant snake and seen rats or mice take up residence in your house, until you’ve completed your chores in smothering humidity and high heat, until you’ve recognized a tick and differentiated between various bugs of all sizes, until you’ve smashed a few dozen brown recluse spiders, until you’ve hoed tens of dozens of rows of dirt, attempted to move 100 square bales of hay into the barn, etc., you haven’t lived on a farm in the South.

I still encourage everyone who can, to get out of the cities and take up a small farm or homestead in order to create a safer and more sustainable lifestyle. It will probably be the hardest thing you’ve ever done if the lifestyle is new to you. And it will probably be the most rewarding thing you’ve done if it doesn’t kill you. My grandchildren are in heaven when they visit. I’ve achieved some kind of mythical status with them. They can safely run all over the place and visit the various animals, feed them treats, hold or pet them, and understand things like where milk, eggs, vegetables, and meat come from. They love to help with the chores because it’s an adventure to them. I think the grandkids are what actually keeps me going. If you’re not a grandma or grandpa, and have a young family, I think a farm is a glorious place for kids to grow up. But, remember, the farm chores will be on top of your daily duties until your kids are old enough to help out. Even my little 2 year old granddaughter helps with chores.

If I were to advise anyone looking for rural property to homestead on, aside from the importance of location and the actual shelter/home, I would say that fencing and access to water are critical. Even though this property was already fenced and cross-fenced in perfect proportions for keeping various animals, fence repair, and additional fencing and gates were needed. Even though this property was advertised as one with “two working wells”, that was not functionally true. One well failed to produce more than a quart of water an hour, and the other well while a great producer, was full of sulphuric acid. I spent a few thousand dollars on more fencing and gates. I spent $8,000 – $10,000 repairing well pumps, and getting a purifying and filtering system in place for the wells so the water could service the house and the animals. And that was just in the first month!

Mistakes and Mishaps

During the buying process, I could not get the wells inspected because there weren’t any well drillers who we could get to come out in time to close on the house. Subsequently, we ran out of water the first week in the house and had NO WATER. My family, with their three little kids, had moved in with me until they could close on their house. I would advise anyone who can’t get the wells inspected to just hold off unless you’re ready to haul in water, which we did. Unfortunately, the sellers were dishonest about the wells and I, trusting soul that I was, didn’t know that they had been hauling in water and had filled the cistern prior to the home inspection. The cistern holds somewhere between 500-1000 gallons, so we just didn’t know any better. Not good. If I had it to do over again, I would’ve waited for the well inspections. Live and learn.

Also, I bought the house without inspecting it myself. I think that was a serious mistake. Realtors now will do live video walkthroughs, and of course, a home inspection can tell you a lot. But, nothing can inform you like your own nose, ears, and eyes. Every appliance in the house had mildew, most likely a combination of high humidity and bad water. The stove would turn on, but only cook on high heat no matter the setting. Every appliance had to be replaced despite my best efforts to clean things with bleach and other chemicals, the mildew remained. Every faucet had corrosion from the acidic water. The water heater had been ruined and had to be replaced as it too soon failed. The guts of the toilets had to be replaced. All of this from bad water. I try not to think about the pipes under the house, but there is no evidence of any leaks or backups. We had an unusually cold winter and several inches of snow, several times, rather unheard of in this area, and all the pipes froze because of poor insulation. Gee, I thought that only happened in Idaho! I kept telling myself that it’s better to have everything break now and deal with it while I still had a little money left in the bank. All this to say, do not buy sight unseen, no matter the pressure. Or, if you’ve got piles of money in the bank, and don’t mind being grossly inconvenienced, go ahead. I had barely enough to get things fixed.

Even with all those stumbling blocks, I was undeterred.

I was anxious to get animals on the farm, as many do who’ve been dreaming about the perfect little homestead. I got chics and goats before I was ready for them, and that led to makeshift shelters and a few disasters. That’s something I’d do differently. I would make sure appropriate shelters were in place before acquiring animals. I lost 8 of the 10 guinea chics, and a few chicken chics due to aerial predators. Hawks and turkey vultures are prolific here, so open air pens don’t work for chics. Now that my flock is older, and with 3 roosters on guard along with 2 large, loud, guineas, the flying predators are not normally a problem. I didn’t lose any of the baby dwarf goats, but I did find myself chasing and rescuing them from a particularly dangerous thunder and lightning storm. Can you imagine even being out in that storm!! There I was slipping and sliding and praying I could gather them all into a small shed for their protection while not worrying about myself. If it wasn’t so dangerous it would’ve been comical. What the heck was I thinking???

The reason I got the goats, who are actually wethers (castrated males), was because I needed some animals to graze the pastures. Here in Tennessee, everything is green and the grass grows, and grows, and grows, unlike many states. Mowing and/or bush hogging is a continual task. The grass can be waist high in a few weeks – I kid you not. My bright idea (which turned out to be not so bright) was that the goats would keep the pastures trim and I wouldn’t have to mow! What I didn’t know is goats are “browsers”, not grass grazers. Meaning, they will reach up to bushes and trees and eat all the leaves before they will ever eat the grass. If you want animals to graze the pastures, and also give you something in return for their upkeep, think about getting sheep. Sheep will keep the grass trimmed and a breeding flock will give you milk and lamb. That’s something I would’ve done differently and I may still find another home for the cute little Nigerian dwarf goats and get sheep instead. I consider the goats, who are small and adorable, and silly and funny to watch, entertainment. They don’t really contribute to the farm, but they look poetic on the landscape. Aren’t goats something you get right after chickens? LOL.

The next animals I got were a pair of female rabbits, with a male still to come, if I don’t change my mind, for breeding. I thought that breeding rabbits for meat would be a good “sustainable” homestead project. I found a reputable breeder and picked a breed (Silver Fox/Champagne d’Argent cross). Again, I really didn’t have appropriate accommodations for breeding rabbits. I bought a couple of cheap rabbit cages from Tractor Supply. Don’t do this. This particular breed of rabbit grows quite large and their fur is magnificent for pelts, and they yield a good bit of meat. Because they are large and quite furry, they can’t take the heat any better than I can.

They are also prolific manure makers, which is great for the garden, but you’ve got to clean the small cages every single day for their health. What really needs to happen, is they need cages built inside a shelter, or outside with a roof, that has plenty of ventilation and is up off the ground where their manure lands by about 4-6 feet below. Why? Because their urine is copious and full of ammonia and that doesn’t need to be anywhere near where they breathe. Little rabbit cages just don’t cut it. Just sharing my failures so you can avoid them. Build the cages, up high with a pan to catch the manure below, before you get the rabbits. Each large rabbit must have their own cage. And we’re not even talking about breeding or harvesting rabbits yet. I may re-home these beautiful rabbits because I am spread too thin. Like I said before, you just don’t know what you don’t know until you try it.

My next animal adventure was to purchase a dairy cow. I took this purchase seriously and spent a great deal of time researching, and talking to others before even looking for a cow. Probably the size of the animal made me feel the import of the decision. I had a 4 stall barn already in place and I cleaned it up, made sure all the barn stall gates were working, and cleaned up all around it, checked all the fence lines to the pastures, made sure the pasture gates were working, purchased chain locks, purchased 100 gallon water troughs for each pasture, and even purchased 100 square bales of hay before that cow came home here to the property. I knew the pasture grass was good and I allocated 2-3 acres for just the cow and her soon-to-be calf. I was ready for this animal and my failures with the smaller animals was weighing heavily on me. I didn’t want to screw this up.

I wrote an article about my experience, as a newbie, with my first cow, so I won’t rehash that here. There were/are lots of things I didn’t know about cows other than what I had read in books. But, quickly, a few things I learned: the only way a cow can be in milk is to have a calf (don’t laugh – I honestly didn’t know). The only way for a milk cow to continue to give milk over the years is to continue to calve on a regular basis (annually). So, generally speaking, there’s never just one cow on the farm. And if you want beef, you breed for beef. If you want more milk, you breed for another dairy cow. And there’s a lot of cross breeding that goes on for various characteristics.

Do you bring her to a bull for breeding or do Artificial Insemination (AI), or do you purchase a bull for the farm? I decided on AI. I will never have a bull on the farm. Again, it’s not just about one cow. This is something this city girl didn’t understand at all when she bought her first dairy cow. In fact, I figured that I needed something I call The Cow Calendar just to keep straight on when various maintenance activities needed to occur with the cow and her calf. At least, the cows had proper accommodations. And so far, the dairy cow(s) have been my most successful adventure other than having way too many chicken eggs.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I will discuss farm infrastructure and my gardening adventures.