Incremental Development on the Homestead

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Photo by Adobe Stock/DebraAnderson
Take time to delight in quieter moments on your homestead and notice its beauty.

My dad used to have a saying: “We make haste slowly.” He said it tongue-in-cheek, but the older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom in it.

We live in a fast-paced society. Goodness, everyone seems impatient to me. I seem impatient to me. If a website doesn’t pop up in three seconds, I’m gone. We live in a hurried, harried, frenzied world, trying to cram everything into anything. We relax in a hurry. We work in a hurry. We go to church in a hurry and watch our watches during the sermon. We have more options than ever before, but those opportunities cram our heads as we try to take advantage of them all. Is it any wonder we seek stress relievers? Is it any wonder vacations have become more expensive? We say we have to unwind right now, quickly. Yesteryear’s simple weddings have become $40,000 affairs that we must work longer hours to afford. All this frenzy pressures us to perform, if not to keep up with the Joneses, then at least to keep up with everyone else’s experiences posted to Facebook. 

One of my most significant mentors, Allan Nation, founder of The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, used to say that “the biological time clock runs at its own pace.” In a high-tech, mechanical world full of technicians and engineers, we’re used to making things happen at our pace. But nature often has its own pace; a corollary is that our homesteads have their own pace.

We can sure get tangled up if we try to do everything in a day. People ask me routinely, “Do you use alternative energy? Do you have a root cellar? Do you have a solar cooker?” After a barrage of “do you have” or “do you do” questions, I find myself becoming apologetic and feeling guilty for not having accomplished more.

We don’t do ourselves any favors by bringing that cultural scramble to our homesteads. Our homesteads reflect not only our passions, but also what’s doable with the time, energy, and money at our disposal. A friend asked me the other day if I ever thought about running a food truck. “Every day,” I laughed. I have a list as long as my arm of things I’d like to do but haven’t … yet.

Our farm showcases lots of innovations. But it only scratches the surface, because the more you do and the more you know, the more you realize you could do. Successful development creates inertia toward additional development. This is why we say the homestead is never a destination; it’s a journey.

Millennial entrepreneurial business guru Tai Lopez warns his clients not to be concerned about pace, but only to be concerned about progress. Confusing the two, or reaching for pace more than progress, derails everything. Remember, the tortoise won the race, not the rabbit.

Sometimes I think we back-to-the-landers can’t be satisfied with our own progress. I’m routinely amazed by the projects we get done; don’t let what’s undone make you miss relishing the success of wholesome projects. Be content with incremental development. You can never get it all done in a day or a year, so don’t get frustrated trying. This is why efficiency gurus preach baby steps. If you don’t take the grand vision and break it down into little pieces, you’ll never accomplish it.

On our farm, we have a long-range list of projects we’d like to accomplish 3 to 5 years out. We revisit this list every winter during farm planning sessions to see what items should be discarded or amended. For fun, we can go back 20 years and look at projects on past lists. With 20/20 hindsight, they’re good for a lot of laughs: “Why in the world did we ever think that was a good idea? Glad we didn’t do that.”

Then, we have one-year lists. Often these grow out of the 3- to 5-year lists. As a project continues to be relevant for the long-range farm plan, it moves up in priority. Of course, we never do everything on the one-year list. Some of those projects even become obsolete before we get to them — but not many. Regardless, the one-year list carries a sense of urgency.

Then, we make a quarterly list. What has to be done in the next three months? That grows out of the one-year list. Very few changes occur to this list, except for projects getting bumped to the next time frame if we don’t get them done. Budgeting for time and projects yields the same benefits as budgeting our financial position. Seeing what’s coming up, and emotionally going with the flow of projects written down, creates its own inertia toward urgency. But it’s not a panicked urgency; it’s a controlled and deliberate pressure.

Taking this list concept down all the way to daily is beneficial. We even have filler lists. These are projects that take less than one hour. How many times do you finish a job and want to fill some time before lunch or supper or the gravel truck arrives? It’s too much time to waste and not enough time to really start on something significant. A white board posted in a prominent place with a rolling filler list can help you take those spare minutes and use them productively. Lots of times, we use up those few minutes trying to remember what it was that we wanted to do the next time we had a few minutes. It’s maddening, isn’t it? But with the filler list, we always have those little projects at our fingertips and can jump on them whenever appropriate.

These are techniques for getting more done, certainly, but more importantly, they’re techniques to turn chaos into order, and to chart progress. On our farm, one of our most enjoyable activities is going through the one-year list during our winter planning sessions and feeling the gratification of all the completed projects. That satisfaction counteracts our tendency to feel like we’re not accomplishing anything.

The point here is to enjoy your homestead, rather than seeing it as something to conquer in a week. Emotional energy drives physical energy, and if we’re constantly depressed because we feel like our pace isn’t fast enough, we’ll miss the greatest joy of homesteading, which is seeing progress toward unorthodoxy. The homestead tribe is one that bucks every accepted norm in society: more stuff, more money, more expensive entertainment, more time away from home, more food prepared outside the home, more pharmaceuticals, and so on.

That’s a lot to buck, folks. Most of us coming to this MOTHER EARTH NEWS ideology have some sort of conversion experience, a wake-up moment that moved us to challenge existing paradigms. That transition isn’t an immediate thing. Unplugging, do-it-yourselfing, and reducing consumption are all habits that take time to develop. We have to learn not only the path, but also new techniques and new ways of living.

So, we need to give ourselves a break about our transition speed. “But the sky is falling!” the Chicken Littles scream. In my experience, thoughtful, incremental development gets us farther faster than frenetically going after our goals, ostracizing our kids, alienating our spouses, and scaring everyone around us in the process. That doesn’t mean we should be wimps about our visions. On the contrary, we’ve resolved to make changes that most people never even realize are necessary.

But smell the roses on the way. Take baby steps. Create a priority list. When people ask me what they should grow, I always respond, “Grow what you like first, even if you plan to sell it, because you might have to eat your way through the inventory.” Often, engineer types make quicker progress on composting toilets, greywater systems, and passive solar development than they do on gardening. That’s OK.

Leverage your love and your ability. Don’t do first what some guru says should be done first. Do what interests you. That won’t guarantee success, but the chances sure are greater. Success breeds success. Some people like to eat the least likeable food items first, saving the best for last. Don’t do that on your homestead projects. Do the easy ones first. Do the ones you think you can actually do. That success will make you more confident to tackle the ones that currently scare you.

Or, as is often the case, by the time you get to those harder projects, you’ll have a few more friends and assembled talent to advise you on the difficult ones. If you’re making progress, be satisfied. Enjoy the journey, one incremental step at a time.