The end of this month marks our six month anniversary on Beatha Fonn – our very first “farm”. I should lie and tell you that it's been rainbows and butterflies since we started out on this adventure six months ago, but well… that'd be a big fat lie.
The true story is that while homesteading is one of most rewarding experiences I've had the pleasure of enjoying thus far in my short life, it's anything but constant bliss.
I suppose that's part of why Waylon warned us Mamas to not let our babies grow up to be cowboys. This much discouragement, death, and challenge can surely only wither one's spirit. Right?
Okay fine. Dramatic. You caught me.
But while my spirit may not be withered, my heart has spent many a moments aching over these past six months – as has my wallet. As has my knees (I'll explain more later).
So as we mark the end of this year and the beginning of another, I felt it necessary to mark down our lessons learned. That way, as we continue this adventure for another year, I can remember all this stupid things not to do again.
I also find it particularly helpful to write down goals. Not in any sort of New Year's Resolution sort of way – but rather as a reminder to myself what it is I'm struggling so hard to accomplish and where I'd like to be a year from now. It's helpful when you're tired, frustrated, making cheese for the umpeenth time this week and pulling dead things off your farm.
I remember when I first started homesteading, my list read like this:
In one year from now, I'd like to be grinding my own grains, buying the organic grains in bulk, and drinking raw milk.
A small first step – but getting back to look at that list and say “Hey, self! Goals accomplished!” felt pretty dang awesome. Had I not written it down, I would have forgotten that there was ever a time when I hadn't done those things, as new every day habits have a way of erasing memories of time past.
Beatha Fonn has been a mixed bag over these last six months – triumph, abundance, famine, life and death (okay fine, mostly death), hard work, heartache, and joy.
Without further adieu, I present, my most important farm lessons from 2013:
1. Plan for the worst:
And seriously, I'm not trying to be a dooms-dayer by saying that. But it's true. Here's an example of what I mean: When we first were building the corral for our dairy cow, we constructed it of 4×4 posts sunken into the ground connected by 1×6 lumber boards and hog wire on the bottom half. Pretty, right? Inexpensive, right? Fail. Fail. Fail. For starters, looking back, what kind of idiot builds a cow corral out of 1×6 lumber?!?!?!?! All Kula or Sal had to do was lean against it to scratch their back and *SNAP*. Board was broken. Cows are powerful animals and on top of the well-behaved ladies all too quickly breaking up our corral, the bull that we had visit us for a few months last summer REALLY did a number on it. He knocked down posts, broke boards, knotted up the hog wire fencing like it was a used tissue, and broke the latch of the fence – twice. That bull broke through chain, jumped over the fence, tried to climb out under the fence and was an overall horrible house guest for his time here.
Point being, if we had planned better ahead of time, we could have saved and constructed a HIGH QUALITY CORRAL from the beginning. Looking back, we should have planned for the worst: what if a cow WANTS to get out, what if we DO end up bringing a bull here for breeding, what if they DO expose those weak spots in the fence. Had I thought for worst case scenario, I would have prevented a lot of last minute scrambling, extra time and money spent, and the overall headache of dealing with loose livestock. Fail.
2. Don't be lazy. Ever. Just don't.
Because as soon as you are lazy, you'll pay for it. Almost instantly.
Here's a few examples at how laziness has really bitten us in the behind this year:
– Too lazy to pull the hose back up to the house after watering the cow = cars drive over it and break giant holes in it and I'm instantly out a $50 hose
– Too lazy to shut the chickens in securely at night because it's so cold outside and I really don't feel like treakin' down there in pajamas = dinner for a hungry owl
– Too lazy to stock up on hay in the summer months = buying for double it's value in the winter time
– Too lazy to weed the garden = decreased production
– Too lazy to make cheese = soured milk
– Too lazy to take off muddy boots outside = baby enjoys a snack from the bottom of my shoe
Laziness is the death of all things on the homestead. There's a reason for the old farm saying ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps'. Because frankly, there's lots of moments when I don't feel like making cheese, getting out of bed at the crack of dawn, peeling any more fruit for canning, or shoveling poo. But that's not what is important. What's important is conquering the laziness and choosing to be productive amongst the sleepy eyes.
If one is lazy, one shouldn't be a homesteader. Plain and simple. It's not the sort of lifestyle that lends itself well to that. Take my word for it.
3. Always have a Plan B. And C. And D.
Why? Because Plan A will never work. And I certainly don't mean for that to be discouraging to anyone out there planning their homestead right now, but if I've learned any valuable lessons on the farm thus far, this is one of them. While brainstorming, I've found it very helpful to map out ideal circumstances and then three or four options after that falls through. Instead of allowing Plan A to fail and flubbering (is that a word? it should be) around for what to do next, intentionally planning out a backup plan has been very helpful in managing the heartache around here.
What's that? You want any an example of how my Plan A dreams came crashing down around me? You got it:
Well, I'm sure y'all remember our first cow Kula. The sweet ‘ol dairy cow that we sunk $500 dollars into breeding who never took? FAIL. Especially since we didn't plan to have her checked as we should have, verified pregnancy as we should have, and had our initial sale pending pregnancy as we should have. We got Kula with only a Plan A – she'll be pregnant as they advertised her and will be a perfect, docile cow as she should be. But after scrambling around like a fool for months trying to get her pregnant, a multitude of pouting/crying sessions, and more stress than we should have experienced in our first months on the farm, it dawned on me: had we properly planned for the unexpected events said events wouldn't have felt so “unexpected” and would have allowed us to weigh options and prepare more thoroughly for them.
After a failed attempt to sell Kula as an open dairy cow, we had to face another Plan A/Plan B/Plan C decision.
Plan A: Sell Kula and recoop the $1500 we purchased her for. Guess what? IT DIDN'T WORK OUT.
Plan B: Butcher Kula and eat the meat. Guess what? IT DIDN'T WORK OUT.
Plan C: Sell Kula to the butcher and take market price for her. WORKED OUT.
It didn't stress me out to have Plan A and B fail this time, because I was prepared. We had mapped out all possible options before we listed Kula for sale and thus, were prepared for what was to come.
4. Battle predators with a vengeance:
One of the worst parts about animals is the death that inevitably comes with them. It doesn't bother me as much when we kill and butcher our animals because I know that they're killed quickly, handled properly, and utilized completely. Predators, on the other hand, are not so kind. They torture, decapitate, and waste – a really downer, in my book. In our first weeks on Beatha Fonn we lost two of our laying hens to a weasel. A few months later, we lost three more meat chickens to owls. Another laying hen to a hawk or owl last week. And just a few days ago we chased yet another owl out of the coop.
Weasels. Coyotes. Owls. Hawks. Racoons. Even cougars.
If you don't hate them now, as a homesteader, you'll likely start to do so. And I don't mean this in a bad way! The reality is though, when an animal is attacking and eating your animals, you get into protective mode. You're protecting YOUR animals, YOUR food source, for YOUR family. It takes on an entirely different meaning!
And even though owls are very protected in our part of the world (so not late night shooting here), there's still plenty of precautions that we can take for our animals like ensuring they're secured at night, constantly reinforcing the coop, making sure that we patch holes as necessary, and not assuming that “an owl can't fit in there” (because it can. and it will!). And chasing them off with garden rakes. Because that's how we roll.
5. Support your fellow homesteaders:
One of the greatest assets that we have as homesteaders is our relationship with other homesteaders and farmers in our area. It's not only given us a chance to further our education and ask questions, but it's build a wonderful sense of community for us! Because we took the time to scout them out, we found three other homesteaders in particular that have been of great service to us. The first is an old hog farmer who lives not a quarter mile down the windy road into town. When we stumbled upon his pumpkin patch this fall, I took the time to seek him out and strike up conversation. That led to taking home twenty pounds of free produce, having a new local source for alfalfa hay and piglets in the spring, and a lasting relationship with a fellow homesteader. I still take him and his wife milk weekly to say hello.
Another homesteader a wee bit further down the road has been a fantastic source of produce for us – she grows in a greenhouse and has been able to extend her growing season dramatically. All I have to do is call and I can pick an order of fresh produce up that day. She's given me advice on greenhouse building and vegetable varieties that do particularly well here.
There's also another across the river from us that has been a big support and encouragement in getting our bees set up. We're doing it for our first time together and flipping through the giant catalogs and attending bee seminars with someone is much more fun than doing it alone. On top of the bee-connection, she's also letting me purchase a few of her laying hens (after said owl-eating last week). Had I not had this connection, I would have likely had to wait until spring to start all over with another chick.
Making connections in your local food community can provide you with great resources for future projects on the farm – advice on milking a cow, growing hogs, keeping bees, predator control, gleaning opportunities, gardening tips, breeding sources, etc.
Taking the time and energy to support each other in our efforts is huge to the success of homesteading.
6. Be prepared for it to be even more awesome than you can imagine.
Okay fine, this may not be a ‘lesson' but it's still my words of advice for you. When you're counting down the days until your chickens start laying, you'll really begin to question why you even started this dang journey in the first place. But there is no feeling that can compare to finding that first egg in your coop.
“Stuart, LOOOOOOKKK!!!!! OUR FIRST EGG!!! Wait… Did you put it in there? Are you playing a sick and cruel joke? Did you know how badly I wanted them to start laying and so to encourage me you stuck this beautiful egg where you know I'd find it? STUART! DID YOU DO THAT!”
“Then look!!!! OUR FIRST EGG!!!”
And yes. This conversation actually took place.
Truth be told, the first time I milked our cow, I came up to the house with blood, sweat, tears, and milk dripping off my body. I thought to myself, “Self. What the heck have you done. Your life is over.” But as others promised it would, the routine got better and the reward of fresh milk twice a day is almost more than I can bear! The satisfaction and blessing of this lifestyle is… well… just that. AN ENORMOUS BLESSING.
7. Dream BIG.
Don't be afraid. Just go for it! People often ask me how I have the time, energy, and know-how to take on all of the projects that we have simultaneously going here on the homestead and in reality, I don't! But I still make it happen. By a lot of dreaming and entirely of God's grace and provision.
Sometimes, it just takes saying a prayer and making it happen.
I still have a lot to learn about homesteading. More than I'd care to admit, frankly. But with these valuable lessons in my back pocket, I'm hopeful for this year to come. Even though things won't work out as planned (and Lord knows, they won't), I'm still optimist for what the future holds for Beatha Fonn.
When passion for this lifestyle meets opportunity, we're all in for a party!
Oh – I almost forgot my goals!
1. Successfully raise two hives of bees and harvest honey
2. Successfully raise and butcher two hogs
3. Successfully breed Sal for a spring calf
4. Further develop the vegetable garden
5. Plant a few fruit trees and berry bushes
6. Successfully raise and butcher a second group of broilers
7. Plant grape vines
8. Fence in and plant a second pasture for grazing
9. Further develop cheese making skills
10. Successfully raise and butcher a few turkeys