Over the years countless people have contacted me with a dreamy look in their eyes. “We are moving to 5 acres and plan to live off the land. I am so ready to get back to a simple life!”
I once held this dreamy eyed look. The thought of a simple life, carrying my milk bucket and egg basket out to the barn every morning, and spending the afternoon baking homemade bread. Sitting by the fire at night, while my children read aloud.
The reality is this. Homesteading is not a simple life. In fact, the pioneers of our country, (and I apologize men), especially the women, endured more hardship and had more grit than any of us will ever understand.
But even in this age of modernization, high-speed everything, and electronic-what-ever-you-want, homesteading is still not a simple life.
Humor me, for a moment, and consider this as an average, inexperienced, beginning homesteader fantasy for a day.
Wake up, drink your coffee, and watch the sunrise. Make a lovely breakfast of homegrown sausage and eggs, which your family runs to the table and interrupts each other telling you how yummy it is and how thankful they are for the food.
Next, you grab a basket and milk pail and head outdoors. The Jersey cow is smiling at you as you walk out to the pasture and happily gives you her milk, right there in the sunshine with the birds chirping and the flowers blooming. After milking your friend the cow, you walk away with a bounty of 50/50 milk and sweet cream, already rising to the top of your pail.
You make a quick stroll out to the cute, little chicken house, where your 6 chickens, (who all have names), are munching on grass and bugs, and have laid a bounty of eggs for you to collect.
You take the homegrown goodness inside, and then decide to take a stroll through the garden. Your lovely plants are growing, strong and beautiful. There is not a weed in sight, because you watched a YouTube video that tells you how to grow a garden without weeds. There is not a bug in sight, because you read a book that taught you how to companion plant. After you pick your perfectly balanced bounty, you head indoors to enjoy a day of peaceful canning in the kitchen.
Now, humor me for a moment longer, while I share what any given day from my life could look like.
I wake up, after what seems like an awful short sleep, because there is a cow mooing at the top of her lungs. Right after she moos, her calf lets out a moo, and this just continues until it is futile to try to sleep anymore. These two are mooing at the top of their lungs, because in real life on a homestead, you share milk your cow. This means, each night you herd/shuffle/coerce/beg the calf to go into her stall in the barn, so that in the morning the mamma cow will have milk for your family.
I drag myself out of bed and pour coffee down my throat as I attempt to hold my eyelids open. As the coffee is kicking in, I throw on yoga pants, a stained up t-shirt, and my old farm boots, and head out to the barn.
As I make my way there, I notice that things are awfully quiet now. Then I realize why. The calf escaped from her pen and is happily sucking down all the milk that was supposed to be for my family. I run to the mamma cow and open up the milking stall, swishing a bucket of frantically poured food to lure her in. I don’t dare milk her where she is, because I value my knee caps, forearms and head. She marches into the milking stall with her calf attached, and a nice milk mustache frothing around it’s mouth. I frantically pour some grain into the feed bucket and pull the calf away. I attempt to milk. I get 5 squeezes, and then the cow is dry. 5 squeezes, about 1/2 cup. It barely covers the bottom of the bucket. And none of that is cream. Sigh.
I grab my basket and head out to the chicken tractor. It is not cute, it is not pretty, but it does have a nice coating of chicken poop that my children get to shovel out now and then.
We have 30 chickens. About 50% lay eggs, on a good day, and only one has a name. It’s Cluck. I walk up to the laying boxes and reach in the first to find two eggs. I reach into the second box and before my mind can even fully understand what I grab, my subconscious reacts to the slither I feel.I throw the basket with two eggs, shutter a scream that escapes uncontrollably, and run the other way. I turn back to see a huge chicken snake, just as scared as I am, regurgitating the large breakfast of eggs he just ate. Sigh.
At this point, I head back to the house with my miserable slush of milk in my pail. The egg basket stays right there in the chicken tractor until the snake is gone. Once inside. I dump the milk in the sink and wash the pan. Then I sit down and pour another cup of coffee. I consider adding whisky, but it’s only 7 a.m., so, while tempting, I forgo. After my second cup of coffee coursing through my veins, I feel up to checking on the the garden. This is somewhat successful. It’s mid June, and the garden is in full swing. But so are the bugs, and so are the weeds. As I wade through the grass that has grown up through the “grass proof” mulch, I find the melons. There’s a beauty! I pick it and head over to the squash plants. Damn vine bores managed to kill 5 of the 10 plants over night, just as they were putting on squash, and a veritable army of squash bugs hatched over night, as well. I begin squishing bugs, because, you know, we are a pesticide free garden. I squish squash bugs between my fingers until I am literally leaking squash bug juice down my hand, and then I realize I’m sweating. I look at my phone and it’s 10 a.m. The Texas heat has started sizzling, and the sweat is dripping in my eyes. There’s not a thing I can do about it, though, because if I wipe it out with my hands, I will replace it with squash bug guts. I pick the 28 zucchini that are ready, and set them to the side. For the next 3 hours I mulch and weed. Periodically I yell at my kids to come help, but generally speaking, they have fallen off the face of the earth.
The next thing I know, it’s noon, and I realize my children mustn’t have truly fallen off the face of the earth, because suddenly they appear, proclaiming hunger pains and starvation.
I confess. This is not an everyday scenario, but any one of these things, and countless more do happen quite regularly around here. Homesteading is hard. It demands determination, love, and passion.
Here are a few things I believe all Homesteaders will agree on.
1. You will laugh, smile, and fall in-love. But you will also cry buckets of tears, feel utterly hopeless, and experience heart-break like you never imagined.
2. You will have perfect days of soaking in the beauty around you, but most days will be full of bone numbing, exhausting work. Especially if you are starting with a scrappy piece of land. You will sweat, bleed, probably cuss, and most definitely will not have pretty hands.
3. All those things you read and watch, they are all great and helpful. But ultimately, you will have to figure out what works for you, works for your land, your family, your animals, your climate, you seasons, etc.
4. You may buy acreage with the intent of leaving modern “chinka chinka” housing forever, never buying food at the grocery store again, and living a self-sustained life. You may fall in love with homesteading and you may try it for 3 years and say “This is not what I thought it would be!” And that’s OK.
I’m not writing this to discourage you from homesteading, or scare you from trying to separate from the modern food industry. In fact, I encourage you to do just that! But I think that people need to know that it is not easy. It is not this simple, happy, easy life of flowers and fresh cream.
After homesteading and farming and every combination in between for the past 7 years, here is my advice.
1. Don’t decide to homestead because you read Little House on the Prairie to your kids. If you have a passion for living off the land, but have no idea what you are doing, go visit real farms. Volunteer to help in peoples gardens. Look for people that are clearing land and building outbuildings and ask to help work. Observe. Read. Ask questions. Get your hands dirty. See what this life actually feels like.
2. Don’t buy land because it’s pretty. Research rainfall, grass production. Look at fences and soil depth. Are there invasive trees/weeds that will need to be cleared? What kinds of animal predators live around you? What was the land used for in the past?
3. Start off small. Many people can have a few backyard chickens and a small garden in a neighborhood. Start there. Then talk and plan out a realistic goal for moving to a homestead. What is most important to your family to eat? Beef? Dairy? Vegetables? Chicken? What can you locally source? Here’s the fact. You can potentially produce it all, but you will not enjoy it. You will be dead tired, emotionally spent, and you will burn out.
4. Understand the cost. Homesteading does not mean free food. Chicken must be fed, they will not live off grass and bugs. Cows will almost certainly need to be supplemented with hay at least some of the year. Gardens most always need to be watered and mulched. Goats and sheep eat everything to the ground, and need to be supplement-fed, as well. Homesteading is expensive. You will spend every dollar you save at the grocery store growing you own food. But the pro to this is you will have more pride in what you eat, and it will most certainly taste better!
Homesteading can be a beautiful, fulfilling life. But, with all things, a balance must be made. At this time in our life, we have found that balance. There was a time we provided nearly all our family’s food from our land. There was a time we provided food for 100 other families per week. And now we provide our meat, eggs, and seasonal veggies. We provide a handful of families beef every year. We buy other things locally from our farmers market, and other things from the grocery store. Life has gotten simpler for us, but not before it almost killed us. Homesteading nearly 100% of your food is a beast, and for us, it was not a sustainable lifestyle.
Good luck to you on your journey. Find what works for you and your family and make sure that you find joy in what you do.