So You Call Yourself A Homesteader

Some days I am filled with doubts.  What the heck am I doing?  We don’t have a farm, we have a dozen chickens, bees, and a garden…woop-de-do.  And on top of that we are smack dab in the center of a town (an itty bitty blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town but a town none the less).  Who the heck am I fooling other than myself?  Who are we to assume the grand title of “Homesteader”?

Then I remind myself: Homesteading is in the eye of the beholder.

wannabe
Wrapping up evening chores with Oatmeal and Jake in tow.

So are you a homesteader?

You bloom where you are planted:
Maybe you are like us and the right place hasn’t come along. You are stuck in town or a city. But you till yourself a garden patch or you container garden anyway, and you do your best to keep your family full of freshly grown produce that you preserve for the winter months. What you can’t grow, you buy from local farmers who can, and you stock your freezer and your pantry with locally grown meat, fruit, and veggies while they are all in season. Doing your best to avoid the store for most things. You might even make your own noodles! If your town allows you may have some of your own chickens for eggs and meat and you could have bees, too. You strive to be self-sufficient. Playing around with goats milk soap recipes and researching beehives gives you a thrill. You are content with where you are or you wait and you save until you can buy your real dream farm.

Noodles Noodles Everywhere!

Our size doesn’t dictate our knowledge:
Whether you have a barn full of cattle, hogs, fowl, goats, or sheep, it doesn’t mean you know more than someone with one or two, and it certainly does not mean you know less. A lot of us have spent hours upon hours pouring over books and researching behaviors and methods. Some have years of experience from when we were kids growing up in 4-H and FFA . For example, someone can have an animal for a number of years without knowing or noticing certain issues exist while someone who only has a few can recognize an illness. While, sadly, others don’t know and some don’t care. We are dedicated to the health and well being of the animals we care for. Big or small, loss can be devastating and we all try to avoid it. Experience is worth its weight in gold, and us newbies can stand to learn a lot from all of you wise sages who have been at this business for years, but please remember, you were once a beginner too.

To homestead is to dream:
Maybe you have a place in the country and you have been doing this your whole life, but, let’s be honest, there are probably things you would still love to get into. Like adding that spinning flock, or perhaps a team of oxen, and you really want a couple nice tart cherry trees. Daydreaming is akin to breathing for us. Starting that orchard, expanding the garden … sunflowers? Ostriches! It is all so exciting and it makes us keep trucking along. We all hope to reach the breakeven point and eventually the magical time when the dream starts paying for itself. Until then, we sit on the porch snapping beans swigging a cold beer after a long day, and we enjoy what we have.

Just a few green beans…

You love what you do and you love to share it:
People who are truly happy with what they do can’t wait to share it with you. I’ve found myself sidling up to strangers to talk about bees. I get so excited when someone asks me a question I could just about burst! It makes me so happy to share the information I have stored up and my experiences, especially since I take a different approach than most folks do. Isn’t that what its all about anyway? To be happy doing the work that you love? If this life doesn’t make you happy, you need to find what does make you happy and go do it at some point. So go on and become a Master Gardener. Breed and show those fancy sheep. Get a booth at the farmers market. Smile!

Photo Courtesy: Lauren Hurd

Your Hobbies may make you sound like a granny:
Did you say spinning and knitting, deary? Yes, the desires to learn the old ways of doing things tend to come up and slap you in the dentures. My grandmother — “Newt” as we affectionately call her — is a wealth of knowledge. She was born on a farm in the 30’s, survived polio, and raised seven kids by herself. She is a tough ole bird. She taught us how to make bread from scratch from a recipe that isn’t written down anyplace, and we can make enough popcorn and molasses cookies to feed an army. Grandmas can be really helpful to have around. You oogle over fermentation crocks on the internet, dry and preserve herbs, and talk to butchers about lard. If someone says they have a tummy ache, you scurry over to your pantry to whip them up some obscure concoction. Hell, I even have a giant sun hat I wear in the garden, an apron for in the kitchen, and lord help me, I have developed a taste for beets … roasted not pickled … baby steps.

None of us do all of this because its easy:
Finally, trying to take the homestead approach is a long road rife with difficulties. From caring for livestock, gardening, and canning, living this life is hard work. Big time or small hobby or urban, we all have our heartaches and disasters along with our victories. Being self-sufficient is the end game, and it’s what we all hope for. The work pays off and you can taste it in the beef roast and vegetables with blueberry pie you make for dinner in mid-January. It won’t hurt to be a bit more supportive of each other regardless of what stage we are in.

In the end we all have the same goals in mind.

Mistakes Are How We Improve

Apple Cider Vinegar
Jars of apple cores and peels ready for fermentation.

Sometimes homesteading can feel like a giant blooper reel. At some point in your journey you are going to feel like a complete moron more than just once, it’s an inescapable fact of this green-growing, furry, feathery life we live. I have taken some time to list a couple things that I have totally screwed up and learned from. Maybe it will take the sting out of some of your mistakes.

Apple Cider Vinegar
You may remember my post about making applesauce last year and how I rattled on about making apple cider vinegar from my peels and cores. After we made all that applesauce and prepared all the peels and cores that we could fit into our big 1/2 gallon jars I was feeling pretty high on life. ACV, after all, is pretty easy make. I researched different ways to make it and I was confident that I chose the route right for me. All I needed was peels and cores, water to top off the jars, cheesecloth, and a big ole rubber band, a warm dark place, and time. About a week after I got the process going I discovered that my ACV had bubbled over and made a mess on the floor; turns out the room was much too warm and also that I had filled up my jars too full of water. If a smelly sticky mess on the floor wasn’t bad enough two weeks or so later I went down to do a taste test and possibly filter and bottle my ACV and discovered that some of the jars had become a nursery to roughly a bazillion fruit flies … INSIDE the jars under the cheesecloth. Turns out I needed to layer my cheesecloth a little bit thicker than just two ply. Next time I plan on using a flour sack towel. All in all I ended up with 1 jar of usable vinegar. If you want a great book on things to do with apple cider check out

 

Trellising
This year will make my 8th garden. In that time I have tried just about every single method of trellising that I could come up with. All of them were miserable failures. I love those photos in the gardening magazines with the plants neatly growing up string and bamboo posts. I quickly realized that while those string methods of trellising may work well for others they do not work for me. I lack the time, and patience. Any strong wind would knock over all my hard work. I ended up using a roll of fencing zip tied to T-posts for my peas to grow up. It ain’t pretty but it’s sturdy.

The Chicken Tractor
I could go on for days about how chicken tractors are not what they are cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong, they certainly have their place and I love the concept. Fresh grass! Safety! Super cute! We ordered a totally adorable fancy chicken tractor from some page we found on the internet. It’s got a nice roofed detachable run and the floor has trays that you pull out to make cleaning easier and four nest boxes, and wheels to push it around the yard. Except this puppy is heavy and it is a total five-letter-word to move around the yard. The ramp going from the coop to the run was fixed, not hinged, so to move the tractor you had to have two people … one holding the coop up while the other pulled the run out of the way. The handles to move the tractor are on the same side as the run attaches on so it’s awkward to pick up and move out of the way. And you have no choice but to move it to a new location twice every day because the run is so small the birds eat and scratch the grass down to dirt in a couple hours. Now that we have our big coop our tractor is used as a maternity ward, broody breaker or integration pen depending on the need. But it serves as a constant (expensive) reminder that what looks good in theory is not always good in practice.

Crush and Strain
The first year that I harvested honey it came at a totally unexpected time…a huge tree fell on my first hive crushing it (…like, seriously?! UGH!) So I was totally unprepared for the task. It’s fair to say that I had no real idea what was involved. At that time my kitchen had brown shag carpet in it. I had the gist of it, you get the honey comb and you crush it, then you strain out the wax chunks. No big deal. No one told me that everything in the house would be sticky. Someone told me they used a big potato masher to crush their comb. After I busted my METAL potato masher I grabbed my lunch lady gloves and started crushing by hand. Turns out the gloves were the only thing I had right. I then used a flour sack towel to strain the honey because I could not find cheesecloth anywhere in any store at the time! And while it was effective it was painfully slow. That was 4 years ago. Crush and strain is a slow process anyhow, but these days the straining takes significantly less time. After that first year my husband made me a honey press and I found a reliable source for cheesecloth. This year I got a mesh strainer that fits over a 5 gallon bucket after my father-in-law got one, and dang, does that thing make quick work out of straining.  I highly recommend getting one. I had my highest honey yield yet because of the combination of the strainer and honey press.

Wax
The big benefit of crushing and straining your honey is that you get a lot more wax that way. The first time I processed wax from my honey I used my hot water bath canner. STUPID. I knew how to do it. What I didn’t know how much of a pain it was to clean up. I got my job done and the wax was cooling in a bucket into a giant puck. Then I noticed that I had a nice lemon yellow ring inside the canner. Nothing, and I mean nothing, got it off. I scoured Google for an answer and failed. I chalked it up to a learning experience. Now I use an old garage sale crock-pot for wax processing. I also recommend using silicone measuring cups and molds when working with wax. You can peel the wax right off, making clean up a lot easier.

These are only a few. I hope that my mistakes maybe made you feel better about some of yours. I can say I don’t regret them (except maybe the water bath canner …) because I learned from my screw-ups and I do things a better way now and I always feel like my methods are improving. Bottom line! Don’t give up just because you failed, or did something the hard way. No one is perfect.