By Brin Jackson
I bought my current property, .6 acre in the Fall of 2015. Yes, I bought and homestead under an acre of land. Though small, I could see its potential as a small farm. With a vision and five-year plan, it still involved a ton of work.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:
Lesson #1: Be realistic.
What size property can you truly manage on your own? In my case, .6 acre is perfect.
June 1st, 2017 I slipped and broke my left wrist requiring surgery. That set my five-year plan back a year. Over the course of the summer, I watched and learned from my property: the angle of the sun, where it was hottest, what thrived and where, and, most importantly, what mistakes I’d made and the changes I’d need to make. Not the least of which was moving the veggie garden closer to the house. For me, being forced to do nothing was a lesson in surrender and self-reflection. An opportunity in disguise. Without an income, I narrowed my expectations and whittled things down to what I truly needed, no more, no less, to exist – with loving and joy. A lesson in humility and of asking for help.
Lesson #2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
At some point, you’ll need it.
Homesteading isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a lifestyle. I love my animals, the outdoors, thrive on hard work, multi-tasking and problem-solving. A single homesteader is exactly that – single. There are days when I don’t feel like doing chores, days when I’m not feeling well, days when I’m desperate for another set of hands – none of that matters. What matters is the animals’ well-being.
Lesson #3. Figure out how many animals you can manage.
For example, I have a trio of rabbits (buck and two does), three ducks (drake and two hens), six chickens, and two goats (doe and wether). I raise a batch of meat birds (25) once a year. Depending on the type of meat bird, they need to be processed at either eight weeks, or, as was the case this year with a heritage breed, twelve weeks. The outcome is the same. Do you process them, or send them off-farm to be processed?
My currency is time. For example, I did an experiment while baking bread. During the first 30 minute rising, I cleaned the duck house, the chicken coop and run. During the second 30 minute rising, I cleaned the goat stalls. Figure out how long it takes to do chores. Time is a commodity – use it wisely. A great way to break down chores is to divide your property into zones. This is the way I set up zones:
Zone 1: Think hub. The centre of a wheel. The house. Center of activities. High use. Radiating outward is:
Zone 2: Raised beds, herb garden, annual plants, perennial beds, berry bushes and several fruit trees.
Zone 3: Small barn which houses the chickens on one end, feed storage and milk stand in the middle, and goat stalls on the other end. The greenhouse, wood pile, and storage shed are in this area.
Zone 4: Paddock area for the goats. Grassy area where I use a mobile chicken tractor when I do a run of meat birds, two apple trees, and an area for larger crops like squash, tomatoes, and sunflowers.
Zone 5: My perimeter fence which is bound by the road to the North side, Blackberry to the South and West, and a buffer of wild rose and shrubs to the East.
Lesson #4: Learn to pace yourself. (This isn’t easy!)
Homesteading on your own is a challenge. Make To-Do lists. It won’t all get done at once. Create zones on your property so you can cycle through chores.
Time is one currency, then there is actual currency – the day to day reality of paying the bills (and feed costs). I can’t afford to give up my day job(s) – yet. I have two part-time jobs in addition to income from the farm and my goat milk soap business. Last year, hot on the heels of an unusually hot summer and processing 21 meat birds, I thought I’d found a perfect job. Overtired, over-enthusiastic, intellectually incapable of the steep learning curve, I was humbled to admit I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I learned a valuable lesson in my limits.
Lesson #5: Income.
Do you want to earn a modest (emphasis on modest) income from your homestead? If so, where does this income come from? Know, and admit, your limits. We all have them. Especially homesteading. We can’t do all the things.
The reality is, the older I get, the more limited I become. I arrange my homestead in such a way that it is efficient and manageable. There are many days when I wish for at least another set of hands. On those days, it’s important I remember why I do this in the first place – I love it. So, I take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, write a To Do list, sit on the porch and wonder at the beauty around me. At what I’ve accomplished.
Lesson #6: Age.
I turn 65 this year. The reality is I can’t do at 65 what I did at 40. I ask friends or hire help when I need it. Take pride in your accomplishments! What you’re doing is a big deal!
I have a life-time of gardening experience. I’ve learned how to raise and care for a variety of animals over the years. I plot, plan, and read. When I decided goats were the solution to the out of control blackberry on the property, I joined the local goat association. I was a member for four years before getting goats. I took the opportunity to participate in meetings, visit farms, see and learn about the different breeds of goats, and, I took online classes. All in an effort to be better prepared and knowledgeable before I brought the animals home. I believe educating myself is step one in any endeavour. I also believe in community. Grateful to have a circle of like-minded people who understand the rigors of homesteading, I can draw on their expertise and support when needed – and they draw on me in return. Community. I can’t do this alone.
Lesson #7. Read. Read. Read.
Read all the books on the animals you hope to have, and educate yourself. Don’t rush into it, start small, find community support. Find a mentor (Deborah Niemann) comes to mind. Join local Clubs and Associations. Homesteading – farming – is a lifestyle choice. It isn’t easy. It is physical. It is emotional. It is financial. There are always things on the To-Do list and there are always things to learn.
I want to back up a bit and expand on Lesson #3 – How many animals can you manage, and #5 – Finances. These are serious questions to ask and absolutely go hand-in-hand. Reading comments in various groups over the past two years, I understand people want to be more self-reliant and grow their own food and raise their own animals – I’m all for it.
What seems the height of folly though, is people purchasing land and livestock without having picked up a single book on the subject or without creating a support network. Often, these people rely solely on Facebook groups and You Tube channels for their information. “Get rabbits! Start with chickens! They’re cheap!”
Then – the pages are filled with those same people either dumping their male animals once they reach breeding age, or trying to give them away, or, and this is what tips me over the edge, they say, “I have a sick hen, (or rabbit, pig, or cow) now what do I do? I can’t just kill it”. The short answer is, yes you can, and in most cases, it’s the most humane thing to do. No-one anywhere at any time said homesteading was easy.
If you want to raise animals and homestead, processing those animals is part of the process. It isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy. Somehow, you need to reconcile that with your personal belief system. Every. Single. Animal. On. Your. Farm. Matters. And, as such, deserves the best life you can offer it, and a compassionate end when needed.
In closing, ask yourself, “As a single person, do I want this lifestyle and everything it entails? Am I afraid to try it?” Ultimately, you are responsible for more than yourself. Take everything into consideration, educate yourself, talk to real people – not on-line people, then make an informed decision.
For me, this is the most rewarding, fulfilling, exhausting, frustrating, delightful, funny, hair-tearing, project-filled, unromantic, expensive lifestyle I could choose. Would I give it up? Not a chance! At the end of my day, I know I’ve produced food, cared for my animals to the best of my ability, and I’m living my life on my terms. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Never lose the sense of awe, wonder, and excitement of homesteading.