Them That’s Doing: The Self-Sufficient Homestead

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Preparing for winter is imperative if you hope to maintain a self-sufficient homestead.

The foregoing events occurred in the second half of 1971.

August 1971

It’s just about two years now since Mick and I first read Ed and Carolyn Robinson’s “Have-More Plan” in MOTHER EARTH NEWS and thought, “That’s nice, but we could never do it” . . . and put the idea aside. We still weren’t thinking too seriously about being self-sufficient or self-employed when we stumbled onto “Profitable Herb Growing” in the summer of 1971, as it happened, just when we had our first garden full of as many herbs as I could find seeds for.

That was the turning point . . . and here we are on a piece of good old Mother Earth, settling down to work toward a self-sufficient homestead/herb farm. As it turns out, it’ll take a few years to get into the herb business in a big way, so we’re concentrating on crafts and cabinetmaking in the meantime . . . in addition to the homesteading chores, of course.

We’re from New Jersey and located our rented place in upstate New York through MOTHER’ EARTH NEWS’ Contact. So far we’re pleased with what we’ve found here. After only three months, we’ve already made friends with many local farmers and are learning fast . . . where to get the best hay for the least amount of money, how to get the highest milk production from our goats, what breed of chicken winters well up here, etc. The soil–heavy, acid clay–isn’t the best for farming but with plenty of mulch, manure from our goats, chickens, and rabbits, plus some lime, it should be OK in a year or two.

We settled into our trailer here the first of June and it wasn’t until the beginning of this month that we had electricity . . . not only are we located half a mile from the nearest power line, but the heavy flooding in this area put the utility company behind schedule. Since we depend heavily on electrical current for freezing meats and vegetables, we hope to build our own methane generator in years to come. There’s just too much else to do right now, though. (Getting a reliable water supply hooked. up, for instance . . . so far Mick has been hauling our water from a nearby spring.)

Since our garden got off to a very poor start this summer–what with a frost in the middle of June and a three-week-long flood–we’ve spent a lot of time foraging. Among the wild foods we took advantage of were chicory, milkweed, chokecherries, elderberries and flowers, May apples, blackberries, and raspberries . . . with apples and grapes to come soon.

Elder-flower fritters were one of the first dishes we tried. I just dipped the flower clusters in a whole-wheat batter and deep-fried them . . . pretty darn good! We’ve also found the very small, very young milkweed pods really tasty, cooked in three waters a la Euell Gibbons.

We ran into trouble with only one of our foraged dishes . . . day lily buds. A word to the wise: Never, never serve these tidbits as a main vegetable! I tried it once and they tasted delicious, just like green beans . . . but we both had terrible cases of diarrhea that night. To make matters worse, we were in the process of housebreaking our pup and had her confined to the hallway outside the bathroom by means of a table. This meant that we had to scramble over the barrier every time we wanted to get to the toilet. What a night that was! Since then I’ve cooked the lily buds only in small quantities and we’ve had no problems.

In the end, the garden did manage to yield fairly well . . . with one truly unexpected bonus. We’d planted lots of radishes, to mark our rows of carrots and to serve as a trap crop for root maggots. They worked fine for both purposes . . . in fact, they did so well as maggot catchers that we couldn’t eat any of them and just left them in the ground. They grew, flowered and bore fruit . . . and what tasty fruit! Raw from the garden, it tasted like mild radishes, and cooked it was just like green beans (but–unlike the day lilies–brought no disastrous results). We now have some in the freezer and strings of it drying all over the kitchen.

Another planting venture was my herb garden . . . a project I began in 1971 by ordering about 50 different perennial varieties, since I know it takes years to grow most of them to a decent size from seed (in fact, many can’t be started from seed at all). This summer I’ve been making cuttings and layerings from my original stock and planting the rooted plants in flats.

Never having done any propagation before, I assumed I needed a rooting hormone. Since this is a natural plant substance and I was careful not to buy any that contained fungicides, I felt that using such an aid was within our organic philosophy of growing any living thing. Well, after not doing very well with this method–the hormone seemed to be burning up the stems–I stopped using any artificial “helper’ and have been having fantastic results ever since.

Some of the herbs are so much fun to work with! One of my favorites right now is pineapple sage, which not only roots readily (I just stick the cuttings in damp clay soil, and every one has taken so far) but gives off a delightful pineapple scent when it’s touched. Another plant I love is Corsican mint . . . a low-growing mat, no more than half an inch tall even when in flower, with a “minty candy” aroma. Like most of its family, it spreads . . . my clump is 10 times as large now as it was when it arrived here a month and a half ago. This herb would make wonderful, sweet-smelling ground cover, with no mowing necessary.

In addition to the gardening, we’ve had our newly acquired livestock to keep us busy this summer: 2 goats, 24 chickens, 12 rabbits, our dog Spunky, a hive of bees, and–most recently–2 cats. “Real good mousers–worth $10.00 each–but I’ll let you have ’em for nothing,” said our crafty neighbor when he gave us the kittens . . . so now we have Teasel and Dock living in the barn to keep the goats company. The only trouble is, they think they belong in the house with Spunky.

Of course, we have daily chores that go with keeping our animals happy and healthy. Every morning Mick cuts greens for the rabbits and chicks, and feeds and waters those animals. While he’s doing this I feed the cats (absolutely necessary if I’m to milk in peace), tie up Norma (the dry goat) so she doesn’t try to get the milch doe’s grain and milk Nellie. After taking the milk to the spring to cool, we finish up by tethering the goats in some good pasture.

The best feeding spots we’ve found for Norma and Nellie are the corners of a mown hayfield where the big machinery couldn’t cut. The goats love the place . . . maybe because this field contains bird’s-foot trefoil, a legume somewhat like alfalfa and good for milk production. For winter feed, we’ll either have to get hay containing this plant or buy alfalfa pellets. By the way, all we’ve read about these creatures being fussy eaters isn’t true of our two . . . they drink out of mud puddles, eat old hay. Could be because they’re “alley goats”.

We’ve really learned a lot about goats in the short time we’ve had ours. They’re friendly, affectionate, and curious, but they can be obnoxious and temperamental too, as well as fantastically competitive and jealous. For instance, because Nellie’s a milker she’s fed grain every morning and night, but Norma doesn’t get this extra ration because she’s not lactating. Norma resents this discrimination, of course, and demonstrates it by always pushing Nellie and butting her in her tender underside. Sometimes I worry that Nellie will be seriously hurt, but I figure she can take care of herself.

Why don’t we have our does dehorned? Well, we have to wait on Nellie until she stops lactating because the dehorning process cuts milk production and we’re not getting a lot from her anyway. And we’re waiting with Norma because she may not be with us much longer. We’ve just about decided that it would be financially impractical to keep a dry goat through the winter, since hay and grain will be very high this year after the poor weather we’ve been having.

Now, what to do with our unproductive doe? (We’re trying to learn not to call her Norma anymore.) We’d do badly selling her . . . no one would pay much for a milkless nanny when they’d have to feed her until spring. The alternative is chevon . . . goat meat. Yup, we’re going to slaughter Norma. We think it won’t be a bad deal, since we paid only $15.00 for her and should get 50 pounds of meat. We need an inexpensive food supply, too, because our garden hasn’t done as well as we expected. Mick thinks he can bring himself to kill her–I don’t want to watch–and we’ll then have her butchered locally.

Speaking of winter eating, it doesn’t look like we’ll be harvesting much honey this year. Because we got our bees late and the weather’s been terrible, our hive isn’t very strong. When the state inspector came to check for foulbrood–a very infectious disease–he confirmed Mick’s fear that there were queen cells in the hive, which means either that the bees killed their queen on purpose or that Mick did it accidentally. The new queen (made by feeding “royal jelly” to a normal larva) should have emerged by now, but Mick doesn’t want to open the hive for a while for fear of disturbing the bees unnecessarily. Anyhow, this upheaval in the life of the colony means slowed growth and less honey. We hope to do better next year.

October 1971

The hustle and bustle of winter preparation is upon us . . . we’re hurrying to beat the frost by harvesting whatever it can affect, picking wild fruits by the bushel, and squirreling away foods. We ran out of space in our 10-cubic-foot freezer a long time ago, and must preserve the rest of our winter store by drying and canning (only fruits and acid vegetables like tomatoes and pickles, though, to avoid the danger of botulism).

Our food-gathering is made easier for us by the really generous bunch of neighbors we have up here. For instance, a farmer a few miles away invited us to come and pick as many of his apples and pears as we liked. All his trees are domestic and, although uncared for, they yield delicious, wel-lformed, insect-free fruit.

With all the wildings around, too, it’s hard to resist a compulsion to go out and pick them simply because they’re there. As a result, I’ve been spending many a day in the kitchen, making jellies and jams out of wild blackberries, chokecherries, elderberries and May apples . . . while Mick has chokecherry and elderberry wine brewing and will soon start on wild grape and apple.

We anticipated a cold snap one day toward the end of September and began our pre-frost preparations, which included digging up all my tender perennial herbs (I wound up with about 30 plants) and bringing them inside to await completion of the greenhouse Mick is building. Then we picked most of the decent-sized tomatoes, peppers and summer squash, wrapped all the green tomatoes in newspaper to ripen and covered a few tomato and pepper plants to insulate them. All in all, it was a busy day . . . for which we were rewarded with not only a frost-free night, but a week of warm weather. One good result of this scare is that next time we expect a chilly spell we won’t have so much to do . . . covering the tomatoes and peppers will be all.

That greenhouse we’re putting up is for a twofold purpose . . . first, it’s a shelter for my tender perennial herbs, and second, it’s a place to grow vegetables over the winter and get an early start on spring crops. This is an awful lot to ask of a five-by-twelve structure, but we’ll give it a try.

While we’re on the subject of winter supplies, I should mention that Norma has left us for a colder climate . . . the freezer. Lyman Barry, our landlord, offered to help Mick slaughter the goat and wound up doing most of the job (shooting, skinning and gutting). When Mick got the carcass to the butcher it weighed only 38 pounds, but we did get 30 back as meat, so there wasn’t too much loss in fat. We kept the skin . . . which is now salted and stretched.

It’s still quite a challenge for me to bring myself around to cooking with goat meat. All we’ve had so far is some sausage, which cooked up like hamburger there’s practically no fat–but tasted very good. Maybe we’ll get down to trying some steaks or chops pretty soon.

In addition to the chevon, we’ve tasted our first home-raised rabbit . . . which was good but a little difficult to eat immediately after slaughtering the beastie. What made the situation more unpleasant was that the animal had been injured (our reason for killing it in the first place). Because its hind legs were paralyzed, it had been forced to stay in one position for several days so that part of the pelt was matted and dirty . . . ruined, I’m afraid. Also, the injury had caused quite a bit of internal bleeding, making the carcass difficult to cut up. In spite of our bad first experience, though, we’re anxious to try again with a normal rabbit.

By the way, the eating-size bunnies are now in the coop with the chickens and seem to be enjoying their freedom from the more confining hutches. The reason for this move is an increase in our rabbit population after a friend gave us a pregnant doe. When her litter got big enough to need their own hutch, we either had to build new quarters, slaughter all the larger animals (no room in the freezer) or put them in with the birds. (Not the young bunnies from the new litter, though, because they’re so small that they’d probably be harmed by the chickens’ pecking.)

Now that the cockerels from our original flock of chickens are big enough to be eaten as broilers or fryers, we have 25 new chicks in an improvised brooder. They’re Barred Rocks, a black and white breed that’s supposed to do well in cold winters and to produce good layers as well as useful meat birds.

One more new arrival to report: Dorie, the milch goat who’s being loaned to us by a woman who doesn’t like the bother of milking twice a day but does want kids to sell every spring. This arrangement is fine with us, especially since the owner will be keeping the goat when it’s dry and when it has young.

Both Dorie and Nellie were checked for TB and brucellosis recently . . . and we finally got Nellie dehorned after all, since Dorie hasn’t any horns and can’t defend herself. Luckily there’s been no decrease in milk production so far. Nellie was a little skittish with us for a few days after the somewhat painful dehorning procedure . . . but the discomfort didn’t stop her from butting Lyman’s sheep, as we could see from the matched blood spots on one coat of wool. That old instinct is still there!

With all this produce, meat and milk lined up, we should be OK for food over the cold months . . . there’s the question of water, too. finally decided not to have a well drilled while we’re living here, because we’re only renting and it doesn’t look like Lyman’s going to sell as we thought. So what about a winter water supply?

Well, we’re building an insulated porch onto the trailer with the floor about four feet off the ground, leaving room for water stored in 400-gallon stock watering tanks. Besides helping retain heat in our living quarters, enclosed space should keep the water from freezing. If our supply runs out (and we’re hoping it doesn’t), we should be able to refill the tanks from the spring on a warm day, so we’re not too worried . . . although we will definitely have to conserve water for the next few months.

Winter will be more comfortable now that we have all the luxuries of civilized living . . . which, I must admit, are very pleasant. The “conveniences” are hot and cold running water, a telephone (one gadget I sometimes regret having) and central heating. In September it was hard to imagine needing heat, but now that the temperature’s going down to the low 40’s at night it’s sure nice to have.

We’ve had a good first half-year everything considered, and now that it’s nearly over we’re feeling enough like veterans to offer some closing advice to other novice homesteaders. First, read and prepare for your move–just as you would for any other venture–and be sure to acquire the necessary tools. Remember that it’s important to start in the spring to get your store of food in for the winter and, with this task in mind, gather containers of all sizes. You’ll need them for everything from carrying and storing grain to gathering wild foods. Finally, good luck . . . we hope your new life works out as well as ours has so far.

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