Homesteading – A Cautionary Tale – Part 1, by SaraSue

Living The Dream

First off, why do I homestead?  My passion is to provide a safe haven for my large family away from the world’s chaos.  A place where food can be grown, the air is clean and fresh, no noise or people pollution, no homeless encampments, and precious little crime.  A safe, productive, hideaway.  Realizing that nowhere is completely safe, we know that some places are better than others.  Just look around.  If you live in the country, you might have a million-dollar view from the porch of a humble home.  I do.  I can scarcely take it in.  It’s restful to the eyes and soul.  I take no credit whatsoever for this place.  I stumbled upon it for a variety of reasons and feel that it was a gift from the Lord.  After possibly decades of reading Survivalblog, I had a mental checklist for a retreat property and this one fit the bill.  I had no intentions of “homesteading” other than a deep desire to become as “self-sufficient” as possible.  I didn’t even know what I was going to do with this property other than raise some chickens.  That’s how it started.

A lot of people are trying to “homestead” now, and for various admirable reasons.  Some are looking to get out of the rat race and live a simpler life.  Some see that bad things are happening and feel a need to grow their own food and be self-sufficient.  Others started out with chickens on a small plot, and as is said, “Chickens are the gateway drug to homesteading.”  They end up getting more animals – some have tried goats, turkeys, quail, cows, pigs, rabbits, sheep, etc.  In many cases, they think they can quit their job, grow their own food, and have little if any expenses.  I’m here to tell you that unless you have a good source of income, it’s not possible.  Sorry to mess with your Cheerios this morning, but homesteading costs money.  I’ve spent more money “homesteading” than I ever spent as a professional working woman living in the suburbs.  I’m here to share my experiences, be they good or bad.

Buying raw land and putting a camper on it while you learn to grow your own food is nothing more than a fantasy.  Oh, I know of people who are trying to do just that.  The other day, as I drove 45 minutes through the meandering hills to get to a Feed Store that has the best prices, I saw some raw land with a big camper on it, some kid toys, a couple of camp chairs, and a fire pit.  I noticed that the land was in process of being cleared.  I groaned just looking at it in passing.  No electricity, no septic, no water…. And it’s November!  They would have to tow that huge trailer out to dump their tanks, fill up with water, pick up propane, and I have no idea if there was solar on top of the trailer for basic needs.  I noticed that where they parked, it’s shaded by a hill, and that’s great for keeping things cool, but not so great when you need as much sun exposure for solar as possible.  I guess they could move the camper about when needed, but there were no roads, at all.  With the amount of rain we get here, they could get really stuck in the clay mud.  I wondered how long they would stick it out.  That doesn’t look like “freedom” to me.  It looks like a nightmare.  Oh, it might be fun for a few weeks and then the reality sets in of hauling your own water, rationing propane, keeping clothes and yourself clean.  Well, to each his or her own, but I would never do that.

I met a couple who had a child and one on the way who were camping in the various campgrounds around here.  They were hoping to buy raw land and build, so they were staying in the campgrounds full time while the father worked in the trades.  At least most campgrounds have laundry facilities, electricity, and running water.  I heard recently that they picked up and moved to Florida, then bought a house after the father got a job there.  “The Dream” was just too hard.  As well, land values here in Tennessee have been skyrocketing.  Reminds me of what happened in Idaho around the time I left.  It became unaffordable for most people.

In another case I noticed, there’s a home not far from me that is in very poor repair.  Normally, there are numerous cars, trucks, and a camper or two parked outside the home.  The front porch is always stacked with firewood.  At least they are keeping warm, I thought.  Nearby, next to a ramshackle, old, barn that is unusable were various animals: goats, donkeys, chickens, a steer, and a couple of ratty-looking livestock guardian dogs.  You could tell the animals were sorely underfed, had not been moved, and were living on manure-filled bare land with not a blade of grass to be found.  Now, you could say, “Well, they are just really poor”, and that could very well be true.  But, whatever the reason, the animals were starving and looked sad.  The other day as I drove by, I noticed the lot was filled with trucks and it looked to be either an auction or a funeral.  All the animals were gone.  It made me very sad.  Whoever lived there, and for whatever reasons, they should not have allowed their animals to be so mistreated, blinded by their “self-sufficiency” dreams of raising their own food.  But, that’s just my observation and I could be wrong as to the why of it all.  I hope the animals are in a better place.

In other cases, I have noticed a lot of YouTube channels that are focused on homesteading.  Many of them are very good and the families are successful at what they are attempting to do.  In every successful case that I have seen, at least one of the adults has an off farm job, or they have cobbled together a financial plan that actually works.  The few who do not have some sort of alternative income, didn’t start out that way.  They financed their lifestyle with regular jobs until they became successful farming.  Farming, or homesteading, is a really hard way of life and it’s not cheap by any means.  When you move into a suburban home, or even a rural home, there are existing amenities that make life more livable.  There is electricity, there are roads, there is sewer or septic, there is water, and there’s a reason banks won’t finance a mortgage without the essentials.  The risk of failure is great.

I have many times put a “business plan” together based on a farming lifestyle.  If you drill down to the real costs associated with growing your own food, the numbers are ugly.  Very few of us will become like Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms.  He is an outstanding human being and has been very successful at teaching others how to farm, has written many books, speaks all over the country, and is someone to look up to.  He is the first to emphasize the sacrifices that he and his wife made in the early years of reclaiming his family’s farm and making it what it is today.  They did indeed live in the attic of the old farmhouse and had off-farm jobs until they could make a go of it.  Spend a moment to peruse their farm store online and check out the pricing.  They offer the best food money can buy, but the prices reflect the real costs of “clean food” at scale.  A smaller farmer would not be able to offer that quality of food for those prices or they’d go broke immediately.  I grow that same quality of food here on my small farm and I couldn’t break even selling a broiler chicken for $25.  What that means is, I would have to scale way up in order to see any sort of profit.  Think about it.  Even if I could just get ahead $3 per broiler bird, I would have to raise, sell, butcher, package, and market 100 birds to make $300.  Not worth the effort.  Now, having said that, if a family, or group of people, worked together without pay from the farm, to produce that quality of food, they might could see a small income.  And many are doing so.  I do not know Joel Salatin personally, but I’ve followed his journey, read his books, and have great admiration for what he and his family have been able to do.  I don’t mean to discourage anyone from homesteading.  I am hoping that I can inject some realism into the picture for you because I’ve made almost all the mistakes.

If you want to successfully homestead, there are some basics that you must have to start with.  When I purchased the property I’m currently on (difficulties aside), what I saw in it was a solidly built home, access to water, electricity, septic, roads, fenced and cross-fenced, two fairly new barns, mail delivery to a rural road (not necessary but nice to have), far enough off the beaten path to have privacy, acceptably close enough to emergency services, and shopping close enough that a trip to and fro could be made within the day.  I call all of this Infrastructure.  I can’t stress to you how important existing infrastructure is.  As those of you who have followed my story know, even with all that in place, I spent a boatload of money fixing things that needed fixin’.

I’m a planner and I love to plan, but…  My basic problem is that my idealism and enthusiasm foil me every single time.  I have to learn the hard way, apparently.  I thought that with all the Infrastructure in place, I surely couldn’t fail.  Surely.  LOL.  I had a lot to learn about farming, and I am still learning, but with a more realistic view.  At least my hope is that I will eventually find the right balance.  I can say that none of my animals have suffered by my hand, in any way.  Predator attacks that come out of the blue will happen, no matter what you do.  You can learn prevention methods, but they won’t always be full proof.  Let not your animals suffer at your own hand.

At this very moment in time, right now, on this beautifully sunny day on the farm, all the animals (cows, pigs, laying hens, meat bird chicks, cats and kittens, guard dogs) are well fed and well watered, healthy, and thriving.  A small miracle.  I, on the other hand, am dog tired.

I’ve been occasionally looking up at the skies while I work.  Not just to notice the incredible blue, the fluffy clouds, the leaves turning autumn colors, but I look for a mushroom cloud in the distance.  I kid you not.  I think of all the work I’ve done, and to just see it all go poof would be really difficult.  I quickly push those thoughts out of my mind and pray.  No matter your path, we know this life we live is only temporary.  So, it’s best to not hold it too closely.  One thing farming has taught me, that is priceless, is to take the successes and failures in stride.  I can and do sleep deeply at night, knowing the animals are doing well, and that the guard dogs alert immediately at any strange sound.  Unless an animal is in need and then there is no sleep.  And that is the way it is.

Please don’t let this discourage you.  But, know that you will need infrastructure.  You will need tools.  You will need supplies, feed, medicines, minerals, shelters, etc.  You will need stamina and determination, and if you aren’t in shape, you will be in short order or you will sell everything and come to your senses.  I think homesteading is better accomplished by a family or group of people who can share the workload.  There is no room for grumbling or complaining.  The work is the work and it has to be done.  Homesteaders rarely get to take a vacation unless they can find a capable farm sitter (rare).  You will spend money you had not planned on spending, so have a good nest egg designated for the farm (10X more than you think you’ll need unless you’re an experienced farmer).  Someone, or two, needs to keep their day job at least, and until, all the additional infrastructure you will need to raise animals is in place, with extras for everything you can think of, and a sizable budget for maintenance.  And even then, an outside source of income will keep you from the worst of it.

A Day in the Life

Not a morning person?  LOL.  The animals are all morning “people”.  The roosters start, generally, at 4am and that is my wakeup call.  During the summertime, the roosters often start crowing at 3am.  Yes, I’m up before the sun, and I don’t have or need an alarm clock.  I am up because there are cows to milk and animals clamoring to be fed.  Their hearing is so good that they can hear the sound of a feed scoop going into the grain bin, a door opening, and they watch the door I regularly come out of.  They know who is first and wait for their turn.  First I milk the cows, strain the milk into jars, and chill right away.  The milking equipment is immediately scrubbed and hung to dry.  Then, I take cat food and fresh, warm, milk out to the cats and kittens.  Next up the pigs get fed, then the laying hens and meat bird chicks.  If they are lucky, they get a large helping of fermented milk, which is called clabber – almost a cheese like consistency – a great way to use excess milk for their benefit.  The dogs, by this time, having watched the entire morning routine, are ready to be fed themselves.  I eat after the animals are fed.

Milking begins as soon as there is enough light out to see my way to the milking area.  I have a “milking wagon” that I use to cart out the supplies, equipment, and feed.  I don’t have electricity out there, so I string a 100ft electrical cord out to the vacuum pump that runs the milker.  During the summer, I start very early and during the winter it is later in the morning.  In any case, the process starts earlier by making sure there are sanitized milk jars, the kitchen counters and sink are clean, and I have the right supplies to put together.  Some mornings it’s a mad scramble to clean up from the night before if I was too tired to do it.

All the above is accomplished before 7 am or 8 am depending upon the time of year.

Good morning!

The farm is laid out perfectly.  The home is in the center with lawn all the way around.  The next concentric circle around the house is a chicken run, hen house, small barn for tools and storage, and the gardens.  It takes about 100 steps to reach any of the above.  The next concentric areas are the pastures, divided up into one or two-acre paddocks, and the larger barn that doubles as hay storage and animal stalls.  I often walk the perimeter fence line looking for holes or breaks, though most of my work happens in the first 100 feet or so from the house.  The other morning I counted how many steps I took to do morning chores.  Not literally, mind you, but I have an idea of how far things are apart and how many trips I make to and fro.  I counted 800 “steps” before I walked down to the large barn to get hay out for the cows.  I easily have walked a quarter to half a mile before breakfast when it’s all said and done.  Not too bad.  I repeat that exercise in the late afternoon.  I generally have projects that require more walking, lifting, carrying, pulling, and pushing, during the day.  Even when it’s really cold outside, I work up a sweat.  The process goes pretty smoothly depending upon weather, unless I am delayed by some sort of animal situation – like, the pigs are out again.

Around 8 a.m., I sit down with a cup of coffee and a muffin or a bowl of granola and plan out my day.  I have a long To Do list that I have named The Never Ending To-Do List.  I pick and choose off that list what I realistically can accomplish in that day.  But, before the week begins, I make a list of what I would really like to accomplish in the upcoming week, after calendaring important dates (When is a cow due to calve? When should a cow be bred?  Who will be in heat when?  What is the farrowing schedule for the pigs?  Are the dogs due for any treatments?  When do the cats need to go to the vet?  What is the status of supplies and feed?  Is there a fence that needs to be repaired or electrified? ETC.). I must keep a calendar and lists or the whole place will fall apart post haste.

Most tasks on the farm are routine and don’t need to be spelled out.  But if there are some very important tasks or projects coming up, I spell it all out for myself because I can easily fall behind or overdo it and physically not be able to complete the work in a timely fashion.  I keep a Master Farm List and every once in a.while I check things off that list.  It’s helpful to look back at the Master Farm List to see where I am making progress and where my priorities completely changed.  If I need to hire help with anything, the scheduling and costs are noted.  I’m back to work by 9am at whatever the priority is.  I take a quick “Linner Break” in the afternoon.  (Linner is a lunch/dinner combination since I only eat twice a day, as it suits me personally).  The afternoon farm chores begin around 4pm.  The final animal check of the day happens before sunset, and I’m off to bed with the sun.

When I acquired dairy cows, I quickly moved to a Once A Day (OAD) milking schedule.  After a pure dairy cow calves, it is necessary to milk twice a day until the calf can keep up with all the milk.  Beef cattle and beef/dairy cross cows don’t have the same issues with production that a pure dairy breed has.  A dairy breed can provide anywhere from 3 gallons to 12 gallons of milk, or more, a day depending upon a lot of factors (a topic for another time).  And the thing about dairy cows, even with a calf helping to drink the milk, you can never skip a milking unless the calf is big and capable of emptying out its mother.  It doesn’t matter if you are running a fever or you sprained your ankle, the cows must be milked.  If you do not milk the cows, they can become quite ill and some may die.  It is no small commitment.  I have been milking cows for almost 2 years straight.

Last winter when my large family was visiting for the holidays, we all got really sick, we had an “arctic blast”, some of the pipes froze, and life was generally difficult.  I still had to milk those cows.  And the cows were none too happy with the weather either, so the least I could do was milk them out and give them some grain to keep them warm.  I had to boil large pots of water on the stove, dump that into 5 gallon buckets, and carry the water out to pour in their water troughs to break up the ice.  We don’t use water trough heaters down here in the South because it is rarely, if ever, necessary.

So, as you can see, some days run very smoothly and other days do not.  There was one time over a year ago that I got really sick, high fever, vomiting, the whole 9 yards.  I was fortunate in that the calf was much older and could take all the milk if I let her.  I turned her out with her mother, called the neighbor to come feed animals and fill water troughs, and I laid on the couch for several days sweating it out.  Things like that occasionally happen.  Backup plans are necessary.  I now have several friends and neighbors in the area that would come over and help me in a heartbeat, plus my own family who live a bit of a drive away would come here if I asked.

There’s one thing you might notice if you happen to know any homesteading families.  If the farm looks great, 10 to 1 something has been neglected.  That could be the inside of the house or the farmer.  The more people working the homestead, the better.  And now you know why large families were so highly valued.  Everyone had a job to do on the farm and everyone worked.

In my situation, something inevitably has to give.  And that’s usually the inside of my home and myself.  I often look like something the cat dragged in.  When I happen to glance at a mirror, I burst out laughing.  This former professional woman was impeccably dressed and manicured.  Now, I have gloves for everything and yet my hands are rough and cracked.  I’m sure that’s because I wash my hands a bazillion times a day.  I’m sunburned and have permanently etched wrinkles now.  I haven’t gone to a “beauty parlor” since before I moved here to the farm.  My hair is very long and gets tied up and out of my face.  Most of my clothes have become tattered from ripping them on a barbed wire fence or just from washing them so often.  I have overalls, but honestly they are a pain to slip on and off with my constant goings in and comings out.

I finally decided to reserve “good clothes” for when I have to go somewhere that it might matter (church, a funeral or wedding, a doctor appointment).  And the rest of the clothes I call “farm clothes”.  I could care less if my shirt is ripped.  I now spend money on really good boots, jeans, hats, gloves, and jackets.  I focus on clothes that can hold up to work and last a long time.  Nothing flimsy will do.  Every once in a while I go on a cleaning rampage and the house gets righted top to bottom.  I used to be a “clean freak” and there was rarely anything out of place or dust on the furniture.  That no longer is true.  It actually was very emotionally difficult to let go of the idea of a perfectly clean home and property.  I felt a great relief when I admitted to myself that it just wasn’t possible to do it all.  And since I value the health of the animals over a clean house, they get priority.

Okay, my house isn’t filthy, LOL.  I have perfected the art of “drive by cleaning” – those Clorox wipes come in very handy.  And I would never subject a house guest to cow manure!  Things just aren’t “perfect” anymore, and I accept that.  Next, I will share some general “gotchas” about adopting this lifestyle.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)