Modern Homesteading Mistakes: What MOTHER Never Told Me

A lesson learned early and often in modern homesteading is that there's a big difference between what's supposed to happen and what does happen.
By John Victor
March/April 1985
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Most books on modern homesteading don't mention anything about driving home with an incontinent calf sitting on your lap.
Illustration by Jack Vaughn
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Being blessed, as I am, with several years' worth of hands-on experience committing just about every blunder imaginable, I figure it's my neighborly duty to share this great wealth of modern homesteading knowledge with my fellow MOTHER EARTH NEWS Readers.

Let's start at the beginning, with a few words on ...

Selecting A Homestead

One factor should always be kept in mind when shopping for your prospective back-to-the-land land: No matter what size parcel you choose, it's going to be either too big or too small.

Our first homestead was a humble acre and a half — on which we raised (more or less simultaneously) two gardens, three hogs, forty chickens, two cows, and two hives of bees, plus assorted pheasants, cats, dogs, and children ... all in full view of two stunned but understanding neighbors.

But we did make a pretty good go of it, and without too much stink (literally). Of course, there were problems. For instance, we purchased feed for all those critters from the local Agway store, making our enterprise something less than profitable. (In fact, Agway flew its flag at half-mast for three days when we moved away.) Our gardens, however, became local legends: Organic fertilizer grows unbelievably robust weeds.

As soon as we realized that the place was too small to support our plans for self-sufficiency, we sold it to a family with four kids and an aged grandmother. (They were, last we heard, busily acquiring double the stock we had and were "free-ranging" dozens of chickens on the thick, wine red pile carpet we painstakingly installed in the dining room during a fit of homesteading extravagance.)

Best of luck to them.

As for too big, well, we now have ten acres with a stream, a huge barn, several smaller outbuildings, and a house that's three times the size of our previous shanty. And to the menagerie we brought with us from the first homestead, we've added six horses and a Scottish deerhound.

It's glorious having all that space to roam around in while admiring the workings of nature. In the summer, for instance, I get to take a daily stroll to the absolute farthest corner of the pasture to get the cows in for milking and check the fences. It's usually an invigorating 90° out, the pasture grass is a joy to feel under my feet (it's generally a luxurious four feet high), and the mosquitoes are so enormous that they have to take off and land at the local airport.

Our chickens enjoy the extra room as well. In fact, I can rarely find them (or their eggs) in their lofty roosts among the beams and rafters of the three-story chicken coop (which local old-timers say once housed a flock of several thousand layers).

We're blessed with an abundance of mature trees on our property—more than enough to keep our woodpile fat. Unfortunately, every time one of them dies, it manages to fall across a new fence that I spent weeks stringing.

So much for selecting a homestead. Now on to a discussion of some of the specifics of this lifestyle.

Earning Money

One of the greatest mysteries facing novice homesteaders is the question of where to get the money to buy all the things needed in order to become self-sufficient.

Books are full of money-making ideas, of course ... such as the rabbitry one expert blithely states can be started on a "shoestring budget" of only a couple of grand. Another piece of thrifty homestead wisdom advocates eliminating electric bills by setting up a "low-cost, build-it-yourself" wind-generated power plant ... at a cost of several thousand bucks. I was also pleased to be informed that hydroelectric power is available to any homesteader who happens to own a 20-foot waterfall and has the financial resources to build a miniature replica of Hoover Dam.

Unfortunately, for those of us whose total homestead income is derived from selling an occasional rabbit, a dozen eggs, or a quart of honey, such "low-cost" self-sufficiency schemes are as out of reach as buying the World Trade Center would be.

It is, of course, totally feasible to start out small and accumulate the necessities over time as long as you don't mind starving and freezing in the dark while you do so.

Homestead Animals

The first rule of homestead livestock raising is that no matter which breeds of animals you choose to raise in order to provide your food, by the time you buy the critters, then feed and raise them to maturity, you could purchase the same animals at the supermarket — dressed out and ready to eat — for less money.

Of course, this rule fails to take into account the joy of killing the 1 1/2-year-old, two-pound turkey that's been organically grown and had its feed and water carried to it by you personally each day of its life, even in subzero weather.

Now let's take a look, one species at a time, at a few of the more popular varieties of homestead livestock and discuss how each of them fits into the self-sufficiency scheme.

Milk Cows

We got our two milk cows as calves by bartering labor (mine) to a friend who happens to be a dairy farmer. I tenderly carried them home in my lap (two trips) and experienced the agrarian bliss of having both of the little darlings go potty thereupon.

Maybe that early TLC accounts for the fact that now, as adult cows, they follow me around like puppies ... except when it's time to milk. Then, neither of the stubborn creatures can be coaxed into the barn with anything less than the persuasive power of a bulldozer.

But milk we do have. In fact, those two bossies provide enough to fatten a battalion of babies. So, naturally, both of our children have developed an aversion to any milk other than that which comes from the supermarket. But, of course, there are more things to do with milk than drink it, so we've also got yogurt and cheese coming out of our ears. And we've got plenty of home-churned butter, too — which the kids also won't touch. (Strangely enough, though, when I make ice cream, it goes like Grant taking Richmond.)

All in all, counting the $600 automatic milker we purchased to save time (I don't care what anyone says, hand-milking two cows in a freezing barn at 5 AM is not a part of "the good life"), I figure that the milk we've gotten so far has cost us about $10 per gallon. But on the plus side, at least I know where it comes from: In fact, I can see the two contented, spoiled-rotten beasts lying out there under a pine tree right this minute, chewing cud and anticipating their next gourmet treat of store-bought grain.

Laying Chickens

Our hens have brought a great deal of excitement to our lives over the years. One particularly memorable experience was the time our entire flock of 40 layers went on strike, producing a grand total of three eggs in three weeks. (The chicken-feed bill for that same three weeks was $12; you do the math.)

Of course, we finally got them straightened out and laying again ... just about the time the kids developed an aversion to — you guessed it — eggs. (They prefer Cheerios for breakfast.)

Sure, I could let them out to roam free and peck around in the dirt for bugs in order to cut down on the feed bill (the chickens, not the kids). But everything predatory in this world eats chickens, and the pea-brained birds are stupid enough to let everything eat them. Hence, what I might save in feed bills by free-ranging my hens would more than likely be offset by the increased mortality rate.

Of course, if one can identify the nonlayers, he or she can always thin and improve the flock, relegating the nonproductive birds to the freezer even if layers aren't as fat, tender, and tasty as pullets.

Breeding Rabbits

Rabbits are, according to the experts, far and away the most efficient animals you can have around a homestead when it comes to feed-to-meat cost ratios. Best of all, domestic bunnies typically breed like ... well, like rabbits.

Our does, however, have sworn a vow of chastity. The books say to take the doe to the buck at breeding time, so she won't feel that her territory has been invaded and thus make war rather than love. Well, theories are wonderful things. But in practice, our does are exceedingly virtuous while also excelling in the art of pugilism; they routinely beat our poor buck to a pulp.

So once again, I turned to the literature for advice. In one book I read that it's sometimes necessary to physically restrain a frigid doe in order to make life easier for the buck. The book neglected to mention, however, that said doe might not take kindly to this idea and, in defense of her virtue, might feel compelled to sink her chisel-like teeth into the would-be restrainer's metacarpal if said restrainer is too stupid to wear heavy leather gloves. I was and she did.

We presently have the oldest maiden rabbits in the county and a buck that could profit from a visit to a Masters and Johnson clinic.

Hogs

I don't even want to talk about it.

Work Horses

None of the experts recommend keeping horses on a homestead unless you can afford the luxury. But considering the luck I'd had with the experts' advice in the past, I figured they were probably wrong about horses, too.

They weren't.

We have six of the hungry creatures, each of which delights in munching everything in sight (except the yard-tall grass in the pasture). One old mare that I made the mistake of rescuing from the glue factory even eats my wife's roses — thorns and all! Who needs goats?

I had hoped that, at the least, the kids would ride and enjoy the horses, even if I couldn't get the lazy beasts to pull a plow (the horses, not the kids). Wrong again. Overall, the horses are pampered boarders here, eating and sleeping and generally getting fat.

Cats, Dogs, and Kids

These three types of critters are almost as useless as the horses. They eat, drink, take up space, get sick, make rude noises, and contribute little or nothing in the way of income or labor.

Except for the cats, that is. I'll have to admit that our homestead feline population does a spectacular job of mousing: We haven't lost so much as one kernel of grain to a rodent of any kind to date. Of course, the cats also do a phenomenal job of getting pregnant. (Perhaps I should have them teach the rabbits about the birds and bees?) In fact, if the current trend in rampant kitty-littering continues, I'll have to import some mice to help feed the burgeoning pride.

The dogs are, well ... interesting. Our deerhound is fiercely territorial. That would be fine, I guess, except that he thinks his territory includes most of the county, and is constantly attempting to prove it by venturing out on raiding parties against our neighbors' pets.

Our other dogs specialize in chasing and catching things — like groundhogs, snakes, chickens, rabbits, geese ... always, it seems, eventually working up to cars. (Usually, catching just one car cures the offender of this annoying habit. But by then we've got to get a replacement dog, and the process starts all over again.)

Kids, of course, deserve special consideration when discussing homestead life. No matter what you think your back-to-the-land land might add to the wee ones' lives in the way of pure romping pleasure and communion with nature, my experience says it won't. For instance, back on our cramped acre-and-a-half place, the little lovelies were always out of doors and underfoot. Now, with ten beautiful acres to play in, it takes a crowbar and a mule to get them out of the house. (Except when it's raining or snowing, of course.)

We also have a clear, shallow stream on our land, in which they refuse to swim or wade (they want a clean, chlorinated pool) and multitudinous animals they refuse to help care for or even acknowledge except when I'm about to put one of them in the freezer (the animals, not the kids). Then said critter suddenly becomes their most treasured pet.

Yep, my kids are natural-born contrarians.

Homestead Labor

It takes more than animals a successful homestead to make — there's also a lot of hard work involved. Generally, homestead labor can be divided into two broad categories: yours and theirs.

Your labor is a sure thing; you know you'll be there to milk, feed, water, and weed. (After all, there's not much of a way out of it.)

For homesteaders on a budget (as most are), "their" labor is limited to what work can be bartered for or bought on the cheap from local, honest crafts people. Honest such folks generally are. But crafts people, well — I'm reminded of the fellows who installed our storm windows and expertly glued all the sliding panels fast to the frames, so that the windows couldn't be opened. This same skilled local help also managed to install the double-front storm doors backward. And now they want to put new siding on our house.

But I've learned: It's caveat emptor, even out here in the country.

The neighbors are a big help, of course. For example, they never fail to keep us informed of what we're doing — like the time we drove in with two geese in the back of the truck and immediately received several phone calls to the tune of "See you got two new geese." Then there was the time when, in an attempt to maintain a shred of privacy, we arranged to have our new coal-burning heater delivered in the middle of the night. But no good; the callers even knew what brand it was.

And this isn't even Vermont!

Guarding the Garden

Every homestead must have at least one garden — preferably a large one so that the local fauna won't starve. Yes, pests are a problem for many country gardeners. And the farther out in the boonies you are, the more of a problem they're likely to be.

In the beginning, I thought I could learn to coexist peacefully with four-legged garden robbers. But they were getting more of the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor than we were, so I had to escalate to live-trapping the repeat offenders and releasing them several miles away.

Well, that didn't make even so much as a dent in the problem (the beasts seemed to have been equipped with built-in homing devices), so now I discourage the greedy little thieves with 55 grains of lead launched from a 22-250 Remington varmint rifle.

Many of you, no doubt, are thinking that shooting garden pests is a bit of a drastic measure. Well, you might feel differently if you had watched in awe, as my wife and I did, while a woodchuck ambled insouciantly down a row of ripening tomatoes, taking one — just one — bite from a fruit on each and every plant. If he could have only found it in his heart to contain his munching to just a few entire tomatoes — rather than vandalizing the whole crop — he might not have become an ex-groundhog.

Wild rabbits often get the same treatment. After all, it's my lettuce, beet tops, carrots, and chard they're feasting on. And yes, I tried fences, dried blood, coyote urine, lion droppings, and all the other faddish garden-pest deterrents. But after watching what was to have been the winter's produce supply rapidly disappearing into the insatiable maws of various pests, and after tallying up the mounting expenses of humane deterrence, I was forced to opt for the much more affordable cost of reloading my own rifle shells.

Why Bother?

After having suffered through all those misadventures (and more), you may well be wondering why we've stuck with homesteading rather than return to the more comfortable and less physically demanding life of the city.

A good question ... for which there are many, many answers.

As I write this, I'm satisfyingly sore from a ten-mile horseback ride a friend and I took last night, stopping along the way to pass the time with various neighbors. (Yes, they're very nice folks in spite of their curiosity.)

When I look up from the typewriter and out the window, I'm greeted with a tranquil scene of horses grazing in one corner of the big pasture, while our two milk cows lie contentedly in the shade, moving only enough to chew cud and flick their tails occasionally.

Closer to the house, a swarm of swallows is putting on a display of avian aerobatics, darting in and out of the barn, while down by the brook a brown crane is perched on a log, hungrily eyeing the sleek, silvery fish flitting about in the clear water.

In the freezer there's a gallon of fresh, homemade strawberry ice cream, and the pantry holds jugs of the best maple syrup I've ever tasted. Last night's pork spareribs and this morning's sausage and eggs are pleasant memories, and I'm anticipating yet another homegrown feast this evening.

After dinner, my wife and I will stroll together out to the henhouse to hunt up the daily bounty of fresh eggs, then check to see if there's any money in the eggs-and-honey-for-sale "honor box" out by the road. Then tomorrow we'll decide which turkey, goose, or hog will be the guest of honor at next Sunday's dinner.

And our daughters — bless their sweet little hearts — are growing up straight and strong and free of all the competitive, materialistic influences they'd be exposed to in big-city schools and the overcrowded mazes that pass for urban "neighborhoods."

No, I wasn't kidding about or exaggerating (well, not too much, anyway) any of the problems we've had to deal with while stumbling through the first few years of our homesteading career. But there are problems involved with learning to do most anything that's worth the doing.


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