What Are The Most Important Homesteading Skills You've Learned?

| 8/17/2009 10:16:51 AM

Tags: question to readers, homesteading, living on less,


In Homesteading Lessons Learned: If I Could Do It All Again, contributing editor and DIY expert Steve Maxwell shares the many lessons he learned during his twenty years as a homesteader. Man, is there a lot of trial-and-error involved in the process of honing those skills! Veteran homesteaders: Please, please share your wisdom with those of us who are just getting started down the path to self-sufficiency — what are the most important lessons you learned along the way?

Photo by iStockphoto/Moira De La O

jennifer steele
5/29/2010 1:57:36 PM

Hmm, I agree that chickens and cooking your own healthy food are good first steps. Learning to do within your means is important, and that doesn't just mean money. Budget your time as well. Remember that anything you are learning to do the first time is going to take at least twice as long and cost twice as much, as you think it should. Ha ha. Really, it does! Accept this and budget for it. It will get cheaper and easier as you get the hang of it. I know others have mentioned asking for help and that is really important, but also remember to be of help to others. You can learn a lot and your neighbors will not see you as a leach on their time and energy. Remember to keep an eye out for the oldsters and others who may need help. This makes you feel good and builds community. Don't forget to budget your time for this, too. Take a few minutes each day to breathe and enjoy. Remember that it's not about the destination. The homestead is never a finished project. It evolves as you go along. Your vision will change. Take time to enjoy the ride. That's what its all about.

5/27/2010 12:24:53 PM

After 30+ years I realize start slow,plan,make sure to discuss the goals with your spouse.Make sure you are on the same page,understand it will not be easy,work as a Team.... Plan out your home,build to last. Our first job should have been a shed to store all the things we collected to build with,plan on the size of the home,remember the kids will grow up an move on.Plan on where the garden will be ,the orchard,the chicken house.Build fences to last.Build the land,build the soil to last. Remember your neighers have dogs that love to eat eggs or kill chickens or goats. Make sure the pens are safe,they have adequate shelter no matter what the weather.Remember that those cute little bunnies and animals have to be fed and watered,sleet,snow,7 days a week,water freezes,electric goes off,feed and vets are expensive.It doesnt make a difference if you are tired,late,sick,cold,animals have to be taken care of. Read books,on line info,visit with older people in your area.They can help more then anyone,most were raised in the country and made it thru hard times.Older people can be a lifeline with sick animals or any emergency,help you with gardening,canning,butching chickens,etc.I miss my grandparents their knowledge was invaluable.Grandad always said build you home out of the north wind,higher up so your not sitting in water,Plan,plan,plan, before you build.I now know I should have listened carefully.Listen to their knowledge and save alot of time and tears.

carmen ortiz
5/27/2010 8:02:40 AM

If you want to homestead but don't have a lot of money, use your imagination. I bought a very sturdy 90 year old house, in a small town, with a big yard. I grow all the fruits and vegetables I can eat, plus plenty to sell. Just get rid of the grass. Don't believe everything you read. Many of the so-called experts get their information from other books written by people who've never done the work either. Don't be discouraged by some failure. It will happen. It is hard work and at times you will questioned if you made the right decision. Get a practical hobby (sewing, knitting, home repairs, woodwork) for those times when you are snowed or rained in so you don't get stressed because you are forced to take time off when you have so much to do. If you live somewhere where you get lots of snow Sandra's advice is the most important. My front door is useless for most of the winter because the screen opens out.

5/26/2010 6:07:42 PM

I started off gardening with a small herb garden to start. I now grow most of our own produce (and can and freeze for winter). We also have added an orchard and blueberry bushes, plus I raise my own chickens (for eggs and meat). I would advise people to start small! Allow for simple successes and enjoy them, then gradually build. If you jump in too deep and have too much to take care of from the get-go, it can be difficult to enjoy and keep up with all the tasks. It becomes too much work. Homesteading should be done because you love the lifestyle, so keep it fun!

5/26/2010 2:58:50 PM

We started by switching my cleaning products first to more natural home made choices, then cooking more and baking our own bread, then gardening and canning, and chickens. We bought our farm 2 years ago on 10 acres, and are building a house this year. We plan on doing it mostly ourselves, with a few hired friends. The best advice I can give is to be as handy as you can. Build, fix, and make whatever you need. And don't go gung ho! I have a hard time convincing my husband of this last issue. He wants to do everything right now! Build a house, and get a cow while having 50 chickens, and a garden that he said we wouldn't plant as much in? He started 72 basil plants... There's a friend we have that has things all planned out, a list of what she is going to do for each year in her transition to farming. I would advise people to aim for somewhere between those two methods. Fast paced enough that you don't get bored, but slow enough to fully enjoy all that's involved!

5/26/2010 12:07:47 PM

Water...is the main thing..clean "WATER"

felicia luburich
5/26/2010 12:07:02 PM

Thans to all of you who posted comments. I will move to PA. I am looking for small acerage for my dogs and subsistence, including NO seeable neighbors. If anyone knows of a suitable place to consider, please post it on WANTED on Rodale. PA is a big state and I am 75. Any help would be VERY appreciated. Also specifics about the on line couses from the County Agent. Merci Bocoup!!

mike stubbs_2
5/26/2010 12:01:31 PM

Simple is not necessarily really simple and, like, Steve Maxwell said, those great first ideas don't always turn out so great. Patience. It is all a work in progress that will never be finished.

5/26/2010 10:05:19 AM

So many great pieces of advise...I would add as a great skill-to use what you have. This takes creativity but saves a ton of money. Make your own chicken coops and rabbit hutches with materials on hand. Learn plumbing, carpentry and some electric work. Learn to fix and maintain your own equipment. I raise sheep-so I learned to shear my own and do all their vet work. The more skills you have, the less you pay someone else to do it. Lastly-take small bites. Don't overdo. And look to your local extension for classes.

jan steinman
5/26/2010 9:26:29 AM

First off, don't carry milk in an open bucket! (Yea, I'm sure the photo was staged, and that he wouldn't REALLY carry milk that way!) I keep coming back to Permaculture principles, such as "observe and interact," "multiple functions to support each element" (and vice-versa), "produce no waste..." If there's anything the beginning homesteader should study, it's Permaculture. But here's something concrete: avoid permanent structures for animals. You can get beat-up camping trailers for the hauling. I turned one into a chicken coop (http://www.ecoreality.org/wiki/Chicken_tractor) and another into a goat shed. When animals have permanent shelters, the area around the shelter often turns into a barren, dusty/muddy wasteland. With electric fence or fence panels, you can move them about and have them help you work the land.

lee hethcox
9/2/2009 7:53:13 PM

We've been homesteading since we had our first apartment and I grew 3 tomato plants, in 1977. The Army moved us several times so I've built up a homestead 3 times (I do the animal care, gardening,putting food by; my husband does fences and animal housing and has a good attitude about it all. We've raised 7 kids this way and they've all gone on to normal lives, no one homesteading themselves yet, but they are positive about it all. I see lots of good advice in all those comments! Especially about pacing yourself. My philosophy was, if you keep trying and it doesn't come easy, put it aside for a while. Don't work so hard your children hate it, either (I did that for a while. Don't be too much of a purist-I, for instance, still like luxurious, useless, Siamese cats which don't contribute anything to a homestead :)

michelle c._1
8/31/2009 6:49:10 PM

I am reading all the comments posted and am so envious!! I am going to keep reading and studying so that one day I too can live a greener more simple lifestyle. So, please keep posting your advice. It means so much to someone like me to think that may be my dream may come true!!

8/31/2009 5:05:43 PM

Learn to be patient,take the long view and get it done next week,next month or next year if it doesn't happen today.

granny sue
8/26/2009 6:55:28 PM

I've been homesteading since 1974 or so. For some of that time we were hard at it-- living without electricity, doing our own butchering, selling produce, etc. We added a lot of things as we learned--growing sorghum and making molasses, keeping bees, milk cows, and so on. Then our free help--our four older sons--grew up and moved away! I went to college, began working full-time and the farm dwindled to gardens and chickens. Now we're adding things back slowly as we can fit them into our lives (I still work full-time). Best advice--make sure the things you take on do not create unmanageable stress and financial burden. A lot of homesteading is fun, but it takes money. Feed isn't cheap; neither is fencing; animals demand 7-day-a-week care. Are you ready for that commitment? Chickens, vegetables and herbs are the best place to start and will save you a lot of money very quickly without much outlay. Second best advice--read. There are many good books to help you. Neighbors are great, but you also need a good reference library because sometimes the way neighbors do things aren't necessarily the best way, and sometimes they don't know a thing about what you want to do. The internet is great but if you live out you know it can be unreliable--and not everyone online is an authority. Third best advice--learn and respect the environment around you. Learn the names of plants and trees and how they can be used. Learn your birds and insects. These are your neighbors too. And last, you have to work hard, sweat and be prepared for disappointments. With all of those, you earn the rewards you seek--a full cellar and freezer, contented animals, and the knowledge that you can and will provide for yourself.

sandra baird
8/26/2009 11:15:18 AM

WHEN YOU BUILD A DOORWAY OUTSIDE, MAKE SURE IT OPENS TOWARDS YOU SO THAT IF IT SNOWS AND/OR ICES UP, YOU CAN SHOVEL AND THEN GET IN. Guess how I learned this! I am too old to be hauling 2 ladders, a snow shovel and a pickaxe down to the barn and climbing over a 6 foot fence. DUH!

8/21/2009 4:39:47 PM

Patients is a virtue!!!

mark abraham
8/21/2009 1:30:40 PM

I've been at it just over a year and the best advice have for newbies is: Learn to ask for help. I wouldn't have survived on my own. Neighbors are crucial. You may have moved out to the country to get away from it all but Making nice with your neighbors will make your life much easier and probably save you a TON of cash. Also NEW does not equal GOOD. (John Deere Riding Mowers for instance...)

8/20/2009 11:03:45 PM

The biggest lesson I've learned is to be more forgiving of myself with the learning curve. I don't have trouble canning, but I'm not liking all the recipes I try. Gee, it's just like when I learned to feed my family. My tomatoes are coming in great - but none of them are right for making salsa. They are all too watery. Next year, I try something else. My peppers are doing great too - what was I thinking planting three of the same kind?? It's been the same with learning how to use a firearm, taking care of our vehicles, going green on cleaning supplies, and even homeopathic health treatments. Some of it works and some of it doesn't for us, but there is no other way to know than to just try it.

allan jordan_3
8/20/2009 8:47:30 PM

My words of advise to all newbies to homesteading is slow down! Everything take a certain amount of time. You can't rush things. Split wood needs time to season, veggies need time to grow, livestock needs time to fatten and even clothes on the line needs time to dry. Work steady but take time enjoy what you are doing , remember that you are here because you want to be not because you have to be.

8/19/2009 11:51:27 PM

If you have room for free range chickens, do it! There's nothing more rewarding than enjoying watching happy hens and eating their wonderful, nutritious eggs. Once you start eating true farm eggs you'll never buy from the supermarket again!! Jodi - healing-from-home-remedies.com

gina j.
8/19/2009 9:56:07 PM

Aside from all the wonderful advice already offered, I would have to say that my suggestion is one I learned the hard way. Don't fight so hard. Meaning, if Mother Nature dictates that heat rises, when you plan your project, take that into consideration and don't beat your head against a wall trying to force heat down or cold up. If you have a hideous patch of weeds, consider what nature uses for control of such things. (you know, like sheep and goats...) If you need to plow up said weed patch, consider what nature uses to plow up ground--like those hogs that always try to root up their fences and feeders... I found that if I got it into my head that I should sit back and examine things from the vantage point of cycles and forces larger than my humble self, I got more accomplished with less stress...on me and everyone and everything else. I would also throw out there that in addition to asking for help (which I'm addicted to..) it helps to check out older sources of information--books, senior citizens, etc...and find out how to accomplish some of those "forgotten" tasks. Then write it down!

j yellowbird
8/19/2009 4:06:20 PM

In my experience in this. I have had alot of periods of slamming into walls as far as getting help with questions about subjects that is important to me such as canning,starting a homestead,farming I guess it is being poor or in my case living within my means that alot of the locals just ignore but I will prevail I have many questions about issues and there are so many sites it is confusing so I still search for things that suit me Yellowbird

jeremy holt
8/19/2009 12:24:31 PM

Aquiring the basics of survival are paramount to a happy homestead existence-food, shelter, peace with neighbors. Scrounging free resources can help with all these. Wood, tin, tile, windows, inslation, scrap metal can be used to build a home, shop, or green house. Used landscaping pots or buckets can be used in gardening, as well as scrap boards or metal poles for garden vine climbers or tomatos. Free scrounged materials can be sold, traded, or given to neighbors and friends for free. People with a poorly insulated house love a truck load of insulation so much they would be honored to loan you a tool or some garden produce someday.

jill jones
8/19/2009 11:38:12 AM

I would say the most important lesson I'm learning is to know when to take a break and take a rest. This year with my garden in full swing, raising kids, chickens, cows, horses, rabbits, dogs, cats,hanging your clothes out etc. there was just no way to keep up with it all durning canning, so the milk cow went to pasture for a while with her calf. When the garden slows down and the temperatures cool down, we will think about that milking task again. I've gotten to the point where all my fun with the homesteading turned into an overwhelming task, and I had to take a step back and reconsider. It just can't all be done at once. Part of the homesteading dream is to slow down fromt the rat race of life and enjoy life's simpler things. So, keeping that in mind, pace yourself! Enjoy life.

sandra baird
8/19/2009 11:10:39 AM

Find your local County Extension Office. It is an extension of your state land grant university. I have taken free classes in a wide range of skills, from making farmer cheese, canning, noxious weed identification. I took the Master Gardener's class (not free), but at a much reduced price for a trade in helping them help other gardeners. This class is on the internet now. They have information sheets on an unbelievable amount of items. In our county they do the county fair and provide a place for children to hold 4-H classes. GET INVOLVED!!! You will meet a lot of people travelling along a similar path. The extension office also has test kits for water quality, radon, lead and soil quality. You will have to pay the fees, but they have the kits and the information and the addresses you will need.

mama moo
8/19/2009 10:34:40 AM

There is nothing more rewarding than sitting down to a large family dinner and looking at each of the dishes, knowing that you have either home grown and/or home made all of it! I started with two milk goats intended for weeding. The girls proved to be wonderful friends and prolific with their kids and milk. We were instantly selling baby goats and goat milk. Before long, we ended up with baby pigs and started feeding the goat milk to them mixed with mash - even the butcher said they were the best he'd ever seen! We then stepped up to a jersey cow and instantly learned to make butter, yogurt, ice cream and cheese - the pigs still get the left overs. Once you have chickens you have to have all other poultry like turkeys, ducks and the likes. Obviously you have to have to mindset that you will one day eat those precious little babies but can keep the milk cow and does as pets. Once my jersey has freshened, I usually buy a couple bum calves at the auction and put those on her. By the time they are 500 lbs you can sell those for a great profit as feeders and buy hay for the year, you have to keep one to feed yourself though. All those animals also create a great amount of material in which to compost, which in turn is wonderful for vegetables. So my advice? START SLOW and build upon what you've accomplished. You will not be disappointed

8/19/2009 10:06:01 AM

We are 5 yr old newbbies at this. I first started with the gardening Square foot method by Mel Bartholomew.I remembered when I was 19 an artical about his method and tryed it once and didn't know what to do with all the tomatoes. and my garden was only 3 ft. by 12. Now more than 20 yrs later, I have studied magz. like Mother earth and organic ones, books and things on the net finding what work where I live and dosn't.Canning is also something I'm still learning.Last year we got our first chickens mini bantis and silkies mix,thier very pleasant natured and easy to care for.the first time they went bruddy on me I thought they where sick it wasn't in the book. thank God for farmer friends :)...I think as others have said its a life of learning but the benifit of fresh produce and food you canned Ur self are wonderfuland save us a lot of money.We are looking forward to moving bigger to a real farm.

8/19/2009 9:16:27 AM

There are so many things to learn about homesteading but one thing that I think is important is to respect the land you are using. It's a gift. Don't clutter it up with junk. Keep your property pleasing to the eye, like it was in the first place, before you came. Learn to do things properly. There are right and wrong ways of doing things. Building a fence out of pallets without posts makes for an ugly fence that will fall over in the first wind. Save up the money and do it right. Leave the place better than when you first found it. The internet is such an information source that you can learn how to do anything. Plan ahead. Don't get those chickens before you have a place to put them. It gets stressful if you go too fast too soon. You came out there to enjoy a bit of free time so don't forget to use it.

laura biddulph
8/19/2009 9:14:10 AM

My family and I have been moving towards a homestead for two years now and while we are relatively new at this, I think we have some really good newbie recommendations. Let go of the idea that you want it all to happen NOW. Take it slow and do your research. Of course it is trial and error no matter how much research you do, because you have to see what works best for you. This past spring we decided to go full guns and catapult our garden much farther ahead of our own scheduled plan than we should have. The result was that we dug too many beds and threw out our backs, making planting the beds almost impossible. Then of course we did not let our backs heal completely because we felt the pressure of making use of all those newly dug beds so a tight cycle of injury, brief healing and re-injury began. As a result our seedlings all went in late, our food production is quite delayed and we are way off track for any kind of fall planting. Lesson Learned - expand the garden slowly so you can do each step to the best of your abilities and without extreme overexertion. There is a huge difference in hard work done wisely and hard work done in a way that is too hard to sustain over time.

8/19/2009 8:59:10 AM

The things I learned are to implement your plans slowly, get chickens soon, read Carla Emery's Enclyclopedia of Country Living (front to back), and keep track of expenses. Learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them. Never plant more than you can take care of while still holding a fulltime job until u give up said job. The best thing I learned is that homesteading gives you a measure of food safety and security that lets you sleep well at night, no matter what is going on in the world.

pat miketinac
8/18/2009 10:48:27 PM

For me, it was learning the skills to build our own earth shelter house. Not just for the energy savings. We only spent $10,000 (1987) for materials so it is mortgage free. Every time you pay others for something you could do, you are also paying their expenses and taxes with what is left of your money after your taxes and expenses. MC, as far as motivation, the goal of being debt free worked for us. We bought our 10 acres with money from a home sale in 1980 and have been out of debt ever since. It also helps to visit a place with workshops like MOM's Eco-Village was. We saw 2 earth shelters there and many homestead workshops.

dave mcgowan
8/18/2009 4:26:16 PM

I milked my first cow and collected eggs from my Banties around 1956. My wife sold her last cow about 10 years ago ... we loved the milk but artheritis slowed us both down. All the comments I see here are good, particularly the chickens, but the most important, ASK FOR HELP. People love to demo what they've learned. And you don't allways use the info down home on the farm. I used some of the things I'd learned - and tried - in my novel 'Homesteader'. Dave www.dmmcgowan.blogspot.com

8/18/2009 12:19:05 AM

I'm definitely a beginner at this business. But the most important skill I've learned so far is probably canning. The one I'm working on is not being afraid to ask for help; I hope it will let me find some measure of that community I've been wishing for as well as getting a better grip on gardening and a chance to work with some animals. The one I'd love to learn is HOW TO MOTIVATE RELUCTANT SPOUSES. DH is coming along-- he *will* work if properly (gently and persistently) nagged-- but I have to push him every step of the way. Any of you old hands come to the decision that this was what you wanted-- or needed-- to do later in life and have to deal with a highly skeptical spouse???? Got any advice on that one????

dominic ebacher
8/17/2009 9:36:57 PM

Chickens for sure. Chickens are like the gateway drug of homesteading - I can't tell you how much they've helped me gain confidence with animals around the homestead: and with them, sustainable organic food production for our entire family. I can't tell you how many stories from people who I admire start out with, "well, we started by getting a few chickens..." If you're looking to get into homesteading, chickens are the ways to go - and where you from there well: the sky's the limit.

8/17/2009 2:51:56 PM

I think patience and tolerance with my neighbors is the key to survival. All the other skills can be learned, but life is much harder if you do not have a cooperative relationship with your neighbors. So many times I have saved considerable hardship by getting a helping hand from a neighbor.

8/17/2009 2:22:46 PM

I would say keeping chickens, gardening, and cooking/baking are my most essential homesteading skills. Nothing too exotic, I know. Keeping chickens has been by far the easiest and least labor intensive of these. There is so very much to know when it comes to gardening, and the workload is high. I've been an experienced cook for many years, but baking is relatively new to me. For the past two and a half years, I've baked all the bread we eat, and I can now say it's good bread. There are lots of other little skills that come into play, like pruning fruit trees, canning, slaughtering/butchering, sharpening knives, and general handyperson stuff. But the chooks, the garden, and the daily food preparation make the biggest differences and are put into practice most often.

mother earth news fair


Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!