Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It is no secret that summer is a hectic season on a farmstead. As the snow melts, the waiting work unfolds before us. There are endless tasks to be completed in a limited amount of time….it can be daunting. Leisure becomes a thing of the past as we scramble to prune the trees, prepare the soil, plant the crops, weed, harvest, process the bounty, re-sow, repeat. And, of course, there are the animals and bees that require a similar amount of care and attention, implements and tools to be fixed and usually children to be raised.
For most modern farmsteaders, this list of chores happens in the hours before and after attending to another ‘real’ job; the 9-5 kind. To be fair, many farmsteaders are happy for this routine. In an age of unlimited convenience, we are a unique breed of individuals that still value hard work and gain satisfaction from doing a job ourselves….even if it means giving up our free time to do it.
The secret to being a successful long-term farmsteader is to find a balance that supports both mental and physical well-being and allows you to accomplish your goals at the same time. For our family, this has taken years of practice.
The burn-out rate for new farmsteaders can be pretty high. The utopian visions of a self-sustaining lifestyle often excludes the very real truth of an aching back, extreme mental fatigue, and the financial stress of undertaking a new endeavor (That deer fence isn’t free, folks). However, it is possible to make it through the early years by learning a few hard-won lessons.
Lesson 1 - Be realistic with your time; life is long(ish). You don’t need to turn your entire yard into a victory garden in one season. Time is a commodity like all other goods. There is a limit to what can reasonably be accomplished before that commodity runs out. Set small, attainable goals that fit into your time budget. For me personally, I have been slowly building our orchard over the course of the last 4 years. The first season I mapped out the location of where I wanted all of the paths and all of the crops to be located. Over the next couple of seasons I gradually added fruit trees, blueberry bushes, raspberries, black cap raspberries, grapes and even a flower bed. It would have been impossible to accomplish the entire vision in one season and if I had tried, I would have failed. Likely, my plants would have died or I would have lost the area to weeds. By slowly adding to the landscape I have been able to mentally ‘ease’ into caring for a new area without feeling overwhelmed by the task of doing so. This slow but steady approach has also offset the financial burden of the project, allowing the cost to be spread over several years of work. By staying within our household budget, we have harbored very little stress over the monetary expenditures needed to do this project well. This low stress approach does wonders for personal health. Everyone knows that stress is a killer.
Lesson 2 - Stretch, a lot. Recently, I realized that as I am getting older I need to spend a great deal more time stretching than I did when I was younger. It doesn’t take much to make me stiff these days. Stretching is the best way for me to combat chronic back pain and sore joints. I prefer yoga but even simple toe touching and back bends will help to loosen up tight hamstrings and realign your spine. Massage is another powerful tool that is not to be underestimated. This is a great way to bond with your partner as well. Even a brief foot massage can make the difference between a positive attitude and a negative one.
Lesson 3 - Leave the work behind. Once in a while it is imperative that you leave the farmstead. Yes, there are always jobs needing completion, but for the mental health of your family it is necessary to find some time to recreate somewhere else. A four hour vacation at the beach may be all that is required to rejuvenate you for the week ahead. Longevity in farmsteading is dependent upon the healthy relationships you have with your family…..cultivate this through play. It is also good to use your body in a different way than what is required through farm work. I have a paddle board and take to the water regularly. I also like to swim. Both of these activities keep my musculature well-rounded and help to eliminate the chance of accidental injury while on the farm.
Lesson 4 - Get lots of sleep. I am a long sleeper compared to my husband. My natural state requires 9 hours of sleep a night. The year that I was ready to quit the farm was the year that I pushed myself to exhaustion by cutting away at my required sleep. I only trimmed about an hour half of sleep off of my schedule each day, but it was enough to completely disrupt me physically and mentally. In the end, any additional work that I was accomplishing by being awake an extra hour was a detriment to my wellbeing and certainly affected my overall attitude towards my family and the work that lay before me. I also have a tendency toward getting sick when I neglect my sleep. There is nothing worse than missing a day of farm work due to illness....especially when it is self-imposed due to sleep deprivation.
There are many other lessons that I have learned along the way that have made our current lifestyle possible. Through thoughtful reflection, I believe these four in particular have made the difference between success and failure for us. Farmsteading is nothing short of rewarding although it has its hurdles. Making time to care for yourself is of utmost importance. Being able to successfully navigate through the hard times (both physically and mentally) is what make the good times so much sweeter.
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