Thrifty is Still in Style

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms

Dog kennels are one of those wonderful items that can be used for a wide variety of purposes…and critters!  Photo by Kara Berlage 

Call it odd, call it quirky, call it old-fashioned, call it hoarding, or call it a newer term like cradle-to-cradle, thriftiness permeates the homesteading farmer’s lifestyle.  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about how old, unwanted sheds would be burnt down and the coals raked through to salvage all the nails for the next project.  Well, times really haven’t changed all that much…save any shed roasting on our part.

It has always surprised me the things people would throw away.  Contractors would come to remodel the old farmhouse or build a new outbuilding, and they’d chuck everything they didn’t use into a huge dumpster.  We’d be out there scavenging, pulling out bits of lumber, pieces of tin siding or roofing, and squirreling it away in our favorite corner stashes.

During the renovation of our 1919 Gambrel barn, some of the boards were so weathered, they were removed and replaced with new white pine.  But were they thrown out?  Oh no!  Those weather-beaten boards came back to life as a run-in pig shelter on skids, roofed with that leftover tin the contractors were going to throw away earlier.

2x4s are gold, never get rid of them!  And screws?  Use them over and over until the heads are stripped bare.  No sense in wasting a good screw.  And old doors?  Put them up in the rafters of the garage—there’ll be a chicken coop that needs one someday.  And the old towels?  Stash them away for lambing.  Rags seem to live forever on a farm!

And wire, that hangs around until its broken to tiny nubs, coiled up, and hung on nails in Grandpa’s workshop room in the garage, next to every tool old and new accumulated for keeping the motley set of equipment running on the homestead.  Old coffee tins hold hodge-podge assortments of rusty nails, others clips for attaching fences to T-posts (never seem to have enough of them around, even when they’re bent and bowed, they still get driven in for the next fencing project).

Ah, fencing…  This week, we were putting up a fresh yard for having some celebrity chickens and ducks at Farmstead Creamery.  This would create a chance for youngsters of all ages to meet some of the animals we have on the farm, without disturbing the crews busy in the pastures.  But while our flock of 150 laying hens move about in the field protected by electric mesh fencing, such predatory precautionary measures aren’t the best mix with toddlers.  So it was time to get out the fence post diggers, the T-post pounders, and some welded wire fence.

When we first started restoring the old homestead, we made a lot of fence.  And I mean a LOT.  Some years, it felt like all we did was put up or take down fence.  Every year, the garden fence went up (and that garden was over 100 feet deep by 200 feet wide, with an additional 30 by 50 foot patch) after tilling, then all came down again in the fall before the major snows.  Now we fence even the garden in electric mesh, so I don’t miss that old style annual fencing project one bit!

But that certainly didn’t mean we got rid of the old fence.  Oh no, it was rolled up and stashed with the rest of the “might use it someday” metal items behind a machine shed.  You know, those “someday” piles could last forever, really.  I mean, who knows when that bowed-nearly-in-half metal pipe gate that the rams tried to destroy might be the exact perfect thing you needed for that in-a-pinch project!

It’s a Theory Anyway

Well, that someday pile got a good workout the last couple of days, creating the “celebrity birds” strong-pen.  In went the fence posts (all repurposed from the re-used fencing stash in the woodshed), then we pulled in one of the summer poultry shelters that has housed pullets or teenaged turkeys in its previous lives.  Then it was time to add the fence.  Rusted, bent, unloved, we pulled the salvaged chunks of spliced fencing into shape with the “come-along” and pounded and clipped them into place.

And in the end?  Well, like most of those kinds of projects, there was just enough of the materials on hand to get the job done—even if it ended up being a motley mix of woven and welded wire.  Those birds would be safe from predators and prying fingers, and the “someday pile” was just that little bit smaller than before.

Plywood is another coveted re-use item on the farm.  One day it’s part of a loading chute to the stock trailer, another a draft shield for piglets.  Then it’s a ramp on this date and a shearing board on that date.  Cardboard also serves similarly, being used for all manner of purposes on the homestead from building chick brooders to offering a protective buffer between the hard, cold concrete and laying on your back, working on the underbelly of the farm truck.  The helpful folks at the local hardware store have grown quite accustomed to the annual call to save “chick boxes” in the spring—storing empty stove and refrigerator boxes for pickup.

Even the Sawyer County Gazette gets involved, bringing over stacks of old newspapers that I dutifully shred for bedding for the young chicks.  Soon they can have wood shavings (also saved by a local sawmill for us, which is a byproduct of their planer process), but for starters in order for the chicks to learn “this is food” and “this is bedding,” shredded paper is the best medium.

It’s all about taking a common waste product and turning it into something useful on the farm!  What could be better, right?  Scrap fencing supplies becomes a chance for a youngster to meet a colorful rooster up close.  Unpurchased newspapers become a comfy home for fuzzy, baby chicks.  Bits of forgotten boards become shelter for pastured pigs.  And the kennel from Grandpa’s black lab Meg who passed away several years ago?  It’s hauled a young sow home from Virginia, brought turkeys to and from the pasture, and even helped take orphaned piglets on a road-trip to Platteville and back.

Some things are just worth being thrifty about.  And it’s coming back in style.  I could dress it up with a few trendy buzzwords like “up-cycling” or “repurposing,” but the outcome is the same.  What might have been thrown out as insignificant or used-up by consumer culture has been given new life, again and again, until it really does finally give up (several rolls of duct tape, packs of zip ties, and some baling twine later) and is lamentably allowed to depart from barnyard service.

Think we can get another year out of this fence post?  See you down on the farm sometime..

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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