Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Spring is making its way to farms and homesteads around the country. Some of my Southern friends are already planting their first vegetables, but here in Maine the ground is still blanketed in thick snow. But with temperatures on the rise and each day getting longer, it is time to start planning for summer.
I spend a lot of time in the winter with a notebook and seed or hatchery catalogs, and still more time with graph paper laying down ideas. It is one way to take advantage of those days when going outside hurts your face, and it is a certain way to ensure that we can jump on our goals as soon as the ground is workable.
To start, we plan what new animals might be joining the farm in the spring. Some animals are ordered or brought home from breeder’s, others will be born right here on our farm. It’s good to decide what we’re bringing home now. Often the first step to adding a new animal is building them suitable shelter, and we need to know what building projects to get started on. Home births require research and supplies, and often the task of playing matchmaker.
When it comes to adding animals, we don’t go about it willy-nilly. It’s true that cute figures into my thinking, but practicality rules the roost. What animals will reward us with the most food, or be able to help us work our land? Which ones require the least in terms of additional investments in buildings? Or, if a farm animal requires a whole new pasture and barn space, how is it going to help us recoup our investment?
This year, since we’re already set up for chickens, geese, ducks, and goats, we’re not planning on adding any major livestock. We’ll expand our existing flocks, but we are not adding any new species.
Once we’ve decided what we are doing for animals in the spring, we plan out their housing requirements and place our orders. When ordering animals, whether from a local breeder or a hatchery, I spend plenty of time doing internet research and asking my farming friends about the reputation of the breeder or hatchery and the quality of stock they’ll provide. It does not make sense to invest in sub-par stock. Housing and pasture space is laid out so that when the ground thaws, fence posts can go in right away and interior barn work can be done while the snow is still flying.
Finally, it is time to look at the land. I have ear-marked seedling catalogs from months ago, and I like to make lists of new plants to try out. When working with graph paper to lay out the garden, I trim those lists down to manageable options for the year. Paying close attention to a plant’s growing preferences and the amount of light different areas of our vegetable garden will get, I also think about what my family prefers to eat. And finally, I think about what we’ll be canning and preserving versus what we’ll eat fresh off the vine.
For our farm the garden is not yet a source of all of our food. We are not quite self reliant. But each year, as we plant more of our favorites and try new recipes, we get closer to that goal. We also think about other ways to improve self sufficiency, such as expanding the herb garden to include more spices and potential home remedies. Each new plant gets its due diligence in research, and I’m glad I enjoy reading and researching as much as I do.
There’s one last thing to think about, and that’s how the plants and animals may interact. For example, our fencing plans this year include laying a sturdy fence around the vegetable garden. We don’t want to take any risks that our food will end up being eaten by goats or geese before we can enjoy it.
Once the seedling orders have been placed, I lay out a calendar marked with planting dates and transplant dates. Onions can start being sown indoors now, while the saying goes to transplant your tomatoes outside after Memorial Day in our area. Armed with this calendar, planting the garden doesn’t seem as daunting. It’s broken up into manageable weekly chunks, and each week brings a new an exciting step towards our summer bounty.
There’s not much time to rest in the winter on a farm. When you’re not breaking ice for animals or shoveling pathways, it’s all about planning. But at least that summer planning allows you to daydream of plucking ripe tomatoes off the vine, enjoying the feel of summer sun on your skin.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200-year-old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.
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