Advice and Observations on on John Victor's Problems
To help acquaint you with the trials and tribulations
that often accompany the joys and triumphs of pursuing a
self-sufficient life in the country, here's one
back-to-the-lander's tongue-in-check account.
by John Victor
Being blessed, as I am, with several years' worth of
hands-on experience in committing just about every
homesteading blunder imaginable, I figure it's my
neighborly duty to share this great wealth of knowledge
with my fellow MOTHER EARTHers.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 !et 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
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.
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
I don't even want to talk about it.
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.
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'
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
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
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), at
which time said critter suddenly becomes their most
Yep, my kids are natural-born contrarians.
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
But I've learned: It's caveat emptor, even out here in the
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!
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 ofenders 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
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
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
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
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
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
That's why, on the rare occasions when my wife and I get
frustrated enough to start considering alternatives to
homesteading, it never takes us more than a moment to
regain our determination to stick with the rural, agrarian
lifestyle we've come to love so much . . . hardships,
frustrations, botches, and all.