First Year of My “Self-Sufficient” Farm – Part 2, by SaraSue

At last count, there are approximately 72 animals on my farm. Of these, 22 meat birds will be butchered very soon bringing the count down to 50. I learned that each type of animal needs their own type of shelter from the elements. I didn’t quite understand that when I got animals and have been scrambling ever since. I have lots of crazy stories of me trying to cope due to my lack of knowledge and experience.

Farm Infrastructure

Regarding outbuildings: When I bought the place there was a small barn and an oversized “shed” the size of a one-car garage, and I had thought that would be plenty. Not near enough! I started using the garage for everything: raising chics until they were ready to go outside, storing animal feed for the various animals, storing milking equipment, a freezer for beef, all the supplies and tools you never thought you needed for various circumstances, until the garage became impassible and the car sat outside no matter the weather. I finally constructed some commercial shelving and that was quickly filled. I was constantly cleaning out the garage and taking trips to the dumps.

The other day I saw a rat and that was it for me. I need to get another shed to store animal feed in galvanized trash cans, along with the farm tools. The garage shed was converted into a goat shelter, several chicken coops were purchased to accommodate the growing flock since I didn’t have the wherewithal to build a large coop by myself, and the small barn doubled as hay storage and a cow shelter. Now, if you mow or bush hog your own property, you need a garage or shed for that equipment, not to mention the gardening tools. I hire the mowing and bush hogging workout. If you have spare rolls of fencing and t-posts, bags of pine chips or bales of straw, the list goes on, those things need shelter too. Don’t think you can just tarp things outside. I tried. It really is a waste of energy and resources if you live in an area that has “weather”. It rains a lot here, the wind blows hard, and there’s lots of humidity, so keeping things dry is critical.

At one time I had left a roll of fencing out in one of the fields. You’d never guess, but a bunch of chickens that had flown the coop decided to crawl into that roll of fencing, got stuck, and a couple died before I even noticed they were out there. It was horrible to have to unroll that fencing and pull dead chickens out of it and rescue the one that lived. I was angry at myself for leaving a booby trap in the field. Everything needs its place.

In regards to the accessibility of water: It’s nice to have hand pumps available near various animal areas, but if you don’t or can’t, you’re going to be hauling water. Some folks get along just fine using an ATV and buckets. My problem is that I cannot lift a full 5-gallon bucket of anything. I can only lift one that is half full, just due to the weight. That means a lot of buckets and a lot of trips, either using an ATV or walking. Even pulling a wagon full of 5-gallon buckets is very difficult for me. I don’t have an ATV and I’m not going to buy one, so that means I make lots of trips with half-full buckets on my own two feet. It can be exhausting if you have to make sure 100-gallon water troughs remain full of water. I learned to string together 100 ft hoses in order to service the water troughs. But, I have to roll those hoses up and put them away every time because my dogs, who are finally coming out of the puppy stage, like to chew on things. That’s a lot of work every day.

And what happens when you get sick? As happened recently to me, I was too sick to do the normal chores and had to call for help. Without water, animals will die. I am in process of getting permanent water lines installed out to the various animal areas (more $$$). Lesson learned – water is one of the most critical elements of the farm and don’t count on your physical ability to haul water out even if you are in perfect health. During the winter, I lugged out gallon jugs of very hot water that I used to melt the ice that formed on all the waterers. That, along with a stick that I broke the ice up with.

Some Gardening Experience

In regards to the garden: In my fantasy, I imagined an enormous quarter-acre garden. Anyone I mentioned this to responded with hesitation. I was not deterred. I hired a local person who had a small tractor to plow an area that got some shade and lots of sun. I purchased enough goat fencing and t-posts to enclose it and hired that to be done. I had a spare small gate from another project. I was so excited about this garden that I had plotted and planned out on paper. I had purchased lots of seeds. It was so beautiful in my mind and I couldn’t wait until our last frost date mid-April. That is, until I started hoeing and planting seeds. The heat and humidity here cannot be understated. I can work for about an hour before I have to stop, if I start early enough in the day. I wear my hair in a ponytail and when I’m done working in the garden I am dripping so much sweat that my ponytail is actually dripping. The first thing I planted was potatoes, red potatoes and russet potatoes, in a long 80ft row. I topped the potatoes with straw and that worked well because I ignored them until they were ready to harvest. The potatoes have been prolific. I get an A+ in potatoes.

Next, I planted a huge section of broccoli, cauliflower, onions, leeks, lettuces, and kale. That entire section died due to the heat wave and lack of rain. Normally, we get rain every afternoon here, but this spring we’ve had almost no rain and crazy heat – completely abnormal weather. Of that entire section, I harvested 3 lettuce plants that survived. Next, I planted a corn patch, squash, zucchini, okra, bush beans, melons, watermelon, and pumpkin. Again, not enough rain, although the heat-loving squash has been prolific and the corn is just barely hanging in there. I get an A+ in squash. Pumpkins are growing, the watermelon may make it, but not much else. Next, I planted a long row of various sunflowers that are still alive and some are starting to flower. Next, I planted a long row of tomato plant starts, and sweet peas and telephone peas along a trellis, and again, due to the heat and lack of rain, I don’t think any of these plants are going to make it. Next, I planted butternut squash, and another patch of corn, ever hopeful for the normal rain that never came. That’s a lot of rows to hoe, but I went at it early every morning. At that point, I had only planted out a quarter of the quarter acre garden. I humbly admit that my fantasy was just that – a fantasy. Maybe, if the weather had cooperated…

Meanwhile, the wild grass was growing in the garden like crazy in spite of the lack of rain, and I had to spend a lot of time weed whacking and weeding just to keep things semi-under control, in the heat and humidity. I tried to get out early in the morning, and have all the animal chores and milking done by 6am so I could work in the garden. The gardening failures go back to WATER. When I planned the garden, I didn’t plan for watering it because it rains so much here.

Where I live is considered the “banana belt” of Tennessee. Things just grow. Imagine my surprise when it didn’t rain much during April, May, and June. Now it’s July and the temps are only getting hotter. So, I have a couple of choices at this point. I can haul out 200 ft of hoses and manually water the garden every day, or I can be grateful for potatoes and squash, and plan to install a watering system for next year. Of course, you know, next year will be the wettest year on record if I do that! All that to say, I planned on the rain that didn’t come. Homesteader beware – WATER, again, is a critical resource.

I still love the size of the garden and I thought I had the tools to manage it, but my physical strength gave out. My plan included an herb garden and a flower garden in addition to the vegetables. Due to the heat and lack of rain, I just stopped planting, sat back and stared at my disaster of a garden, reviewing what I assumed would happen against the reality of what happened. I’m not sure how I will approach it next year. I may lay down silage tarps to kill the native grasses over winter so I can start with a clean slate. We shall see.

Oh, and I also found the time to plant an orchard of fruit and nut trees.

Planning for Year 2

For me, the first year was a whirlwind of activity as I strove to get a fully functioning farm up and running. I made lots of mistakes. I don’t think I understood just exactly what a “fully functioning farm” is. I thought you needed a lot of animals, but that’s not true. You just need the basics. I hired a lot of help and no, it wasn’t all in the budget, so yes, I spent too much money. I’m stretched too thin. If I’m outside working on the farm, I’m not inside keeping house, and vice versa. Since I cook everything from scratch, I’ve learned to cook things in batches so I don’t have to cook every day. I’ve learned to work outside very early in the morning when it’s somewhat cool, and work the rest of the day inside the house with the air conditioning, then work outside again in the evenings if it cools down enough. I started lots of inside projects that are not at all finished.

The good news is, I did it! The bad news? Well, let’s just say it’s not perfect and there’s a ton of work still to do in order to improve efficiency. I’ve been exhausted and overwhelmed, but I don’t regret it for a moment. I look around and notice that the more I do, the more there is to be done. I’m cheered up when I pull vegetables out of the garden, bring in gallons of fresh milk and dozens of fresh eggs, and fill a vase with fresh flowers. When the sun rises in the morning, I find myself outside watching the glory of it, thanking the Lord for His kindness and goodness to me. And when I plop into bed at night, I thank Him that I made it through the day. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade this year of “learning the hard way” for anything. One thing is for sure, I have more enthusiasm than I should have.

Moving forward, what am I going to do to make things more manageable for myself? Maybe I will let go of the idea of breeding rabbits and give these beautiful rabbits to someone who can appreciate them. I am going to let go of the adorable Nigerian dwarf goats if I can find someone who will appreciate them. I thought about sending them all to Freezer Camp. I am not going to raise traditional “meat birds” (Cornish Cross) again. They don’t do well in the heat and must be butchered on schedule. I am going to switch to a dual purpose (eggs and meat) type of chicken and only harvest when needed rather than putting myself through “butchering day”. I went to the expense of buying all the butchering equipment, but I think that will hold me in good stead for a long while should I decide to butcher a lot in one day. Or, maybe I will sell it at a discount. I might consider sheep rather than goats, but for now, no more animals. I am going to concentrate on the dairy cows, and keep chickens because they’re generally easy, and spend more time gardening. I’m going to attempt to solve the water distribution problem.

And finally, I’m going to spend more time on the interior of the home so it’s more pleasant. All in all, I’ve had many successes and solved many problems. I recognize that my enthusiasm for farm living far outweighs my ability to live a farming life. I am going to cut things down to size, and not give up. I mean, think about it, what do you actually need to grow or raise to be self-sufficient. A source or two of meat (chickens and cows or sheep), a source of dairy (cows), a garden (vegetables, beans, flowers, herbs), and that’s really it. I’ll still need to buy bulk staples such as wheat, sugar, honey, dried beans, lentils, etc., but in the absence of those things, and if I focus more on the garden, I can mostly grow much of what I’m still buying. At least that’s the goal – a self-sufficient homestead.

My idea of a “self-sufficient” homestead is being able to close the gates and not leave unless I want to. As we see civil unrest on the rise, it is a worthy goal. And just for the record, I’m not going to eat bugs and I will never surrender my 2nd Amendment rights.