Doing Too Much: Advice and Observations on Modern Homesteading Mistakes

Many aspiring homesteaders are too ambitious at the start and end up doing to much. An experience hand describes how to better manage the growth of one's operation.

| March/April 1985

  • doing too much - small house surrounded by enourmous garden
    If you're a new homesteader, a 50' x 50' garden is enough space to start with. Any more and you're doing too much.
    Photo by Fotolia/A.B.G.

  • doing too much - small house surrounded by enourmous garden

We asked well-known self-reliance writer, homesteader, and MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor John Vivian to offer some suggestions that might help readers avoid the problems that John Victor describes so entertainingly in Modern Homesteading Mistakes: What MOTHER Never Told Me.  Mr. Vivian is the author of The Manual of Practical Homesteading, The New, Improved Wood Heat (both from Rodale Press), and Keeping Bees (forthcoming from Williamson Publishing). We think you'll enjoy and learn from his comments.

The things I like best about John Victor's account of homesteading hazards are his self-deprecating sense of humor and honest perspective. John isn't complaining, carping, or blaming bad luck or the "establishment" he chose to abandon for his difficulties. Like all of us, he's vigorously rediscovering life, inventing a unique brand of independent lifestyle from scratch and on his own terms. Inevitably, as must anyone who would forge his or her own way, John created his own problems. But he and the family struggled through them, learning in the process. I'm grateful he elected to share with us his experiences and comic sense.

Many of the Victors' difficulties can be laid to a perennial homesteader's malady: over enthusiasm. We end up doing too much because want to do it all and do it all at once — run every species of livestock, put in huge gardens, refurbish the old buildings before we know the limits of our time, energy, and resources. All of use overextend ourselves during the learning process. I recall the spring I took on goats and hogs at one time without so much as a stall built or a fence strung. While the kids and piglets gleefully trashed the milking parlor or screeched nonstop at being tethered, I endured the agonies of the damned, setting posts and tensioning fence wire amid clouds of biting black flies, relieved only by onslaughts of freezing New England drizzle.

One Step at a Time

I sincerely advise you to take on only one major new activity per year per adult living on the place. Start off small, plan in advance, and read everything you can get hold of, in order to do it as right as you can the first time.

Establishing a vegetable garden is the first order of business and deserves a year to itself. And even then, please resist the urge to try planting enough to feed yourselves all year long; wait till you know what you really eat and how to grow it on your land. We preserved everything that came on the first year or two. We strung hundreds of green beans on thread and hung them from the shed rafters to dry into "leatherbritches," but they served only as bug roosts the whole summer through. Yuk! And that winter dozens of pints of summer squash slow-froze into a green and yellow pulp that was inedible but too well loved to discard until three years later and then even the hogs refused it. But the lush abundance of frozen green peas and broccoli, and the root vegetables in the cold cellar, more than compensated.

Start with no more than a 50' x 50' garden (half that if you are really wise); plant only one hill of zucchini to eat tiny and fresh; try each preserving method (eating the results several days running, even if you must experiment on store-bought goods) before you invest lots of time and produce.

A good second step is to take on bees. A hive or two makes an easy year's project and is a nice first move beyond gardening and into livestock. [EDITOR'S NOTE: See How to Raise Honeybees: A Beginner’s Guide    for an introductory course on beekeeping.] Then can come the home poultry flock; chickens may be left to self-waterers and feeders for a week so you can get away to avoid mid-February cabin fever. The Victors' 40 hens (at a homestead average of 150 eggs per hen the first year) would have provided four people with four plus eggs a day, or six folks with an egg a meal: too many to eat and too few to sell for a meaningful income. A rooster and a dozen hens will do for a family of four and could have eaten all summer long for free on the Victors' first acre-and-a-half homestead.

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