A shortened version of this letter was published in the Dear MOTHER department of our December 2011/January 2012 issue.
Whenever I read one of those “Be Self-Sufficient on 1 Acre articles,” I want to either cry or laugh. Having moved to a small homestead many years ago and having worked at a county extension office for 20 years, I know these articles give many people pleasant dreams, but don’t provide practical guidance. The Start a 1-Acre, Self-Sufficient Homestead article by the late John Seymour in your August/September 2011 issue is a good example. Yes, on an acre of decent land you can provide a lot of the food a small family would need, and it is an admirable goal. But you can’t be self-sufficient in the true meaning of the word, unless you want a very austere existence.
A square acre is roughly 215-by-215 feet. Divide that acre into four pieces, each approximately 100-by-100 feet, for ease of illustration (Parts A, B, C and D). In any areas where land is being sold in acre-sized lots there are probably some zoning regulations. First, find out just what kind of animals and structures you are allowed to put on your acre. Chances are, you won’t be able to have a cow, goat, pigs and chickens all on 1 acre. And even if you can, you need to evaluate how that many animals in one small area will impact any neighbors and the environment.
Forget the cow, calf and pigs on an acre of land. Two milk goats, a modest flock of hens, maybe some meat birds and rabbits, and a large garden are more practical goals. Even then, you are going to have to be well-organized and have a great piece of property. In part A of your tiny homestead (100-by-100 feet, remember), concentrate the buildings and things that go with them. A modest home, a driveway to get from the road to the house (not shown in the magazine illustration), and a place to park at least one car should all go in Part A. Most rural homes require a septic tank and field, which generally need to be lawn areas. There will probably be a well and maybe a propane tank. If you have a family you will want some space around the home for outdoor enjoyment: a place for kids to play, a clothesline, some landscaping. It’s also important to leave some clear space around homes as a firebreak. Some space could be multipurpose; for example, the clothesline could be over the septic field.
If you are going to have home insurance — highly recommended — you are not likely going to be allowed to attach a barn to the house as shown in the Seymour article illustration. Your barn area is going to have to be located at least a modest distance from the house and from your well. A barn that holds two goats in the winter, and a clean area to milk them plus hay storage space; an area for your poultry in the winter; storage for tools, the mower and other things will probably need to be at least 20-by-20 feet with a hay loft. Then, add your wood shed and small greenhouse. That pretty much fills Part A.
I strongly recommend a partitioned barn area or permanent “coop” for your chickens. A dozen hens need about 36square feet of indoor floor space. Those little portable coops only work for a few months of the year in most climates. You will soon tire of collecting eggs from them and moving them around. Provide a fenced run for the chickens outside, or fence your property to keep them off the neighbors’ land and let them roam.
Your next 100-by-100-foot area (Part B) on your 1-acre homestead should be devoted to gardening. Locate most of your fruit trees here, too, along one side perhaps. Leave room for manure storage and compost in this space. Build raised beds and garden intensively. If you use the rest of your acre — about 100-by-200 feet — divided into sections to rotationally pasture your goats, you probably won’t have to buy hay during most of the warm season and your land won’t be harmed by overgrazing.
As for a hay field — you won’t likely be able to get anyone to cut and bale a quarter- or even half-acre at any reasonable price, if at all. You could cut it, dry it and pile it loose in the barn loft, but do you really want to do that? Your goats need to produce kids to make milk, so you will have two to four kids to feed each summer using some of the goats’ milk and some of your pasture. You could butcher them at the end of the warm season and put some meat in the freezer. You could also raise some meat chickens or turkeys part of the year. Goats, chickens and a garden shouldn’t stress your land or neighbors, while still producing lots of food. That’s not complete self-sufficiency, but it is sustainable and practical.
Kimberley Willis is the author of three books, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Country Living, Raising Chickens for Dummies and Knack Canning, Pickling and Preserving: Tools, Techniques & Recipes to Enjoy Fresh Food All Year-Round. Read more of Willis’ country living articles and her articles on gardening techniques.