The ABCs of Homesteading: U is for Uncertainty (with 3 Steps for Managing It)

Reader Contribution by Tasha Greer and Reluxe Ranch
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Potato harvest

From A to T, in this homesteading series so far, we’ve covered all sorts of homesteading activities including raising ducks and goats, growing mushrooms, learning about horticulture, kitchen skills, growing spices and storing food, an A-Z list of useful tools, and more.

Now, I want to cover a topic that gets to the heart of why I homestead:

Uncertainty

We live in uncertain times. That sounds ominous, I know. But the fact is every person who has ever lived, in this time or any other time, has lived in uncertain times.

Living with uncertainty is nothing new. What’s new, though, is that so many people feel uncomfortable dealing with it. That’s one of the reasons why 2020 has been so difficult. But I have to tell you, homesteading can help.  

Get Comfortable with Uncertainty

When something like a new virus hits the world stage, we have no idea how it will behave. How will it spread? Will animals get sick too? How fast will it mutate? How many people will get sick at once and how will that impact the availability of goods?

As we know from COVID-19, we’re still answering these questions a year after the virus began. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about that kind uncertainty. But doesn’t mean you can’t take effective action to deal with it.

Let’s look at a few basic principles and examples for effectively dealing with uncertainty:

Step 1: Take Broad Action

Say your house is on fire. There’s a lot of uncertainty there. Like…how did the fire start? How much damage will it cause? Will insurance pay for it? But do you need to wait to find the answers to those questions before you act?

Of course not! You’ll call 911. Then you’ll make calculations about whether you can try to fight the fire or if you should evacuate.

Maybe it’s a small fire. So, you turn on your garden hose and put it out before the fire department even arrives. Does the fact that you put the fire out mean you were wrong to call the fire department? Again, of course not!  

You couldn’t know in advance if you’d be able to put the fire out. So, instead you acted on multiple fronts to get the best results in an uncertain situation. This is the best way to respond to uncertainty.

Take the broadest set of actions possible until you get more information.

An isolated fire is a simple example. But what if fires are an ongoing risk where you live? Then, you really want to cast your net of solutions as broadly as possible.

  • You’ll want to be ready with escape plans and gear for evacuations.
  • Fire prevention for your landscape such as clearing debris, installing ponds, and using fire resistant plants will be part of your action plan.
  • Your home exterior may need a fire-resistant upgrade or installation of a sprinkler system targeted to soak your house.
  • Alternatively, you may decide to move or opt for a trailered tiny house that you move to safety when fire risks are high.

When you live in a high-risk fire area, you never know if or when a fire will strike. But living with that uncertainty can be stressful. By acknowledging it and then taking broad reaching precautions to reduce your risks, you manage the likelihood for a negative outcome.

Step 2: Keep an Open Mind

Responding to a fire or taking steps to improve your fire safety are only the beginning of this process. In uncertain situations, you can’t just make one final decision and stick to it. You need to keep making new calculations and adjusting your behavior as you learn new information.

Even in high fire risk areas, some years are worse than others. So, in a low-risk year you may be able to relax your guard a bit. In a high-risk year, be extra vigilant about maintaining a burn-resistant yard. As new fire prevention tools, techniques, and prevention methods emerge (and your budget allows) — you may want to make further changes to your home for added security.

In short-term situations like a small house fire, your powers of observation tend to be all that you need to work with.  But when dealing with uncertainty in long-term situations, you need to make a commitment to keep evaluating your responses.

You must be willing to let go of outdated information, throw out failed ideas, and change your mind.

Climate Change Example

When we moved to our homestead, I put a permaculture type water plan in place. It worked for a while, then we had a year with double our usually rain totals – from 42 to 84 inches of rain.

Initially, I treated that rain total as an outlier. Then, two years later, we had 30 extra inches of rain and some erosion damage. My state also started releasing granular data on what climate change would mean for my region. For us – it meant more rain hitting our property and running down the mountain slope behind our garden.  

When I combined my experience with the new climate science data, I knew I had to revise my water management plan. It’s no fun to completely re-design an established landscape. But the alternative of living in fear of every heavy storm — and wondering what it would do to our garden and livestock areas — was out of the question.

I’ve made a lot of improvements and will continue working at it as my time and budget allow. But I can tell you with certainty, I feel better tackling this potential problem than I would feeling helpless at every heavy rain.  

Step 3: Do Detailed Research

Of course, the other part of the equation is to keep learning new information about whatever has you feeling uncertain. To make the best decisions in an uncertain situation, it’s important to get your information from the most qualified sources possible.

Rely on High Quality Information

High quality information comes directly from people or organizations with particular expertise — including professional, educational, and experience-based backgrounds — to communicate authoritatively on a subject.

For example, I’m qualified to share information on vegetable gardening in North Carolina because I’m a North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Volunteer and I garden here year-round.

But don’t rely on me to be an expert on how to garden in Alaska! I’ve never gardened at that latitude.

Be Cautious about Personal Commentary

Likewise, when news programs talk to a general practice doctor about research an epidemiologist did on COVID-19, the general practice doctor certainly isn’t an expert information source on COVID-19. They might be a qualified general practice doctor, but they are still just sharing their personal commentary about someone else’s area of expertise when talking about COVID-19 research.

When you are trying to get the best quality information available to manage uncertainty, get as close to the direct source as you can.

Example: Do Masks Help Prevent COVID-19?

Here’s a practical example of what detailed research looks like. If you want to better understand whether there are benefits to wearing a mask, and why the CDC thinks there are, you can read their report on Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2.

After you finish that, then you’ll want to scroll to the bottom of the report to find the links to the research they relied on. From there, click out and read the abstracts written by the actual researchers who did the work. You can see how they designed their study, what their intent was, how reliable you think their methods were, and what the results were for yourself.

It takes a few minutes to do this. But once you get in the habit of using primary resources for your decision-making, rather than just reading someone else’s opinion on the work, you’ll be using better quality information. And that will help you make more accurate calculations on how to react in uncertain situations.

Use News as a Starting Point

News is another gray area when it comes to decision-making in uncertain situations. Every news organization is inherently biased because they have a target audience to keep interested. Real news organizations, though, uphold a standard of journalism that relies on using only high quality, primary source information to inform their stories.

Personally, I read the news because that helps me figure out what risks might be headed my way. But then I do deeper research similar to the mask example before I make decisions.

Putting it All Together

Now with that 3-step uncertainty management model in mind, let me talk about how this all fits in with homesteading.

Become a Homesteader

You can use those tools detailed above even if you aren’t a homesteader. But, frankly, homesteading provides a strong foundation that makes responding to any situation easier.

If you aren’t already working toward a homesteading lifestyle, then I encourage you to make that commitment.

You can start the process by making time, saving money, and improving your landscape, and securing your food supply with these posts.

Next, you can expand your skill set, create a more cohesive homestead lifestyle, and tackle bigger projects with these posts.

After that, you can begin to do some of the work related to building a better world and getting deeper into radical self-sufficiency through dependence on nature with these posts.

Of course, you’ll want to stay tuned for more posts to come. We’ve still got V-Z yet to go! As you journey toward less dependence on external supply chains with greater dependence on nature, local community, and your skills managing the uncertainty of something like a global pandemic is much easier.

COVID-19 Personal Example

COVID-19 and all the uncertainty around it has been a real challenge for most people this year. But I have to tell you the only hard part for me was watching other people suffer. That’s because I already had a plan for any pandemic – be it this one or any of the close calls such as Ebola.

What I know about any new virus is that I don’t want to get it in the early phases before treatment protocols are established. So, for COVID-19, I started preparing back in January when we became aware of the risk.

We always keep a 6 month supply of anything we need to live comfortably as a standard homesteading practice. So, I didn’t need to race out and buy food. But I did buy a few things, namely:

  • Extra seeds and bulk compost and mulch in case I needed to expand my garden
  • Dish soap, bleach, and a few extra first aid supplies
  • Luxury (sanity) goods like chocolate and my favorite cheap rye whiskey
  • Our normal bulk supply of flour, sugar, and salt (a few months earlier than normally)
  • Materials for planned homestead projects so we could stay occupied at home

Of course, I also encouraged anyone who would listen to me to stock up on things they might need to shelter in place.

By March, when the first COVID case was identified in our state, we were all set to stay home for most of the year if necessary. That’s just what we did. Quite frankly, because we didn’t have so many social commitments this year, I got a ton of stuff done.

I did all the intensive gardening, photography, writing, editing, etc. for my new book Grow Your Own Spices (available from book retailers everywhere). You can learn more about the creative process in my video on it.

I started an Instagram account @exploresimplestead to share slice of life stuff from the homestead. Plus, there was all the usual stuff to be done – like making a living, growing food, caring for livestock, etc.

Not everyone can homestead. Having the option to live this life is a luxury because for some people there are insurmountable economic and social barriers. But for many people, homesteading is not only a smarter lifestyle than just being a consumer, it’s also a less expensive way of living.    

Final Thoughts on Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a constant in our lives. Sometimes we’re more aware of it such as during a global pandemic. But homesteading as a foundation for comfort, self-provisioning, and personal security – you can control a lot more uncertainty than most people realize.


Tasha Greeris an Epicurean Homesteader, duck lover, and author of Grow Your Own Spices. You can find her at Simplestead. You can also find a list of all her Mother Earth News posts and more on her Other Works page.


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