Doing Too Much: Advice and Observations on Modern Homesteading Mistakes

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Photo by Fotolia/A.B.G.
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.

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 doit all and do it allat 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.

Homestead Size

My only major disagreement with John’s conclusions is that I don’t see any homestead as being either “too small” or “too big;” it’s the homesteader’s plans or ambitions that are frequently out-of-phase with the size of a particular parcel of land. Plan acreage and facility requirements for the ultimate place before you move from town. Provide first of all for the one essential element: enough land of the needed types garden, field crops, woodlot, water supply, disposal, and pasture (I recommend at least two acres of open pasture for each large animal you intend to run).

And plan for self-sufficiency-as-you-go if you want to avoid the first big problem the Victors encountered: the bought-feed trap. A garden and bees fend largely for themselves. So can a family flock of chickens, if you let them free-range on a big enough place, and as long as you feed, water, and overnight them in a manageable size, nest-containing (thus egg-collecting) house that will close up tight enough to hold off nocturnal chicken killers such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. But bought hay costs a dollar a bale and up, and a horse or dry cow will eat one apiece every day or two. Grain costs a dime a pound and is consumed at a rate of two pounds and up (and up) per beast per day. At those prices, your homestead horse-riding time costs at least as much as fancy stable rates, and (as John admits) milk costs as much or more in cash as you’d pay at the store before your own labor is factored in. Only with home-raised feed (pasture being the simplest source) can you make out financially.

The second problem area I spotted in John Victor’s narrative is the four-legged animal trap. Housing and feed use up resources but are just one part of the problem. The main trap is the demand on your life and time to care for the horses, cows, pigs, etc., on a daily basis. Four-legged beasts tie you down almost as much as a small child. Cows and dairy goats must be milked twice a day; all animals must be fed and watered daily. Many homesteaders find a 365-day-a-year animal routine even more demoralizing than the 9-to-5 city grind; there, at least, you get two weeks’ vacation (paid, at that). Please, folks, take up big livestock only after plenty of thought and enough time on the place to know your neighbors so well that they’ll gladly tend the zoo occasionally, when you want to get away.

Horses are a luxury to be avoided unless you can afford them. Period. John Victor has six horses (and two cows) on ten acres and obviously loves them enough to pay the (considerable) price. Doc, our own blue-eyed strawberry roan gelding, is a genuine wonder of the equine world, and I do my own saddlery and hoof work (with dirt trails we don’t shoe), worm, and give routine shots. But, what with the price of winter feed and the cost of surrounding four acres of pasture with electric fence, my daughter Martha will have to ride at imputed stable rates for years to recoup the costs. The garden thrives on the manure, of course, but in pure dollar costs, what comes out of a horse isn’t worth a fraction of what goes in.

A few technical tips: John’s cows act like spoiled pets because that’s how they were raised. Well, we all adopt the first beast or two as family members. “Brownie,” Martha’s favorite hen, lived well beyond her egg-laying years eating voraciously the whole time and, once deceased, earned a full-dress burial complete with headstone. After the first one or two, farm animals should be considered food on the hoof (or pad or claw) and dealt with humanely but from an emotional distance. Our hogs are successively called “Horrible Pig,” our steers are named “Hamburger,” and our chickens are kept as anonymous as a row of spinach.

The phrase “chaste rabbits” is a contradiction in terms. Maidenly does should be held with one hand (stoutly gloved and sleeved up to the elbow) pushing down firmly but gently on the saddle of the back, and with the thumb and finger of the other hand pulling the tail forward while the buck figures out his role. A young buck needs a little practice, but if he can’t perform, get one that can. Some rabbits are hopeless; Martha gave her pet-store-owning friend Susan a Mini Lop buck named Pooh, who never could get his mission straight. He was neutered and is a great store mascot.

As far as John Victor’s antidote to garden pests goes, he and I disagree only on the bore. I find a sweet little .410 shotgun, full choke with 2 3/4″ shells carrying one half ounce of No. 6 bird shot, more effective than a rifle even if the scattergun does take out a few pea leaves along with the invading woodchuck.

Finally, I’d urge all readers put off by John’s misadventures to reread the final section of his article under the subtitle “Why Bother?” And add to it my own recent morning’s experience: A winter blizzard was howling in over our mountain, carrying a predicted yard of new snow. But there was enough food in the dirt-floored cellar to last for months, wood in the shed to heat the winter through, and we were snug for as long as Mother Nature needed to push the sun through the scudding overcast to light up the new white stuff: The early morning radio news was full of “metro traffic reports” of blizzard-caused freeway snags and bumper thumpers and trucks jackknifed on off ramps as urban commuters struggled to get to work on I-90-this and I-90-that in Albany and Boston. That used to be me and used to be John Victor and perhaps still is yourself. Whybother to go a-homesteading, indeed? Well, for myself, I poured some hot water from the woodstove kettle into a handmade mug of homegrown sumac-honey tea, sat me down in a ratty old chair, and spent the commuting hour listening to the rest of that traffic report and chuckling one more time through John’s tale of wonderful misadventure.