This is the eighth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.
To be “Jack of All Trades” is to have a lot of different skill sets. A Journeyman is someone who has a professional level of competence at a particular skill or trade. Becoming a Jack of All Trades Journeyman, as in someone who has a professional level of competence at a lot of different skill sets, is key to being a good homesteader.
Homesteading skills used to be learned from birth to adulthood. However, in this technological age, many of us didn’t learn self-sufficiency as part of our usual education. So, new homesteaders have to make up for lost time which is easier to do with a skill-up strategy.
Make Learning Any Skill as ‘Easy as Pie’
Over the years, I’ve trained hundreds of people on a variety of tasks and I can always tell in just a few minutes if students will learn quickly. It has nothing to do with skill level and everything to do with their approach to learning. Trainees focused on memorizing steps are always harder to train. That’s because when you break any activity down into a series of steps, it becomes complex. However, trainees focused on getting the “gist” and using their own reasoning to figure out the process catch on quickly.
If you’d never had an apple pie and tried to memorize every step required to make one, you’d end up with a hundred steps to follow. All the nuanced details that go into peeling, coring, cutting, sauteing, measuring, incorporating, chopping butter sticks into pea-sized pieces, flouring your cutting board, roller, and hands, working the dough, oiling your pan, knowing which utensils to use when and how, and special preparation techniques, etc. add up to more information than a typical brain can store without excruciating memorization.
Instead, if you know what the pie should look and taste like and have an understanding of the broad phases of the process, e.g. make filling, prepare crust, fill crust, and bake, then successfully making a pie becomes much easier. This is true even for skills that require seemingly complex safety procedures.
When I learned to make soap with the amazing Mary Colman of Pinacle Hills Goat Farm, she gave a pep-talk in advance about lye safety. She told us it was a caustic acid (until your soap cures) and encouraged us to use gloves, goggles, and work only in well-ventilated areas. After that, she didn’t have to tell her students how to avoid splashing, prevent lye burns on skin, or how not to inhale the fumes. We used our own brains to figure that out. Having a safety-context also made it easy to remember less obvious steps like using paper towels to wipe out the lye and fat mixing bowl before rinsing it under gently running water to clean-up afterwards.
Regardless of the subject, if you want to skill-up quickly, make learning as “easy as pie” by using four simple techniques.
1. Get the gist and major phases of a process at the start.
2. Try to reproduce what you learn, but don’t get bogged down in details as a beginner.
3. Get feedback, or do a self-assessment, to determine what you can do better next time.
4. Practice often to keep improving.
Also, learning multiple skills at once is more beneficial than limiting yourself to just one. The skills don’t even have to be related. Because learning is itself a skill, the more you use it, the better you get at learning new skills. And winter, on the homestead, is a great time to skill-up.
Ways to Learn New Homesteading Skills
Another thing I discovered, as a trainer, is that most people are not good at unapplied learning. Learning by doing is easier. For most homesteading skills, “on the job training” works best and allows you to complete projects as you learn. Following are some ideas for how to skill-up cheaply and efficiently on the homestead.
Book Learning. Books are the cheapest and least time-restrictive way to study new skills. Rather than just reading a book on shed building, read it while building your new potting shed or animal shelter. Apply the techiniques as you go. If you screw up or get stuck on some detail, take time out to do web research or pick up a different book for an alternate perspective until you feel comfortable with new concepts. Book learning works great for skills that can be learned over time like building and gardening.
Video Learning. Last year before we slaughtered our first pig, we watched a lot of videos. You only get one chance to kill your first pig humanely. If you mess it up, then your pig is terrified and any hope you had for a clean kill is gone. It’s not like building a shed where you can back out a screw if you mess up an angle. For “one shot to get it right” kind of skills, videos are awesome, especially if you visualize yourself taking the actions and do a lot of mental rehearsal beforehand.
Community College Courses. Most community colleges offer personal enrichment classes like cabinetmaking, wine or beer making, high-tunnel building, welding, and more. Classes often cost under $200 and include a hands-on component. They also include workshop access so you can complete projects and make sure you enjoy using a skill before you invest in your own equipment.
Apprenticeships. For most of human history, higher education was for the wealthy-elite. Us, mere mortals, learned how to do stuff by working with others. This is still a great way to build practical homesteading skills. Many small businesses would be thrilled to give you skills training in exchange for free or cheap labor. But, being an apprentice means sticking to your commitment so the experience is beneficial to both parties. For shorter commitments, consider doing seasonal work and projects like pruning, harvesting and processing fruits and nuts, one-time building projects, event preparation, spring sheering, honey harvesting and winter hive preparation, etc.
Workshops. Traveling to workshops is not too practical for me since I keep livestock. Instead, I like to have them on my homestead. Last year, we had meat expert and award-winning author, Meredith Leigh (The Ethical Meat Handbook) come help with our pig slaughter and guide us through butchering, sausage making, and meat curing. It was cheaper to have her come to us than for us to travel to a similar workshop and hire someone to take care of our homestead while we were gone. And we got to share the workshop with our friends and family as our gift to them.
Gatherings. I got this idea from The Good Life Lab by Wendy Treymayne, a “must-read” for anyone wanting to skill-up on creativity and living in the waste stream. Basically, you invite all your friends to bring a skill to teach in exchange for learning skills from others. You can do this in the format of a club with regular meetings, or as a mega-weekend with campfires, food, and story sharing. Not only do you gain skills, but you also build community.
So Many Skills, So Little Time
Time is always going to be limiting factor in learning new skills. So it helps to prioritize your skills training based on what gets you to self-sufficiency faster. When I lived in the burbs and worked 70 hours a week, I spent time learning quick and easy skills that fit into a hectic schedule like preparing less popular cuts of meat, foraging for mushrooms, growing greens and herbs. But when we move to our 10-acre homestead and I started homesteading full-time, I shifted my focus to big ticket items that made me less dependent on outside resources.
Growing a large vegetable garden, soil building (including composting, sheet-mulching, vermiculture), water management (including filtration, rain catchment in ponds and cisterns, and self-watering systems), and keeping livestock (including animal processing, animal medicine, butchery, cheese making, feed-systems/cost cutting, fence building, food preservation, manure management, pasture management, and shelter making) were key.
With those skills well underway, I’ve now moved on to skills that relate to comfort, not just survival. But, I still prioritize based on self-sufficiency. For example, I mentioned soap-making. This one only made my skills list after we learned to harvest and store firewood and had processed our pigs because those skills produced the wood ash for lye-making and lard for soap.
However, for someone saving up to buy a homestead, making soap from store-bought goods instead of homestead products, might rank earlier on the list as a way to cut costs and create an income stream to fast-track a homestead purchase. Your assessment of what skills to acquire when depends on your current situation. But, wherever you are on the path, becoming a Jack of All Trades Journeyman will help you on your path to self-sufficiency.
The Alphabetical Skills List
In addition to the skills mentioned in preceding sections, here’s a list of skills to consider learning for self-sufficiency, income, and entertainment on the homestead.
Aquaponics, alternative energies, aquaculture, bread-making, beekeeping, beer brewing, basket weaving, carpentry, crafting, celestial navigation, cob building, cider making, design (landscape, passive solar, furniture, outbuildings, etc.), earthbag building, first aid, fishing, fermenting, foraging, fiber-making, gun safety and maintenance, grain-growing and processing, greenhouse building and growing, herbal medicine, handyman skills, hunting, hair-cutting, insect identification, irrigation systems, juggling (literally and figuratively), jewelry-making, knife-sharpening, knot-tying, legal research, laundry (by hand), moonshining, mushroom growing, maple syrup making, mead making, musical instrument playing, meditation, masonry, nutrition management, organic growing, orcharding, oil seed production, permaculture, plant propagation, quilting, repurposing, rain barrel making, small engine repair, sewing, seed-saving, self-care, tool-making, urban farming, vermiculture, vinegar making, welding, wilderness survival, well drilling, wine making, whittling, waste management, xeriscaping, yoga, and ziplines (for fun and easy transportation of goods or people).
To get you in the spirit of skilling-up, our next blog entry will be The ABCs of Homesteading: K is for ‘Kitchen Skills’. Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out the rest of the Alphabet of Homestead Skills here.
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina. She currently raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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