Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
This is a guest post and entry in Round 1 of the Farm Dreams writing contest. The prizes for this round include: First Prize: A $300 gift certificate toward any purch
This is a guest post and entry in Round 1 of the Farm Dreams writing contest. The prizes for this round include:
First Prize: A $300 gift certificate toward any purchase of Featherman Poultry Processing Equipment, including pluckers, knives and more!
Second Prize: A 164' roll of electric poultry netting from Kencovevalued at $140!
Third Prize: A large heirloom pack of assorted seeds from Baker Creek (northern or southern region) plus a copy of Jere and Emilee Gettle's recently published book The Heirloom Life Gardener.Valued at $125!
Fourth Prize: A $55 gift certificate good toward any purchase at Lehman's!
Round 1 ends began January 15 and ends March 15 so GET BUSY WRITING and email your entry to us today!
City folks gone country
[Old MacDonald] We purchased our five acres & home less than two years ago and have been homesteading for about a year. Our family moved from a modern 4,000 sq ft McMansion to a 1,800 sq foot foreclosure. We left the heart of downtown Houston for a rural area just outside the suburbs & city. I still have a full time job downtown, so the homestead (farm, farmstead or whatever you call it) was primarily my wife’s job.
Setting up a mini-farm from scratch is no easy task. We both come from corporate jobs where we specialized in certain fields. We were not at all handy and didn’t know anything about agriculture.
I am a list and directions kid of guy. Get a plan, methodically follow the instructions and everything will work. Mrs. MacDonald is an open the box kind of girl, pull out the parts and see if she can put it together. If not, surely there is a 1-800 number somewhere. As you will see, our distinct personality traits have been “interesting” as we put together our mini-farm. We have learned that farming is not a precise science that works out 100% when you follow the book to the letter. However, we have also learned that there’s tremendous value in planning and research.
Setting up a Mini Farm by the book…
[Mrs. MacDonald] After acquiring our property, I promptly started reading how-to books on setting up a five-acre homestead. There was one BIG problem: the books were not written specifically for our property. I could not take the plan, lay it out on our land, give Mr. MacDonald his beloved list of projects / items to acquire so that he could check things off and be done.
Where is the farm expertise?
[Mrs. MacDonald] I needed help and sought after people. I found lots of experts. I developed friendships with goat experts, lamb experts, chicken experts, horse experts, etc. However, I needed full scale farming expertise with knowledge of our climate and environment. When you set up a full farm, it really complicates the planning. Adding anything to the property has a domino effect.
By full farm, I mean a farm or homestead that has a well-rounded variety of animals, garden, and food preservation that work together to sustain the family and possibly produce some income. It is not an enterprise that focuses on one animal or plant as an economic endeavor.
[Mrs. MacDonald] I read that we should set goals before diving into our small farm. I found it difficult to set real goals when we knew so little about our endeavor. For one, I didn’t know if I would like farm animals. I’m not a big pet person. Now I know that I like farm animals much more than pets. Farm animals are interesting and have delightful personalities. In addition, they give back. I also enjoy vegetable gardening more then I did working on our city-manicured lawn.
[Old MacDonald] I am a pet kind of guy. I love our dogs and consider them family members. When we started farm animals, I put these in the same category as pets. Big mistake. For example, I refused to process the geese and ducks because I had turned them into pets. I soon realized that I couldn’t make this place a petting zoo.
Now we understand than no animal can be added to our property unless it has a work purpose. We have enough pets and hobbies. And if we add something that turns out not to be productive, it will end up on our table or be sold. That is a huge change in mindset for me.
Which Animals do you add?
[Mrs. MacDonald] Once I realized I’m a farm animal kind of girl, would I like them all? Knowing what animals I’d enjoy came with hands on experience. Once I dabbled in a wide array of animals, I proceeded to start learning how all these work together. Some can be on open pasture together. Others will kill each other. Some will eat the small trees down to the ground. Others will only graze on the grass.
[Old MacDonald] We learned that a farm is a marvelous place where animals and gardens work together in a mutually beneficial loop while improving the land. This loop needs to be assembled by the farmer. This assembly takes an understanding of how animals relate to each other and how they will impact your particular piece of land. It took us about a year of homesteading to see how the animal puzzle would be assembled on our land.
Next, The Garden
[Mrs. MacDonald] Most all the recent stuff about homesteading includes gardening. And the information on gardening is mind-boggling. Do you start from seed? Heirloom or conventional? Chemical or organic (which leads to composting)? Panic because I don’t have an earthworm colony! Or where’s the greenhouse? Should we invest in aquaponics? What about the fruit trees with the rabbit tractor for natural fertilizer?
Like everything else, we had to start somewhere. Last spring our neighbor plowed us a huge garden with a large tractor. Now I have a new appreciation for the song, “She Thinks my Tractor’s Sexy”. I had been hoeing the land by hand and it took him 5 minutes with proper machinery.
I ran to the feed store and spent $20 on bulk seeds. That was a lot of seed. I hoed my rows and prepped the area. The next day it was about to rain, so I ran outside and started sticking seed in the ground before water started falling from the sky. I really thought I’d remember what I planted where. After all, I am superwoman.
When green stuff started coming out of the ground I was not sure if it was a seed or a weed? I didn’t know enough about plants to recognize what each was so I had to wait for it to produce and surprise me. I guess it kept farm life interesting. Old MacDonald would just shake his head.
Another concept I learned is that you don’t need 100 radishes at once. When a garden produces, you have to do something with the yield. After working in the garden all morning, I had zero energy to come inside and learn to can over a hot stove. We quickly got sick of zucchini. This year we will have a very small garden. As we train the children to do more farm work and we’re not spending so much energy on set-up projects, I’ll get back to a larger garden and canning.
Advice for Newbies
[Old MacDonald] Looking back, we have some pretty green advice for someone a year behind us looking to establish a small farm. First, determine your purpose. This is not specific goal setting, but understand what you want out of this lifestyle change.
Ours was becoming more self-sustaining with little idea of how to get there. Once we dug in, it evolved to becoming a full working farm. We only have five acres, so that meant a very limited amount of each type of animal. After learning what we could do with our land, we then set a goal to have 80% of our food to come from our land within the next couple of years. To accomplish this we will provide much of the animals’ food from the feedstore until we establish better pasture and learn to grow more vegetation for our animals.
Feeding animals outside feed opens up a can of worms when focusing on sustainability. It is difficult to raise animals, grow your food and theirs on five acres overnight. I understand that we’re really not sustainable if we rely on outside sources for animal nutrition. Actually, we are as much commodity traders as farmers. We’re inputting one trading commodity (chicken scratch) with another (chicken) and producing a value added product (egg).
You also need to be realistic your time limitations. I can only work on the farm on Saturday or vacation days. I cannot count on each Saturday for farm work because of family plans or weather. So for planning, we cannot do more than Mrs. MacDonald and the kids can handle.
[Mrs. MacDonald] You need to be realistic about your physical limitations. I didn’t realize how weak I was before we started homesteading. After a project, my body aches and I have to stop extra activities until my muscles come out of shock. I am normal body size, no health issues and have led an active life. But farm life has pushed my body in ways I did not expect.
[Mrs. MacDonald] Newbies need to pick one thing and get started. For our family, it was chickens. It forced me to learn how to build shelter, which was a stretch because I did not even know how to use a zip tie. I tried making a PVC pipe coop with zip ties. I thought my first package of ties was 50% defective until I realized the pointed end has to be threaded into a particular side. Now I’m very embarrassed about how long it took me to figure this out. But it is demonstrative of how much work everything was the first time.
Raising chickens also showed me the commitment of caring for animals EVERYDAY. We saw the grief of losing one because of our poor planning. We learned what an issue predators can be on a homestead. I learned that sometimes you have to end the life of a sick animal. We saw how expensive set-up for an animal could become. We experienced the transition of eating something from our land versus grocery store.
Develop a Farm Philosophy
[Old MacDonald] As you get into farming; develop a farm philosophy. The chicken experience made us evaluate what type of farm people we would become. At first, getting chickens seemed pretty simple. But once you walk through the chicken door, you have ten other doors from which to select.
Did we believe in free range or confinement? Organic food or plain old feed store scratch? Is soy in animal food evil? Medicated food or all natural? What do we do with the less useful animals like too many roosters? Do we buy local chicks, hatch or order from out of state? Looking back, the decisions we made followed through with every new animal we've added.
Put another toe in the water
[Mrs. MacDonald] If you can handle one thing, then add another if you want to be full working farm. But don’t go crazy. I recommend adding smaller less expensive animals. We wanted milk on the property and selected goats. We started with kids due to costs and other factors.
After having two types of animals, I gained too much confidence and added turkeys, ducks, geese, lambs, llamas, garden, pigs and livestock guardian dogs. And I was homeschooling three children at the same time. After all, I am superwoman.
Avoid mass chaos
[Old MacDonald] Try to avoid mass chaos as you add on to your farm. I was frustrated because where was the plan for an organized management of all these animals? We can't feed the ducks because the goats inhale their food. We need separate pens for the new geese because they want to kill the free ranging duck. They turkeys are escaping under the fence to the neighbors pasture. The frustrated untrained Australian sheep dog wants the lambs in a bad way. The blueberry bushes died because they were planted in the wrong location. The garden looks like a forest of weeds.
After working all week, I found it stressful to look at all the work (chaos) needing my attention. But I deliberately did not slow things down because we wanted to get started. Sometimes you have to delegate to your partner and back off when things are not smooth. It can be rough when your partner thinks she can do everything. There were times I did say no. For instance, Mrs. MacDonald wanted our first garden to be double its size and I put my foot down. I knew it would be too much work.
When one person is farming and the other is working full time off the farm, I learned that the day-to-day farmer needs the freedom to explore new pursuits without a constant supervisor questioning every move. There needs to be room for mistakes. I had to delegate to and support Mrs. MacDonald because I just didn’t have the time or mental energy to invest in planning and farm work. We both did the best with what resources we had.
[Mrs. MacDonald] After you get a little experience under your belt, set short term goals. Now that we’ve had a full calendar year of farming, I can see more clearly how our farm should work. This spring I can spend my time tweaking what we have versus doing everything from scratch. I can see the puzzle pieces and how they need to fit. I can also see which pieces do not belong in our particular puzzle.
This spring I have more strategic goals much to the delight of Old MacDonald:
Then have dreams about your long-term plans. Five years from now, I’d like to:
[Mr. and Mrs.] Don't be starry-eyed reading the magic farm map in a book or on the Internet. Do something and start somewhere. You have to balance analysis paralysis with taking on too much at once. Seek out local knowledge. Start small and don't invest too much money on any one thing. Don't overwork. Be nice to your family after a skunk sprays your dogs, the goat escapes the pen and a hawk just ate one of your chickens.
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