We Made Some Mistakes Along the Way: A Beginning Homesteader’s Journey

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Dickinson
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I found MOTHER EARTH NEWS for the first time in the checkout aisle of Whole Foods. It was one of the special edition magazines that had all these great stories from people who had started or built their own homestead. I had never read anything like it before. The scope of my magazine knowledge prior to this had been gossip and beauty magazines. I soaked it up, and started dreaming.

Quietly at first. Then, I started talking to my husband about it. It turns out that he had picked up my copy and liked it, too. We discovered that we would both like to “do more for ourselves” and try our hands at growing things. So, we started a garden. It was about 6 feet by 12 feet. Not bad for a little sub/urban property just outside of Trenton, New Jersey.

First Tomatoes

It thrived. I had the best year I have ever had for tomatoes. I had so many tomatoes I threw a tomato party. We had tomato-and-mozzarella appetizers, fried green and red tomatoes, homemade salsa and chips, pasta and homemade tomato sauce, and baked green tomato pie for dessert. It was marvelous.

Then, as years passed and my tomatoes never did as well, my husband confessed that he used Miracle Gro on our garden that summer. Yup, it was a blow to my ego. But I took it in stride (though I still argue that we had the best growing conditions that season). Now dedicated MOTHER readers, we dove deeper.

Then Chickens

In 2010, around Easter, my husband mentioned that maybe we should get some chickens. This seemed like a good idea but I’d never had chickens before, and it seemed like a big undertaking. As I mulled it over, he showed up with chickens. Twelve of them, three days old. Turns out, a farmer (two hours) down the road just happened to be selling some. Who knew?

“Honey, we don’t have a coop,” I said. “I’ll build one,” he said.

“I don’t know how to take care of chickens,” I said. “I had chickens when I was a kid. It’s easy,” he said.

And there it was. Just like anything else, I guess. One day life changes, and you learn and adapt. I loved our chickens. We named all of them. There was Meringue, Magoo, Chips, Scaredy Cat, Fat Bottom, “my buddy” — it was a hard lesson that as they got older, we would lose most of them. To predators, disease, a huge battle-scarred feral cat, our own dog.

We knew we had some training to do with our 6-year-old pit bull mix, Liddie, whose claim to fame was chasing down a porcupine and wearing quills like “Pinhead.” But we were not prepared that it would happen so fast. Once the coop and run were built, I thought we’d free-range them in the yard for a bit, and then bring Liddie out on a leash. Well, Liddie had other ideas and got out on her own with no leash. I didn’t catch her before she caught a chicken. It was awful.

Did I mention our chickens were contagious? Our neighbor thought it was such a cool idea she got a few of her own, sans coop. The very next day, I was cooking dinner when I got a frantic knock on my front door. There was my neighbor, waving her arms and screaming hysterically in Polish. I don’t speak a word of Polish. Finally, she calms down enough to say “Chicken! Chicken! Dog! Your dog!”

I run to the backyard. And there is Liddie, my beloved dog, killing her chicken. It was awful. What do you say? “Sorry.” About 1,000 times. And that it wouldn’t happen again. And, God bless that dog, it didn’t. She picked up on how upset we were, and responded so well to training that she actually became our flock’s protector. I know this, because early one morning, Liddie started barking like crazy to get out — thinking a leaf had just gone astray, I let her out and went about my business getting ready for work. Then I heard a crash, and a huge scuffle outside.

I went to look and all I could make out in the dark was this huge black lump that sounded like a freight train. I was calling Liddie, but she was acting funny, like she didn’t want to move past it. Finally, after what seemed like forever, she did and the thing jumped up with whatever strength it had left and disappeared over the fence. It turned out to be a cat, and he died shortly after. Liddie had some scratches, but she was fine.

I went over to the coop, and two of our chickens were dead. Turns out, that cat had been a menace in the neighborhood and animal control had been trying to catch him for months. He had even killed some of our neighbors’ cats. A part of me felt bad for the cat, but I felt more proud of Liddie for protecting her home and our girls.

A Homesteader’s Deepening Respect for Life

This was really my introduction to being fully aware of the Circle of Life, and the complexity of living within it. Living on a farm or homestead is being immersed in the cycles of life. At the time, I had been a vegetarian for 15 years and didn’t believe in killing animals, unless it was absolutely necessary for survival. Now I had a dog that killed, but that I absolutely still loved. I had animals that were killed but that I was tasked to protect.

I didn’t view wild animals passively anymore. If I saw a hawk, I thought “you better stay away from my chickens”. But, here’s the thing. I know that hawk is still beautiful. It’s not her fault she needs to eat. She didn’t design herself that way. It’s just the way it is, and none of us get to choose. And so, I really began to explore the complex nature of life, death and forgiveness.

Some of our chickens from that first flock survived many years. My husband even chased down a fox to pull Fat Bottom out of his mouth, unscathed. But we have also had coop massacres where a raccoon found its way in, and other macabre early morning surprises.

We still have Scaredy Cat, but just lost my favorite chicken, Meringue, to natural causes. She was my gardening buddy and intrepid adventurer. Always the first out the gate to free range, she would follow me around to snatch up any worm or grub she saw as I would dig. It was fun. I would dig, she would wait and peck. When I collected Japanese beetles off my fruit trees, she would be the first to come running to eat up all those beetles. And there is nothing more fun than seeing a chicken running at full steam. It was as gratifying as it was efficient. We haven’t had a Japanese beetle problem for the last two years, and I think Meringue was a big part of that. Thanks, girl.

Camaraderie in Homestead Mishaps

So, I guess chickens turned out to be a good idea. They certainly have sparked many discussions and we have learned many life lessons from them. We have often looked at them as a “gateway” animal — opening the door to other fun animals like goats, llamas, ducks, miniature pigs. But so far, these discussions have not led to my husband showing up with new livestock. Yet. Hopefully he will not read this and take it as a challenge. No more animals, honey!

We still learn from and enjoy MOTHER EARTH NEWS – our “gateway” resource, leading us into this lifestyle of hands-on, self-reliant living with all of our foibles and mistakes along the way.

In the spirit of camaraderie and mutual support, I would like to let you know more about our mistakes. I always felt inspired by MOTHER’s articles, but at the same time, alone in my incompetence. And I figured, I can’t be the only one. I hope sharing our mishaps and mistakes just might make you feel better about your own. Because we all make them, and truthfully, we will all keep making them.

Jennifer Dickinson is a nurse, gardener and chicken-keeping Mom in New Jersey who discovered her affinity for self-sufficient living in her late 20s after reading an issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. You can now find her tending her fruit trees and gardens, digging for pillbugs and worms with the kids, and hatching spring chickens on her homestead in the rolling hills of the Garden State. Connect with Jennifer on Instagram and Facebook, camp with herhere and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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