Friday, September 5, 2014

How to Start Homesteading When You Don't Have a Clue

Three and a half years ago, a 20-something father of two, with an expectant wife, answered a phone call. It was HR, following up: he was offered a job out of state.

He was raised in a fast-paced metropolitan suburb, and went to a blue collar college town where he experienced dorm and apartment living, even after having graduated. Having bounced around from house to house for years, and even back to his home state for a time, he never set down roots, never planted a garden, never owned a dog. Heck, he only had a lawnmower for about 8 months before moving back into a apartment.

But that phone call changed everything.

I received a job offer by phone on my birthday in 2011.
I started a new job, moved 10 hours away, bought our homestead,
and we had Thing #3 that year.

This was the time. This was the chance to start over. This was the chance for he and his wife to realize their longtime, yet seemingly crazy, dream: to live in the country.

With no experience. No family nearby for support. No knowledge. No tools. All he had was a new job and a dream.

Fast forward three and half years, and he's built an orchard and a half-acre garden zone, rescued and re-homed a donkey, learned to mow hay by hand, tended sheep, butchered chickens, designed and built a movable chicken coop, milked a cow in a homemade stanchion (and learned what the diddly a stanchion was in the first place), befriended some pigs, and become a beekeeper.

With no experience, yet a dream to produce all of my family's food on our land, I have come very far in three and a half short years. The majority of this has happened in the last two years.

How did I get this far? Simple: plan and research.

I've always kinda been a data junkie, reading and learning and absorbing a TON of information, then letting my mind process it for a while. Sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few months. I seem to have a knack for picking out relevant data to help me do what I need to accomplish. I learned to be a network engineer by watching some IT videos. I learned PHP and RoR to code (front and back) a learning management system with 0 prior experience. I had clear objectives, I narrowed down what I needed to achieve them, and I went out and learned and practiced what I needed to make them happen.

So when it came to homesteading, there were three basic steps we took:

1. Clarify the Vision

This includes both identifying what you want, and what you do NOT want.

Wife and I had some long talks and deep discussions after we moved to Tennessee. It took a while, but we both came to desire the same thing - grow and raise all of our own food on our new acreage. We talked about all kinds of things - eating mostly sheep for meat, raising rabbits, installing a fish pond, and a whole host of other possibilities. The final vision didn't come into focus until this past winter, when it all took shape and I  somehow sweet-talked my way through these insane plans  convinced Wife with hard, irrefutable data that cow ownership and pig rotation was the way to go.

Had I thought of, or even suggested, that when we were first getting started, it never would have happened. We weren't prepared for that. The vision hadn't taken shape yet.

If the vision isn't clear, you could end up doing things that waste time and resources, and
possible take you away from your real, deep goals.

A clear vision took us a few years to find. In the meantime, we learned all we could by starting with gardening - first, three raised square-foot beds. Then a larger dug-out square-foot inspired garden. The work involved for the reward we got was not balanced, in my mind. We put so much time and effort and expense into the garden, to be rewarded, sure, but also disappointed in other things.

Our land was still a work in progress at that point. We had differing visions about the future. Heck, I changed my mind and let my mind wander down new rabbit holes almost weekly (many of which were not shared, as they were scrapped quickly once reality set in). Raise quail en masse for internet order egg fulfillment? I could do that! Sell saffron for capital? I could do that! Raise, train, and sell llamas and dogs? I could do that! Level it all and build a bunch of hugelkultur in a crazy, rain-collecting pattern? I could do that! Become a seasonal supplier of pumpkins and Christmas trees? I could do that!

But none of those fulfilled the deep longing that we had - to produce our own food. As idealistic and entrepreneurial as they were, they didn't fulfill OUR needs. None of the standard approaches to doing this that I had found satisfied our desires. I longed for self-sufficiency, and Wife longed for healthier food.

The garden/chicken/pig/cow/rabbit systems in place now are the result of years of rejecting dozens of other concepts in favor of what is the best approach to meet our ultimate vision.

2. Identify Needs

With a clear vision, I now knew what I needed to learn.

Basically, everything.

I was starting from scratch. I knew nothing. I knew eggs came from chickens and not "the grocery store" (a step up from some, believe it or not), but I knew nothing on raising them. I had no idea how to keep a donkey, or sheep, or cows, or pigs, or anything like that. I needed to learn how before I took anything home.

The Google search has definitely been the single most important tool in my self-education. Through it, I came to find several different types on online resources in which I learned a lot and took different pros and cons from, such as:

Blogs. Blogs are a great way to read one person's perspective, failures, and triumphs. Some bloggers are more open than others, and some tend to put on an obviously shiny, commercial, in-it-for-the-money vibe. The best thing is to try to find multiple bloggers who all write about a specific concern. For example, finding three bloggers who offer similar tips on how to overcome egg eaters is a great way to gain practical, real-world wisdom should that problem afflict you. Oh, and as a rule, I avoid the comment sections on most blogs. I'd advise that unless you're into drama, crass language, and name-calling.

Forums. Forums are great for asking questions, searching to see if your question has already been asked, or just educating yourself on different aspects of homesteading. Backyard Herds, Homesteading Today, Sufficient Self, and other similar blogs are indispensable tools. The drawbacks are that forums tend to be scattered and unclear in general thought and ideas, have people with terrible grammar, and may or may not actually provide help when it's needed.

Research Papers. Yup, I've read my fair share of abstracts. This is where you find the hard data - how many pounds does a cow poop in a day. What percentage of protein does a broiler chicken need at 4 weeks. How much dry matter does a 100-lb. sheep eat in a day. What amino acid ratio is ideal for feeder hogs. These are questions that are documented, outlined, and charted in research studies. I prefer university studies (URLs that have a .edu in them).

Books are authoritative and often complete.

Books. Books are excellent at providing comprehensive looks at a particular subject, like keeping a family milk cow. Books do have their own scopes, though, so what a book says is not necessarily the end-all-be-all method. For example, Storey's Guide to Raising Pigs yields almost no information on rooting behavior and nutrition - something central to the lives of most pastured hogs.

The best course of action is to read ALL of these different sources, and come to conclusions about the method or methods that best help you achieve your vision.

3. Turn Knowledge into Action

With the knowledge gained on how to turn your vision into reality, the hard part begins - putting your vision into reality.

It's one thing to wax poetic about the joys and benefits of cow ownership.

It's quite another to bring home a pair of cows.

It's one thing to read about butchering a chicken.
It's quite another to actually butcher a chicken.

It takes practice to turn ideas and knowledge into practice. The best ways to do this successfully are to either practice a lot, or gain a crap-ton of knowledge about what you're about to do. Nothing trumps experience, but knowing all about what you've gotten yourself in to, and expecting things to go wrong, isn't a distant second.

4. Learn From Your Mistakes - and Be Willing to Change

I've learned nearly as much from my failures as I have from my successes. Sometimes, these lie in the learning the nuances of the best way to hand-milk, which reading about only gives a cursory knowledge of.

Other times, the learning lies in figuring out why another chicken is dead.

In all cases, applying that knowledge to not repeat mistakes is a great driver of progress. So many times, I read about people who experience death and disease and who don't change their practices. This is insane. Plan, prepare, educate yourself, and be ready - but for goodness' sake, if you're wrong, admit it and move in a better direction.

I was wrong about running the chickens behind the pigs. I reversed the entire system to fix it.
I was wrong about Coconut. I bought a new buck to fix it.
I was wrong about many other things, and I've adjusted.

Change is the only constant in life, and if you don't change along with life, you'll soon find that you;re not living anymore.

In short:

How do you start homesteading when you don't have clue?

Be humble.
Read as much as you can.
Be flexible and able to adapt and modify as necessary.
Admit your shortcomings and your failures - and know that we all have them.
Know what you can do - you time, your energy, your budget, you land.
Find the maximum you can support, and then scale it back a bit to fit it into reality.
Experiment a little.
Be sure about the big stuff.
Have a clear vision, and work to achieve it.
Be patient - your homestead is NOT going to be built in a day. Or a year. Or five years.
Life's a journey, and homesteading is merely part of that journey.
Accept the fact that in this life, you will never achieve all of your goals. But hey, that's why God invented eternity.

And most importantly: if it doesn't bring you joy, it's not worth doing.

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