Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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This morning I saw tomato and pepper plants for sale. I also saw frost on the ground at my house. What do peppers and tomatoes hate? You guessed it. Frost.

So why in the world would a nursery be trying to sell frost-sensitive seedlings while there’s still frost outside? Come on now! We live in a capitalist society. We all know the answer to that one. The nursery doesn’t care if your tomato plants fail. They want to get a jump on selling the most popular vegetables around.


Don’t be fooled. Just because a nursery is selling it does not mean it’s time to put it in the ground! Even some of the best nurseries can make you fall victim to buying before it’s time: Spring is here! Seed catalogs are out! It’s time to plant!

Hold on a second. What’s your last average frost date? Not yet? Then don’t buy those frost-sensitive plants. Actually, I wouldn’t even buy them within three weeks of the average frost date. Remember, it’s an average, so some years it will be later. Our last average frost date is supposed to be sometime in February, but I’m not buying it. As I said, we had frost last night, and last year we had frost as late as mid-April. Let’s just say I learned the hard way not to plant before mid-April.

Now, you can very well plant tomatoes and peppers early if you have season extenders, but mid-March still seems excessively early to use even those. Tomatoes and peppers aren’t just delicate around frost; they LIVE for heat and prefer nights above 55F. Planting them too early can stunt them or, at best, knock them back so they don’t get a good start.

Nurseries do a disservice to gardeners by selling veggies before plants can safely go in the ground. Nothing discourages a beginning gardener like a dead plant.

More Homegrown Help

• Want to learn more about season extenders? Check out Urban Overalls’ Cold Frame 101.
• Find your area’s frost dates and more helpful hints in the Garden Planning 101.
• When it is time to get those seedlings in the ground, don’t miss the Transplanting 101.
• And get lots more gardening pointers in the Raised Beds 101 and Container Gardening 101.

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

Photos by Rachel Hoff

This post originally appeared on

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So, while I’m making mead, tanning skins, and staring out at the weird weather, two of my pregnant goat does are having a race to see who will deliver first.

Need Better Note Taking

If I had kept good notes (yeah, I should, but I don’t), I’d know when Belle and Heidi will come due. I remember putting a doe in with Oreo, my buck, with a possible due date of March 29. Gestation takes around 5 months, and I seem to recall leaving the girl in for a few weeks, before switching her off with her sister, but being brainless because 5 months ago was hunting season, I failed to write anything down. So, we’re due to have kids anytime from Belle or Heidi (Belle looking most likely), but Heidi could come through if Belle got bred late and Heidi got bred early. After that, it’s Annie and then Delilah.


Who’s on First?

The problem is both does are acting like they’re about to go into labor. Both are lying down, uncharacteristically. Belle’s ligaments on her tail have vanished (a sign of imminent kidding) and Heidi, being the skittish of the two, isn’t letting me check her back there. Belle has a fuller udder, but whether the udder is full can be deceiving. So, I have no clue and I’m pretty much on kid watch. Luckily the weather has been unseasonably warm and if we have a few kids, they’re likely to be okay if they get cleaned up.

Welcome Skittles

My buck, Oreo, is on his third round of kids this year. That means he’s about four years old. Bucks are notoriously short-lived because, well, they’re bucks. Their only purpose in life is to create little goats—and that is really their only motivation. Right now, I have four daughters out of Oreo: Mocha (first breeding), Ginger (second breeding), Frost (a surprise late second breeding) and Wingnut (another late second breeding). This third round will probably be his last with the exception of maybe breeding Blaze the Boer cross again.

So, I had to look for fresh bloodlines. I found a baby buckling whom I named Skittles because he was skittish at first. Plus it was a whimsical enough name to name a goat. Skittles was only eight weeks when we got him and wasn’t quite weaned. So, he’s still a bit of a bottle baby, although he’s now getting only one bottle a day until the new kids come or the end of the month, whichever is first. Skittles is 3/4 full LaMancha and 1/4 mini LaMancha, which means he could throw small babies occasionally. The others had been giving him hell, but he’s slowly become assertive enough to get his own hay.

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Plastic Hives

Wooden or plastic? Beekeepers tend to have some really strong opinions on hive bodies and frames when it comes to the material they use. My husband and I have tried out both wood and plastic so I thought I would share a little about what we have experienced.

Hive Bodies and Supers

For the most part, you can purchase equipment for beehives made out of two types of material – polystyrene or traditional wood. When we first started beekeeping, my husband and I decided to try the polystyrene boxes. When more experienced beekeepers found out we were trying them, we heard a lot of comments along the lines of “better you than me”. But to tell you the truth, we have been pretty happy with them. They were easy to assemble – just push them together with a little glue, and let them dry. Give them a few coats of primer and paint, and they were ready to go. They have held up well, and we are still using the original boxes that we purchased 7 years ago. An advantage of polystyrene is that it is thick and well insulated – it helps to keep the bees cooler during the hot days of summer, and warmer in the bone chilling cold of winter. We have not had to wrap our polystyrene hives for winter as we do with our wooden hives. One disadvantage is that they are slightly more expensive than wooden hives, at least at our local dealer.

Wooden Hives

As our apiary grew, we decide to try some wooden hives. These also went together easily, but required nailing together the corners in addition to gluing them – an extra step. We decided to stain the outside with a clear, marine grade varnish, as the wood grain just looked so nice. Painting them would have been just as easy, though. We do have to wrap these hives for the winter, again, a step we don’t need with the polystyrene hives. And just like the polystyrene, the wooden hives seem to be holding up to wear and tear very well.

Overall, we have been happy with both materials. However, as our apiary grows, we are planning to purchase wooden hives. We feel that they are a more “natural” material. Wood is biodegradable, and comes from a renewable resource, as opposed to the polystyrene, a petroleum product. This probably is the very reason that many beekeepers we know prefer wooden hives

Choosing Frames

Once you have your boxes picked out, you also need to pick out what types of frames you wish to use. We have used both plastic and wooden frames, with various foundation. The first type are Pierco frames. These are solid plastic frames, embossed with a hexagon pattern that encourages the bees to build out comb on the frame. The pros – they come in both black and white. Using the black frames makes it REALLY easy to see where the queen is laying those tiny little white eggs! It is also easy to scrape off old, dark comb and reuse them. They are very durable, and last a long time. There is also no assembly required – just take them out of the box and put them in the hive. Even though they come with a thin coating of beeswax on them, we typically give ours a little spray of sugar water, or coat them in a little melted beeswax to encourage the bees to draw out comb on them.

Both Frames

We have also used wooden frames with beeswax sheets (with thin wire to add extra stability) for foundation. We like these because they are a more natural product. In our experience, we have noticed that the bees seem to draw out comb on the beeswax sheets more quickly than on the Pierco plastic frames. The down side is that in order to reuse the frame you need to cut the entire comb out then scrape any wax or propolis off of the frame, especially where the foundation is attached. This can be a difficult and sometimes tedious process, many times resulting in splitting or breaking the thin wooden frame altogether. Also, we have also noticed that when trying to pry them out of a propolis-encrusted hive body, they break and split more easily than the plastic frames. Finally, unless you purchase a fully assembled frame (at approximately the same cost as a Pierco frame), they require assembly, which can be fairly time consuming.

A benefit of using wooden frames is that you can experiment with a variety of foundation or foundationless options and see what you like the best. Besides a beeswax sheet, you can also use a plastic foundation, similar to the Pierco frames, a thin wax foundation for cutcomb honey, or no foundation at all so the bees can build their own comb on the frame.

Plastic or wood? There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to each. If you are trying to decide which types to use, I would encourage you to talk to beekeepers in your area and see what works for them. If you are able, you might want to give the different types a try, as there is nothing like hands on experience to help you decide what is right for you and your bees.

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Like many others, I sat down that evening to open up my MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine during my one moment of solitude of the day. There were no chores left to be done. There was not a five-year-old tugging on my shirt tail or saying "mommy, mommy, mommy" every five minutes. 

I opened the magazine pages, flipping through it slowly, savoring each quiet second I could muster. And just as I began to relax, there it was. The photo of a beautiful flock of chickens walking through the snow. What a gorgeous photo, I must know what they are.

The by line said "Harvey Ussery", and I was pulled in even more. You see, he was local....very local. And this meant that if for some unknown reason I wanted to get rid of all of my current flock and start a brand new flock with these incredible birds, it would be as easy as pie. Harvey only lives about 35 minutes away from me. You're not a true chicken lover in VA unless you've heard the name "Harvey Ussery". And so, the journey began....

I sat back in my chair and let out a loud sigh. My husband knew that sigh as I looked at him. "What is it now, what on earth are we buying now?!" 

In just a couple of short months, we became the brand new owners of a tiny Icelandic chicken flock in the form of hatching eggs. I was out of my ever loving mind. I was preparing to hatch these chicks as Winter approached. I would need to ensure that I had a heat back up for the incubator if the electric failed. I would need to provide a heat lamp for these chicks until they were fully feathered, in the dead of winter. And even after being fully feathered, I couldn't just randomly take them off of the heat lamp, throw them outside and say "good luck". Good thing I was well prepared.

icelandic chick

In just 19 short days, out popped the cutest chicks you ever did see. In fact, they started pipping on day 18, which was "lockdown day" for the incubator. Saying I was surprised is an understatement. Since then, all of the batches we have hatched in the incubator have hatched on day 19. 

Icelandic chicks are extremely eager to learn, unlike many of the modern chickens we have raised over the years. They are also very eager to dust bath and devour all other knowledge that they can within the first week of hatching. In order to ensure that your new stock is going to grow efficiently into their characteristics, I highly suggest catering to all of their curiosity and needs. Our first batch of chicks very much wanted me to show them how to scratch, drink and bathe. As soon as they saw my hand come into their brooder, they attacked it with love and affection, waiting for food, water, and interaction. It was an incredible experience, watching these young creatures not care about who or what I was, but just wanting someone or something to nurture their curiosity and eager learning.

By week four, they were fully feathered. Completely. In fact, the biggest surprise was walking down into my basement one morning to a tiny little crow. Yes, one of my cockerels was trying his darnedest to crow. He barely succeeded, at which point my husband let out a sigh which I understood immediately! It was time for them to move outside to the outdoor brooder with a heat lamp.

icelandic pullet

4 Month Old Icelandic Pullet pictured above.

Within the first week of being in the outside brooder, I really started to take notice in how different they adjusted to being outdoors. They had ground access where they could scratch around and be happy. They were avid foragers, even at just 4 weeks old. Far better at foraging than my modern birds had been at this age.

They jumped the fence much sooner as well. Their jump and flying distance is incredible at such a young age. And I quickly realized that they would need netting over their mini-run as soon as possible.

I'm not sure our chicks knew how to walk, because they ran everywhere. Everywhere they needed to go was done so in a fast sprint. We took much joy out of watching them grow.

Our Icelandic chickens integrated well into our modern flock (which we will be ridding mostly of after our Icelandics finish maturing). However, I noticed that they do typically stay together in a small flock of their own.

We have seen these chicks grow in the dead of Winter, and now some of the hottest days of Spring. I must say, they thrive more in the Spring weather than the Winter. And I believe many people think that Icelandics are able to thrive in extremely cold temps, but that's not always true. As with any other chicken, they need adequate shelter from the snow and heat. The average temperature in Iceland is 70 degrees. And while it gets cold in Iceland, there are many states in the United States that got well below Iceland temps this Winter. Please keep in mind, if at any time you take on this beautiful landrace fowl, that they are hardy, but they are not immortal. They still need tending to, even though they are extremely self sufficient.

So, What Is an Icelandic Chicken, You Ask?

Icelandic chickens are a new breed on our homestead, but is, in fact, one of the most ancient breeds of chickens in the world. They are considered a landrace fowl, rather than a "breed". This heritage landrace is very unique and extremely rare to find in its purest form.

Icelandic chickens, or Íslenska landnámshænan (Icelandic hen of the settlers), are also known as "Viking Chickens". Icelandic chickens were introduced by Norse settlers (Vikings) in the 9th century. Icelandic chickens (in their purest form) are extremely rare. In fact, by the 1950s, they were almost completely extinct due to the modernization of chickens, hatcheries, and the push for "bigger chickens and bigger eggs". Icelandic chickens were the only chicken on Iceland for over ten centuries due to their hardiness and ability to be highly self-sufficient. They thrived on their own, and by natural process of "survival of the fittest", they became extremely resilient. There are now only a few thousand in the USA, but it is steadily growing with the sudden influx of attention they have received through articles such as the one stated in this post. This is also why so many of us breeders become scared whenever there are 100 people knocking on our door for eggs and chicks -- we truly do have to go through a process of weeding through those who we think will conserve the breed, and those who just want to fiddle with them and "make money" off of their sudden popularity.

In a 2004 study of blood samples from the Icelandic chicken, it revealed that 78 percent of the DNA of the Icelandic chicken was unique and could not be found in another chicken breed, anywhere. This is why it is so important to never mix their DNA with another chicken breed to get "mixed" chicks. The outcome would not necessarily be the best, and it is definitely against the preservation of their kind.

Iceland allows little importation of animals, and any livestock that has left generally cannot come back. This is why this breed has been preserved there for so long — little influence of disease or the outside modern world. In other words, nature has done its own process of elimination, and "only the strong" have survived these past few thousand years. This is why Icelandics are so self-sufficient and hardy.

Here is an excellent article about Icelandic chickens. We truly are raising them here because we are absolutely in love with their history and efficiency. I take so much pride in knowing that we can conserve a breed that is part of ancient history!

Our current stock came from Harvey Ussery, here in Virginia. Mr. Ussery takes great care in specifically tagging and mating different clans of chickens within his flock to ensure that none of them are closely related. Mr. Ussery's lines come from 4 different imported blood lines. While he does not separate them out into separate imported blood lines, he does do clan mating (as we will be doing) to ensure that his flocks are not overly inbred.

Harvey Ussery also wrote an incredibly informative article for MOTHER EARTH NEWS about this gorgeous breed, which I would highly suggest reading before deciding if this breed is for you or not.

Stay tuned for another blog whenever our pullets begin laying and mating.

Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more!  For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


The British Government Encouraged the Raising of Meat Rabbits during WWII

Meat rabbits during WWII were "off the ration" which, sometimes, meant the difference between survival and starvation. It was common for the British to raise chickens and rabbits to supplement their diet. Likewise, in the United States the Government encouraged everyone to grow a Victory Garden. Oh, how far we have come.

As a Homesteading family, we wanted to recapture some of the that self-sufficiency and independence. Fortunately, not because we are engaged in a World War but for many profitable reasons. Knowing where our food comes from is very important to us and more than that, how they are raised and what they eat. Our culture eats nutritionally shallow food, we want nutrient density. Our culture looks to the pharmaceutical industry for their medicine. Our philosophy is, "let they food by thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food."

Why Rabbits?

Our Homestead possesses many different kinds of animals but rabbits have a big part of the integrated system for the many functions that they provide. First, they provide highly nutritious meat for protein. They take relatively little space and breed, well, "like rabbits." It is not difficult and relatively inexpensive to feed them especially if you can provide hay, grass and fodder. Furthermore, rabbit poo is one of the best manures for soil building in the gardens, orchards and pastures. Finally, although we have not reached this point yet, they provide excellent fur skins for lining coats, gloves, boots and maybe even provide blankets with a big enough operation. Another excellent reason to keep meat rabbits is they do not need to be frozen or preserved. The potential downfall of large livestock is the need to preserve the meat. In an emergency situation or even someone who wants to live completely off grid, rabbits are perfect. They are extremely easy to dress out. Much easier than birds which have the "feather" problem. Rabbits can be dispatched, dressed and in the roaster in a matter of a few minutes.

How Many Rabbits Can I Expect Each Year?

Many people hate the answer, "it depends." But, well, it depends. However, averages can be used to come up with a reasonable answer. Let me qualify this answer with the fact that many rabbit breeders have different philosophies with regards to breeding rabbits. Some breed their does as much as possible and it is all about production. Others treat their rabbits much more gently and almost personify their rabbits. We are somewhere in the middle. Production is very important to us but we also build in breaks for the mamas. This may not be necessary at all but we do it none the less. With that in mind here is what we expect from our does. Over a 12 month period we will breed each between 5-7 times. Rabbit gestation ranges from 28-33 days depending on the source you look at. We have found 30 days +/- 1 to be accurate. We breed our doe, 30 days later she kindles. We give her a 10 day break and then re-breed her. This allows for her kits to be just over five weeks old for weaning. After her next kindling we let her rest for four weeks and then we repeat the cycle. The only difference is we wean every other litter at 7 weeks. We use an average of five kits per litter and that estimates between 25-35 meat rabbits per year, per doe. We dispatch the kits at 12 weeks hoping that they are 5 lbs live weight yielding 3 - 3.5 lbs of meat.

Seven new kits doing well

Don't Rabbits Stink?

Yes! Actually, no, as long as you keep them outside and take the time to make sure their cages stay dry and clean. We use a hutch and rabbit tractor system. We periodically run our chickens through the hutch area containing deep litter and composting piles to help turn the piles for us and keep the bug population down. The rabbits are all inside the "homestead perimeter" and watched over through the careful eyes of our livestock guardian dogs. We have not lost one rabbit to predators. The breeding stock stay (mostly) in the hutches and the grow-outs (kits that are weaned and awaiting processing) graduate to the rabbit tractors and get a fresh spot of grass each day.

Hutch system with compost

 Grow out graduate to the rabbit tractor

We have found that raising rabbits for meat is a worthwhile endeavor and believe many homesteads would benefit greatly from having these beautiful creatures on board.

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What! You start cutting firewood in the winter time when there is 3 feet of snow on the ground? Why would you do that? These are typical thoughts or comments I get for starting to cut firewood in March when we still have 2-3 feet of snow on the ground. I’d like to say I’m proactive but the reasons I cut this time of year are much more basic. Even though I have to shovel out an area to work in to cut the firewood it is worth the extra effort. Last year I cut firewood to double or triple the length which we store for just this time of year when we can get an early start on next winters firewood. It may sound like a lot of extra work and trouble to cut it this time of year but the end rewards make that extra effort worth while

Here are some considerations for getting an early start on getting our firewood in. It is cool out and I don’t work up a sweat in the heat of the summer or fall. I’m not bothered by insects. There really isn’t much else that can be done outside this time of year except sit around and wait until the snow melts so it is essentially a non productive time. We get a lot of snow so sometimes it doesn’t melt away very quickly. If I slip on ice and break an ankle again or some other incapacitating injury I won’t have to catch up on firewood after I am able to get around again. We don’t plan to have those accidents but they can happen and playing catch up with firewood is hot sweaty labor intensive labor intensive later in the year. Summer and fall at our elevation are very short so a lot has to be done when the weather is nice and planning ahead and cutting firewood when it is still cold outside with snow still on the ground gives us more time to tackle other activities and recreation. Cutting, hauling, splitting and stacking firewood is time consuming and getting it done early when I can’t accomplish other things outside is satisfying and puts our biggest project each year behind us. I have also found that the longer I wait the greater likely hood that I’ll put it off until I have to really hustle to get it done.

My personal method is to run an extension cord out to the cutting area behind the wood shed and use an electric chain saw to cut the logs to length. I use a tree marking crayon and marking stick when I cut them earlier so all I need to do now is place the logs in the saw buck and cut where marked. The crayon works well as it doesn’t wear off over the winter. I then stack the cut logs to be split when I can get the log splitter to them after the snow does finally melt. Splitting goes pretty fast when I have a helper to hand me the logs to split. It is then just a matter of splitting them and tossing them over next to the wood shed for stacking later. When your primary source of heat is a wood stove there is one thing you want to avoid at all costs and that is running out of firewood part way through the winter. By pre cutting them to double/triple length it also gives me an accessible reserve supply in case of a particularly brutally cold winter. I would still have to shovel an area to work to cut them to proper length but it is better than having to snowshoe through the woods to cut trees and then haul the logs back.

I have used several different electric chain saws over the years but the one I prefer is the Makita. It has plenty of power to cut larger logs, I like the design, I don’t need tools to adjust the chain tension and it has enough power to not over heat while cutting logs to proper length. I also like the safety features with the emergency brake in case of a kick back and the delay start coupled with the blade stopping when I release the trigger. Since the logs are dry inside and not frozen this saw cuts through them with ease. I store previous trees that were previously standing dead so I won’t have frozen logs. Other electric chain saws I have used in the past had a tendency to over heat and the chain would loosen and require tools to tighten it again. When it is cooler outside I don’t like to stop working and fumble with tools to re-tension a chain if I don‘t have to.

While it may sound crazy to start cutting firewood when snow is still on the ground it actually gives me more time in the summer months to take walks, fish, work in the garden or lay in the hammock with a good book. It does require more effort as stated earlier because I first have to shovel out an area to work in but that only takes a few minutes at most. Over the years I have found the advantages of starting early out weighs waiting until later in the year. There is an added sense of satisfaction in having the most time consuming and sweaty job completed and behind me.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their off beat projects go to their website.

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Looking at true needs and the costs that are associated with those needs, a would-be homesteader - if afforded the opportunity to exercise some measure of choice in where to launch their endeavor - can focus on site selection in such a way as to reduce long-term financial outputs. (Granted, some of us may inherit land or in some other fashion have our choice of property limited, if not dictated, to us.) As an example, living in Virginia, we spent a considerable sum on home cooling and heating costs during the temperature extremes of the year, even though we relied on many conservation measures and heavily depended on a wood stove. When we lived in the milder and less variable climes of Northern California, just some six years ago, our utility-related pecuniary output was very different. In fact, no one we knew had air conditioning expenses; they simply did not have air conditioning in their homes, even in the most affluent of neighborhoods. Why? The climate allowed residents to do away with this costly utility; it rarely reached temperatures worthy of such technical remediation.

This dynamic forced us to think about other areas of life in which people (ourselves included) were forced to depart with their hard-earned pay to remain comfortable and avoid inconvenience, to shut down garden production during certain seasons, and to expend extra effort and funds to protect livestock in winter...all simply due to locale. Beyond indoor climate control, water bills, clothing, irrigation needs, winter beehive die-offs and garden shutdown, and gasoline were some of the many areas that we began to focus on and that, among other considerations, eventually led us to settle on a property in an agricultural community in Hawaii. More specifically, our very mild climate here at our 1,000-foot elevation provides a 365-day growing season and allows folks to live comfortably without air conditioning or heat. Perched on the edge of a rain belt, a steady supply of precipitation and a solid water catchment industry has ended our need to pay a water bill or invest in costly irrigation systems. An abundance of sunshine is allowing us to build a residence with all the modern conveniences and completely powered by the more electricity bills! (For those thinking of workshops and the like, I'll note here that a neighbor runs an entire auto maintenance shop, complete with lifts and compressors and all the works, entirely off of solar power.) Our clothing and dry cleaning costs have plummeted (t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops are the norm in all but the most formal of settings, when an Aloha shirt is called for) and the cost of our "daily commute" to keep the homestead running, once our dwelling is complete, will be no more than the physical energy required to transport ourselves on foot from the breakfast nook into the 10 acres surrounding our home.

Obviously, not everyone can pick up and move to Hawaii to scratch their agricultural itch, but when you look at climates from Montana to Louisiana, from Africa to Canada, there is a spectrum of homestead-friendly climates to choose from, each with its benefits (and drawbacks). Factoring into homestead site selection areas that will require less in terms of expenditures to live comfortably and produce food can make a significant financial difference, especially in the long run.

Infrastructure, Technique and Breed Selection

Much of what we learned at conferences, in various written products, permaculture courses, and visits to sustainable homesteads here in Hawaii dealt with paradigms of infrastructure, layout, and planting choices that break with long-standing conventional techniques in order to reduce costs and workload by shrinking one's reliance on inputs and maintenance requirements. For example, a homesteader may wish to weigh the inflexibility and construction and maintenance cost of permanent fences against moveable, solar powered electric fences to control livestock movement and keep predators and pests away from flocks, hives, and plant nurseries. Some practitioners emphasize the ease and affordability of renting large equipment, such as bulldozers or tractors, when absolutely needed rather than deal with purchase or financing, insurance, annual maintenance, storage (and possible theft), and other issues of ownership of such gear.

When it comes to livestock, many disciples of these unconventional ways argue that hiring stud services or using artificial insemination as needed for propagation is, over the long haul, less work and costs and frees up time when compared to the alternative--feeding and caring for otherwise unproductive (and often more aggressive) male livestock year-round. Efficiencies are further boosted by the selection of breeds, particularly of the smaller variety (for ease of handling and smaller appetites), to minimize labor intensiveness (shedding hair sheep versus sheep that require shearing). In the same vein, the selection of technique and equipment can make a significant difference in labor and infrastructure output requirements, even if at the cost of some production, such as that seen in the honey production world when considering the management of a Langstroth hive versus a Top Bar Hive.

Similarly, a focus on perennial crops over more labor intensive annuals (again, an issue of breed selection) and building pasture for intensive management grazing instead of a heavy reliance on purchased feed and pasture-building inputs (technique choices) is one of those ways to approach the age-old "work smart, not just hard" paradigm. In orchards and around buildings, using ground covers that do not require any mowing, and other principles of permaculture design and practice, can help the homesteader reclaim many an hour and save a dime or two.

Raw Materials (Use What You Have)

Going hand-in-hand with this approach is a mindset focused on using what you have, whether it be natural resources or natural land contours, instead of looking outside your personal bastion for solutions and working against whatever nature and circumstances have handed you. In our own journey, when it came time to erect a small multi-use pen, we looked about and decided to tap the abundance of small flexible wild guava saplings that most people here consider a nuisance and a weed and that can be found on most corners of our property; the building materials were free and, in the process of collecting it, we cleared out areas needed for trails and planting of hardwoods and other food-producing trees.

Pen Made of Hand-woven Saplings

When it came time to start planting, we looked around at the mounds and contours left behind by the D-9 bulldozer that cleared our parcel of its thick guava, bamboo, and shrub blanket, and we readily identified pockets, hills, and seams of soil that had been unintentionally piled into, essentially, raised beds of various and interesting depths and dimensions. Using what was presented to us rather than try to reshape the land into something else saved us countless hours of labor. Root crops are now maturing in the deeper beds while green leafy edible goodness is springing forth in many forms from shallower plots, which--day by day--are linked by trails that we maintain through chop-and-drop composting of aggressive pioneer species that spring up near and around them. Also, in need of some material to better demarcate these growing beds and limit the entry of ground-creeping pioneer species, we turned to the abundance of lava rock on our land as, again, free raw materials to form clear and solid boundaries.

(To be continued...)

Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4 of this series.

For a blow-by-blow account of our family's ongoing transition from homestead voyeurs to full time homesteading, drop by our online journal.

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