When our family moved to our ranch/retreat, we spent the first year living in a 30-foot travel trailer in the barn. With five kids, ages fourteen down to one years old, it was a tight squeeze. That was some good rustic living experience; we used a wood stove  for cooking, an outhouse as our toilet, solar showers , and solar power . We gained a lot of new skills and gained the motivation to get the old farm house fixed up and livable. Living in the barn also gave us and the kids a new appreciation for hot water, flush toilets, and gas cook stoves . Even running water at times was a luxury. Electrical power was a challenge, and getting the solar system working properly has been a learning curve that I am just getting the hang of after two years.
We spent weeks cleaning up the old farm house, beating back the weeds and blackberries, and fixing broken windows, pipes, and sagging floors. Needless to say it has been a lot of sweat equity, passion, tears, and work at side jobs to get to where we are today. There is still a lot to do, and I’m sure it will never be all done. However, that is okay, since this has always been a dream of ours to work together as a family in a situation where Dad is neither gone all day nor Mom run ragged trying to keep up with all the extra-curricular activities. A lot of sacrifices have been made along the way to get out of debt and downsize to break free from the golden handcuffs. This allowed me to retire from the corporate world and pursue our dream of homesteading. What an adventure it has been and will continue to be.
There has been no shortage of things that we have learned, surprisingly many of them the corporate world doesn’t prepare you for. In the books and articles, there seems to always be a reference to multi-family retreats, but typically it is only briefly touched on in the context that one family alone cannot keep up with all the chores and security. I would like to focus on our most recent experience with having another family live on our retreat. This article is written with the idea that things don’t always go as planned and the more you can outline and identify pitfalls ahead of time the more likely your multi-family experience will succeed.
We have a 140-acre ranch that is also our retreat. We recently invited another family out to live, work, and enjoy being off grid in the country with the intention of a long-term relationship. Before we made this move, we talked about a number of topics regarding family, faith, and preparedness, and after six months we came to a mutual agreement that they were going to find another place.
These are our lessons learned about establishing a multi-family retreat.
Good relationships are going to be one of the most critical things to have in a multi-family retreat set up. It won’t matter that the hordes of people are trying to rob and kill you, if you’ve already killed each other. I’m only half joking; the stress of living with another family can be very real, so don’t overlook this part of planning.
When we invited the other family to join us on the ranch/retreat we assumed a lot. Even though we did sit down and talk about some things, like logistics and living arrangements, we didn’t spend enough time on the more daily things like schooling, family time, lifestyles, and beliefs. These daily items were the source of a lot of our heartache.
We allowed our decision/assumption to be formed on, of all things, social media. Even though we were not close friends, we considered ourselves friends and had communicated a lot through Facebook and email in the past. Social media is not a good judge of who a person really is. We typically only post what we want people to see and know. Like all things, we should have made a list of musts and wants. What must all of your retreat families have? They must have good communication– the ability to discuss difficult topics and objectively look at yourself and others without becoming bitter or angry. Are you aligned on important items that your retreat is founded on?
You need to be very clear what is expected of each family, even though it may sound overbearing. You need to agree to who will clean the corrals, pick up all the dog poop, weed the garden, maintain the generator, and service the solar system batteries? You are setting up the ranch/retreat, and you will need to make your expectations clear for other families to either be able to accept or not. Letting things be unsaid or unknown only leads to frustration down the road when it doesn’t work out how you planned.
A clear conflict resolution process needs to be laid out as well and all parties agree to follow it. I would go as far as having families sign an agreement on how resolution management will be handled. Just saying “we can work through anything if we just talk about it” is not enough. Some retreats have bylaws, memos of understandings (MOU’s), and standard operating procedures (SOP’s), which are all good things. You will have to decide how much or little you need. I have decided, after our experience, to always have more procedures and details for operating in close confinements with another family instead of less.
Another topic under relationships is children. Living together on a ranch/retreat with multiple families with children means your kids will be spending a lot of time together. We both home schooled and had kids in similar age groups and thought we were aligned but found we had completely different takes on schooling. Our routine consisted of book schooling (reading, writing, and arithmetic) in the morning, and the afternoon was spent on life schooling (animals, gardening, construction, and equipment operation). My nine year old is better than I am on the excavator, and our 14 year old can run the 10-speed split rear-end dump truck like a pro. We enjoyed this time together as a family and didn’t realize how much it would change with another family at the ranch/retreat.
Our new family also home schooled, but their daily schedule was a lot different than ours. The kids did three pages from their workbooks and spent the rest of the day playing and exploring. By 10am the constant back and forth in front of the house on bikes and four wheelers was enough to end our morning session, since it is almost impossible to focus on school when you want to be outside with your friends. In the afternoons we had life schooling, only after prying the kids apart. The time of wanting to work and be with mom and dad became a chore instead of a joy.
So don’t fool yourself and say we do it different, but it will work. You will succumb to the least common denominator. So you need to either be okay with this or define the expectations ahead of time, because after you have moved another family or two onto your retreat, it’s a little late to change the rules.
Livestock and Animals
On our ranch, livestock and animals are a big part of the program. An added benefit was that our new family brought a couple of dairy cows, pigs, and chickens as well as three dogs, two cats, and a bunch of ducks. We had previously discussed what space the animals could use full-time and some temporary space they could use until pens could be built. What we didn’t discuss was how long “temporary” meant and to what standard the space would be kept. We assumed they would be like us and do things to our standard. We quickly found that our standard for cleanliness and upkeep was quite different than theirs. This became an area that brought with it stress and division. We ultimately had to take a hard line and lay out the new requirements when our suggestions were not heeded. This would have been avoided with a much more detailed discussion in the beginning. Going forward, the plan is for the ranch/retreat to acquire and own all animals. This will allow them to be managed to our standard and ensure cleanliness, animal health, and the assurance that proper feed will be provided. This also allows all families to share in the care of and benefit from the milk, eggs, and meat, instead of each family providing their own animals. Another consideration is if a family decides to leave and they own the animals, as in our case, a large part of your food source may walk away as well. A better solution is that the ranch/retreat acquire the animals so they are a permanent part of the program. At this point, we are in the process of filling this void so that we won’t be without eggs and milk for very long.
Whether you decide to have individually owned and cared for or retreat-owned animals, be sure to spend the time to clearly outline and define the expectations of how animals will be penned, fed, cleaned, and their health maintained.
As with any ranch/retreat there will be no lack of work to do. Who will be responsible for what jobs needs to be on your prescreening interview list.
If it is your ranch/retreat, you will be used to doing everything yourself. However, a big reason for having multiple families is to share the work load. We had discussed this before the second family moved in. Once again, we did not go to the next step of defining the roles and responsibilities of all parties. This is a must do. What you think is common sense and obvious may not even occur to your new family. We found that they were good at taking care of their things, but when it came to the ranch facilities and equipment it fell below our standards. We discussed with the new family and agreed that 32 hours per month of work was fair. Unfortunately, we had to implement a weekly job review and clearly define timelines, since things were not getting done. Don’t be afraid to have a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule, and then be prepared to have to be the manager to keep people on task. I know ideally all parties would self manage their time and productivity, but we are all human and need some encouraging to stay focused. A set time to sit down and review the schedule, touch base on current projects, and just connect for fellowship would be a must on my list.
Finances are one of the unspoken issues for any ranch/retreat. There is a growing fad to unplug from the rat race and just homestead. The challenge is then how do you make enough money to provide the basic needs of your family and pay for the mortgage on your ranch/retreat, insurance, fuel, food, repairs, improvements, and the things that will come up monthly. No matter how passionate you are about prepping or homesteading, the bills will not pay themselves. A source of income is a must. If you can earn enough from a ranch/retreat-based business, you are very fortunate. We have hay and cows that we raise to sell and eat, but this only brings in about 25% of our annual budget. Until we can grow the ranch-based business, we are dependant on side work in town. I was fortunate to find a niche market in the aviation industry and am able to do a couple of jobs a month to supplement the ranch income.
The reality is that you will not just head to the hills and be self-reliant without an income stream. It takes money to set up a ranch/retreat, and you will need to have a discussion with the family you are considering about whether they can support themselves. If they can not, then are you willing to fund the extra expenses they add in exchange for work on the retreat/ranch? There may be times when you would consider a family that may not have adequate resources because they brings enough skills and ability to offset the extra expense. Either way, go into it with your eyes open and not hoping it all works out. We found very quickly that we were not prepared to carry the extra costs and our new family was not able to provide for their added expense. One of the biggest expenses when you are operating off grid is the electricity. You have a limited power supply, unless you spend the big bucks to upgrade your solar  and battery bank . If not, then you are left with operating a generator  to make up the difference. Running a generator daily becomes a very expensive process very quickly. On average we were using three gallons a day of fuel/propane. This was not something we had budgeted for or anticipated. So look at your power consumption and estimate high when looking at bringing a new family on board.
Since you are going to all of the effort to plan for a time when self reliance is a must, you will want to discuss individual responsibilities with potential families. What are the group expenses that will be shared and what are the individual responsibilities? Talking about money is not always a popular topic, but going over someone’s budget and finances will tell you very quickly how serious someone is about living on a ranch/retreat. If they are carrying a huge debt load and living pay check to pay check, then you can be sure that living off grid is not going to be sustainable, unless they are working full-time in town. How much are they currently putting into preparedness? They won’t last long, if they are not committed to this lifestyle with their finances. As the saying goes “put your money where you mouth is”. I’ve talked to a number of people who are very outspoken on the trials to come and how bad they think it is going to be, yet they have not put a single dollar into the three B’s– beans , bullets, and Band-Aids . Just because somebody can talk the talk doesn’t mean much, if they haven’t put their blood, sweat, and tears into preparing.
You may also benefit from checking references. I thought I knew our friends better but we had never worked on any real jobs together or seen how they handled finances, home schooling, and many other aspects of life. Had we been more inquisitive we would have been a lot more prepared for how things turned out. In all reality, we probably would not have gone ahead with moving them out to the ranch/retreat. I ran into a previous employer of his who also was an acquaintance and asked a few questions regarding work ethics, self motivation, and whether he would employ him again. This would have been good to know before spending six months finding out first hand. I understand that you may not have access to past employers or be able to get any more information than what the state says they are allowed, but you can ask potential families for personal references that don’t have the same limitations and can talk more frankly about the prospective family. The more you do upfront toward vetting potential families, the better shot you have at succeeding. This doesn’t mean you will not have challenges or disagreements, but if you have all agreed on how those are to be handled ahead of time, you will at least be on the same page. Even with all your lists, questions, SOPs, and outlines, sometimes people are just not a good fit. Be willing to let someone go their own way if it is not working. Remember, this should be an enjoyable experience for all.
So, keep updating that list as you learn some more do’s and don’ts for multi-family living. I know I will be.