Homestead Repurposing 101

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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I recent watched a TED talk that shared a study on the level of genius thinking in school students.  What is genius thinking?  Here’s an example.  Grab a piece of paper and, as quickly as possible, write down all the things you could do with a paper clip.  Go!

Got that?  So, most folks will think of 15 to 20 things they could do with a paper clip.  Genius thinkers will come up with upwards of 80 or 100!  This is because they are willing to take the idea of a paper clip but free it from its current restraints.  “What if,” the genius thinker asks, “the paper clip is 40 feet tall and made of foam rubber?”

What the study found, using similar methods to the question above, is that 95 percent of kindergarteners are genius thinkers, but by 6th grade that number has shrunk to less than 10 percent.  Kids get carefully trained to get the answers “right,” rather than free associate outside of the box.

For the homesteader, it’s essential to be able to draw on that kindergarten ability for genius thinking.  For instance, there are all kinds of things on a farm built for a single purpose:  a dog collar, a tractor tire, a fiberglass fence post, a shepherd’s crook, a broom, and baling twine.  Let’s run with those fairly ordinary farm objects for a minute and see where the genius thinking goes.

See, the reason for this exercise is the well-known fact that stuff breaks on a farm.  Yes, I know, it breaks more often than I would like it to.  So then what?  Throw it away?  No!  We’re way too thrifty for that.  But the piles of “I’ll use that someday” can quickly overrun the working parts of the farm, so it’s critical to put that obsolete thing to a good purpose.

Let’s start with the dog collar.  Well, it didn’t actually break, but the puppy grew up and it no longer fits.  The collar is still in working condition, if a bit well-loved.  Now what, into the drawer?  Ah, but Kara has a gate to the sheep pen that needs a latch.  But it butts up to a metal T-posts, so the usual chain and latch method that requires anchoring to a wooden post won’t work. 

The solution?  Put the dog collar around the gate and the post, and you have a new way to lock it!  Might be a little harder to get in and out (the sheep certainly haven’t figured it out yet), and it froze solid with the last ice storm (Mom thawed it out with her bare hands…that method could use some improvement), but hey, it’s in use.

Ok, onto the tractor tire.  Of course, there’s lots of things for these enormous rubber doughnuts.  The old Farmall tractor that came with the farm had cut-up chunks of tire strapped to the old metal wheels because it came from the era of cleats rather than tires.  But I can run faster than that tractor, so it’s not really seeing work these days.

You can lay the tire on its side, fill it with soil, and make a flower bed.  Or, even more fun, take a saws-all to the rim and fill it with sand for the kiddos to have a farm-themed sandbox to play in!  It makes the saws-all smoke, but the end result is pretty spiffy, and the tire sides hold up well to the lawn trimmer’s string as you tend the grass.  We made one of these for Farmstead, and it gets a good workout all summer.

Next is the fiberglass fence post.  We use electric mesh fencing for our sheep and poultry.  This helps to keep them safe from predators while being lightweight and movable.  But now and then the fence gets challenged by a situation (a sheep tries to jump it, a storm reeks havoc, or my foot gets caught and I’m the one all tangled up) and the post will break off just above the metal step-in spike. 

Time to buy a replacement post.  But what to do with the old one?   While no longer useful for fencing, the fiberglass is still flexible and a bright white.  I use them as herding sticks for the chickens and turkeys.  Easily visible for the birds and lightweight for me to carry, the nudges and taps on their feathery sides are gentle because of the fiberglass flex.  There’s usually a few handy by the coop door.  Never know when you need to persuade an escapee back into the coop!

What’s next, a shepherd’s crook?  Do they make any of those meant to last?  One wily moment with a well-muscled sheep and a barn support beam between you and her, and the pole is mangled or broken.  Time to place another order and hope there’s a sturdier version on the market.  But now what for the misshapen one?  They hang out in the barn for all sorts of arm-extension jobs like nabbing the handle of a bucket on the other side of a corral panel or knocking open the latch on the little door up on the side of the barn where you throw down the hay bales.  It’s handy for shorter folks like me.  Though I’ll admit that, even with the crook, I’m still jumping to reach that barn door latch.

The broom?  Well, while it still looks like a broom, it’s useful for getting turkeys off of roofs, scrubbing coop window screens free of dust, and various cleaning processes, but when the bristles wear down to nothing, saw off the sweeping part and keep the handle.  You never know when the handle of something else will break and you need a new one in a pinch, or they also work great for door props, tarp props, anti-rooster self-defense weapons, roost rungs, bucket carriers, and on and on and on.  Broom handles are the “paper clip” supreme of homesteading.

But baling twine?  I’m afraid that baling twine takes the cake.  Woe to a farm that doesn’t feed hay.  I can’t imagine homesteading without twine around, draped in bundles from a nail in the barn wall like big hanks of sisal or pink plastic dreads.  Baling twine is one of those things I always try to have in my chore-mongering utility golf cart (that and zip-ties, a harvest knife, a scissors, a pliers, a screw driver, and assorted garden tools…there could be a whole other article just on the many uses of those items!).

But back to baling twine.  Not only does it work great for tying things down (or up) but also for splices, latches, trellises, supports, harnesses, leashes, hoists, tethers, straps, brace ties, join ties, and any other imaginable situation.  Armed with baling twine and a Girl/Boy Scout’s knowledge of knots, this everyday item becomes a lifeline to success under the harshest of circumstances.  Baling twine anchored to T-posts in the midst of lightening saved my poultry from drowning in that terrible September storm a few years ago.

Still brainstorming more ways to use a paper clip?  Keep that genius thinking going.  The other word for this process is repurposing.  “I know this object is meant for this process, but what if I…?”  Next time you feel like throwing a broken thing out, take a moment to think about how it might be repurposed.  The results might surprise you!  Time to make sure I still have baling twine handy before chores.  See you down on the farm sometime. 

Tractor tire. Photo by Laura Berlage.

The dog collar gate latch.  Photo Steve Barnes

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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