Homesteading – A Cautionary Tale – Part 3, by SaraSue

(Continued from Part 2. This concludes the article.)

Why I will continue to homestead

It’s really fun to watch videos of the perfect “permaculture” setup.  It’s quite another to implement it.  Sitting down and thinking it all through is a great idea, even drawing up plans – which will require you to know the lay of your land, the slopes, the direction the wind comes from, where the morning sun comes up, what shadows are thrown during the day, the climate and growing zone, etc.  But, what if you have no idea what you’re doing?

When I started out, I only wanted chickens.  Then I decided that goats were the way to go to keep the land cleared.  Then I tried meat rabbits.  Well, the goats were given away sooner rather than later because they don’t graze the land, they browse the bushes and trees.  Sheep are much better grazers, but I wasn’t ready for sheep and I knew nothing about them.  I got some breeding rabbits for all the right reasons – low cost, small footprint, easy reproduction, great source of protein on a small scale…  Absolutely beautiful rabbits, but it’s way too hot and humid where I live for the rabbits to be happy.  I had no way to keep them cool so  I gave them away.  Then I got a bee in my bonnet for a milk cow, then that morphed into 3, and there were calves involved.  Of all the animals, I love the cows the most.  Then I decided I could get a couple of feeder pigs, then purchased a breeding group.  Lord have mercy!  I do like the pigs, but I’ve learned that I need a lot more electric fencing than I have.

Of all the animals I’ve “tried out”, I can say, hands down, the milk cow is my favorite.  I have trained two “first time fresheners”, meaning a heifer who calves for the first time, to milk.  No small thing to help the cow understand that her milk is not just for her calf, but for me.  And I had no idea what I was doing at first.  I read some books and talked to a lot of people more experienced than myself, and I learned just by doing it.  Cows have magnificent body language that will tell you exactly how they feel, if you pay attention.  And they will learn to trust you if you treat them well, and give them a reason to.  My dairy girls line up at the gate, right on time, every morning, and wait for me to let them in, one by one, to be milked.  I rarely have to call them in.  I always thank them for their milk.  Oh, occasionally there will be a little kick, but most likely if one of them is displeased they will swat me right across the face with their tail.  They have really good aim with their tails too.  I am thankful when the tail does not have poop on it.

I love the dairy cow for many reasons, the first being, all things dairy.  I haven’t purchased butter in over a year, or yogurt, or cream, or milk, or ice cream, and I’m learning to be a good cheesemaker.  The dairy cow also gives you a calf every year, if you time things right.  A freezer full of beef is a wonderful thing too.  I’m pretty sure you can live on butter and beef!

Next to cows, are the chickens.  I so enjoy fresh eggs.  I haven’t had much luck with raising meat birds, so I buy chicken in bulk from the Amish.  I’m not saying I never will attempt to raise them again, but it’s been hard for me, for whatever reasons.  I like to keep a large flock of laying hens, knowing that I can always put the roosters in the pot if need be.

I have had a horrible time with gardening here.  I have a new plan for 2024 that is in process of being implemented.  Unless you have a marvelous green thumb, and know your soil and climate conditions, and have gardening expertise, starting a garden from scratch can be very difficult.  Those “survival seeds” are zero insurance.  My gardens are full of rocks – big rocks, little rocks, and medium-sized rocks.  There’s no end to the rocks here.  I could be hauling out rocks for the rest of my natural life, so I’m switching to raised bed gardening.  Raised bed gardening has its own challenges.

I babied some sweet potato slips for months, and the day after planting them wild rabbits came in and ate every last leaf.  I was talking to a neighbor the other day who gave me some “old timey” gardening tips.  “To keep the coons (raccoons) out of your corn field, get some stinky clothes from the laundry pile, and right before the sun goes down, lay them down at the four corners of your garden.  The coons won’t go into your cornfield.”  Let’s not forget the deer!  There are all kinds of methods of keeping deer out of your garden.  My gardens are double-fenced with a 6’ gap in between interior and exterior fence lines.  Deer will jump a 6ft tall fence, but for some reason that double fence deters them.  There are all kinds of tips and tricks to gardening, but I think the most important thing to do is to listen to local gardeners.  Ask their advice, take good notes, and learn your land.  Establishing new gardens is not easy.

That’s where I am.  I’ve cycled through various animals in a short period of time trying to find the perfect fit for my farm and I’m still not 100% decided.  Once piglets are born here, I will either love it or I will hate it.  That’s the one thing about not having family living with me that is a problem.  Not just the workload, but the decision making.  I think sometimes I could have used someone to talk me off the ceiling.  LOL.  But, would I have listened?  Probably not, and that speaks to my stubborn (can I call it “pioneering”?) spirit.

I have no advice for anyone regarding homesteading!  I can only share my journey – the good, the bad, the ugly.  I do so enjoy fresh eggs, fresh milk, all the dairy products, home-grown meat, and the space to grow as much fruit and vegetables as I want.  I enjoy the quiet.  I enjoy the landscape, the privacy, and the challenges.  I get a huge sense of satisfaction knowing that I can work with nature to grow food.  I love the animals.  As long as you give them what they need, they will give back ten-fold.  As a side note, I’ve never liked cats, but I have some barn cats.  Every morning, one of them comes looking for me because she knows that she and her kittens get fresh milk after I milk the cows.  She is the sweetest cat on earth, and she does her job at mouse patrol.  The other cat will sit right beside me while I milk and wait for her milk.  I have become quite fond of the cats.

I am thankful for the opportunity to try out self-sufficiency at the most basic level.  I have an enormous appreciation for what goes into “growing your own food”.  “Back in the day”, there were a lot of family farms.  Most everyone had a relative, at least, who had a farm.  I’ve learned a lot about the history of this area I chose to live in.  I am surrounded by 100+ acre farms.  About every mile or so, as you drive down a country road, you will see an old barn – some collapsing and some in very good condition.  Many were built to last, some 80 years ago, or more.  Very few are still in use.  Large grain towers dot the countryside.  I have no idea if they are still in use, but it looks as if many are.  This lifestyle used to be a way of life for many, many, people.

In conclusion, I still believe that homesteading or farming or whatever you want to call it, is the best way to create a “self-sufficient” lifestyle.  When my grandpa was alive, I asked him, “Pop, what did you all do during the Great Depression?”  We had been learning about that in school, so I was probably in Middle School at the time, maybe younger.  He looked at me, such a young child asking him such a serious question, and he chuckled a bit.  Then got serious as he said, “Well, we all went back to the farms.”  He grew up on a farm and never wanted to go back.  “Pop, I want to have a farm someday.”  He said, “Honey, farms are hard, dirty work.  You don’t want to do that.”  “But Pop, I want to milk a cow!”  He really laughed then, “That milk is dirty.  You don’t want to drink that.”  Sigh…. And here I am.

It takes a few years to begin producing enough food for a family.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  I believe, over time, that I will learn to refine my systems.  I will learn to have less outside inputs.  I will become a better caretaker of the land.  My friendships with fellow farmers will broaden and deepen.  I will find the right balance in regards to what types of animals and how many.  I would not give up this lifestyle willingly, even if the hard days outnumber the good days.  I have no illusions that it will “get easier”.  My hope is I will be less surprised by the difficulties and respond in a less harried manner.  Mostly though, I am happy that my family could retreat here and we could, effectively, close the gates.  There’s some reassurance in that.