Homesteading: Why, how and the bumpy road we drove here on

          You don’t have to be born into a ‘farming family’ to become a farmer. Really.

           Small towns everywhere seem to have their eminent ‘farming families.’  But the number of family farms has plummeted from 6.8 million in 1935 to 2.1 million in 2002, according to a U.S Dept. of Agriculture census. This RealTruth article paints a frightening picture of the rapidly disappearing concept of the family-owned farm, citing urban sprawl, the economy and the prevalence of ‘Big Ag’ as some of the reasons for its demise. The title of ‘farmer’ has also become synonymous with poverty, odor and lack of intelligence to a lot of people (who also seem to think the food they eat grows in the grocer’s freezer in its cardboard packaging) and also carries some of the blame, in my opinion. Who would want to become a farmer and struggle against the Monsanto Machine to make a buck when you could become a high-powered CEO and drive a Maserati? if any sort of small-scale farming is going to continue in this country, this mindset needs to take a sharp left turn off of the wagon and keep on rolling down the proverbial hill. Like, yesterday. If those CEO’s looked far enough back in their family tree, they’d see that they come from a ‘farming family’ too. We all do. Each and every one of us has ancestors who lived a self-sustaining lifestyle, because that was how they stayed alive. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to find those roots, regardless of whatever wayward turn those branches have taken in the last century. It’s in all of our blood in some degree, and for those of us wanting to return to that lifestyle, our ‘lack of roots’ shouldn’t be a roadblock to getting there.

           When we first became interested in hobby farming, we were newlyweds living in an apartment in a suburb of Denver, CO. My child from a previous relationship had been joined by a baby sister 11 months after our marriage, and we were expecting our third daughter. Aware that the new baby’s arrival would put us over the apartment complex’s occupancy limit, we started looking into buying a house. We looked at some local areas, but became more and more interested in surrounding rural communities. When Ivy was 5 months old we bought our first home; a 7-year old bi-level ranch home in Elizabeth, CO. We were still in a subdivision, but our property bordered on open space and the noise level was a fraction of what we’d dealt with at our apartment. Our first spring there we bought 6 chicks and 2 little ducklings from one of the local feed stores. They rapidly outgrew the plastic recycling tubs they were living in, requiring a coop be built with haste. The first tiny egg we found in a nest was cause for celebration; the kids often took it out of the fridge to admire and we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it for over 2 weeks. Our first foray into farming (on a very small scale) had borne fruit, and we couldn’t have been prouder if we’d laid that little egg ourselves.

             Our flock grew over the next few years, as did our desire to expand on this newly-found love of sustainability (meek as it was.) But as we got more interested in other ways to feed ourselves sans grocery store, the limitations of our property became more and more apparent. The rock-hard clay soil of eastern Colorado struggled to produce a single tomato per vine, until locusts descended in biblical proportions and ate everything green right down to the inhospitable dirt. Our water source came from a privately-owned community well that frequently lost pressure, leaving us without water for a day or more at a time and costing us over $100 a month for extremely modest usage. Storms often knocked the power out. This fostered a dual interest in prepping and survivalism, as we were frequently left without access to utilities. We debated putting in a woodstove, but that did nothing for the water situation (the county prohibited ‘extra’ wells in our area) or the crappy soil. On April 6th of 2011, we decided to stop talking about a sustainable lifestyle and start working towards actually doing it.

             On December 6th, 2011 we locked the door of our old house for the last time and started the frozen drive east to southwest Michigan. Justin had accepted a job and our house was ready to go on the market once the paint and carpet guys finished with it. We lived with relatives until June of this year, when we moved into our new home on a ‘short term rent-to-own’ sort of arrangement. Our house in CO closed in August, after a nightmarish 8 months on the market that included an offer that fell through, carbon monoxide scares, a screaming fire alarm that had the neighbors peeking in windows while preparing to call 911 and an incredibly expensive bunch of work that had to be done to bring the septic up to code. We moved our flock of chickens, small herd of 5 miniature dairy goats and flock of ravenous turkeys into our new place and got to work learning the ropes. We’re now in the process of closing on the new place. We don’t ever intend to move again.

Every day is another lesson. We’re learning as we go, making plenty of mistakes in the process. We thought we could use leftover chicken wire to fence in the goats’ pastures until we could afford something better; we ended up with half the landscaping eaten and frequent visits from the herd on the front porch of the house. We gave the turkeys access to the barn and ended up plagued by flies. We installed woven wire fencing and penned the gobblers in their own pasture with a Quonset hut. We still get discouraged at times, but we’re fixing things as they come up. We’re learning. Neither of us were born into ‘farming families’ but we’re determined to raise our children in one. The future is so uncertain; we want our kids growing up with the knowledge they need to feed, clothe and house themselves should they ever need to.

Anyone with an interest in hobby farming or self- sustainability, don’t let your roots (or lack thereof) deter you. If you’re willing to invest the money to make the transition and the time to learn the skills, you can make it happen. There’s an incredible wealth of resources available to teach and inspire:

  *Books. Some of our favorites are:
-The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery
-The Self-Reliant Homestead by Charles A. Sanders
-The Back-to-Basics Handbook by Abigail R. Gehring
-The Joy of Keeping Farm Animals by Laura Childs
-The Backyard Homestead edited by Carleen Madigan
-The Self-Sufficient Life and How To Live It by John Seymour.
Some great like-themed books that we found inspiring are:
– Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
– The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O’Brien
-Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture by Mark Winne.
-Anything by Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan. A current fav of mine is Folks, This Ain’t Natural by Joel Salatin; informative, inspirational, downright hilarious.

 *Magazines. (Most of these are available in paperless online or Kindle editions if that’s your thing)
-Hobby Farms. Great info on small-scale agriculture including equipment reviews, articles comparing livestock breeds, gardening, Q & A sections and ads in the back that are actually interesting to read!
-Hobby Farms Home. Tons of recipes (including canning and cast-iron cooking) green kitchen remodels, seasonal food resources and homestead crafts.
-Mother Earth News. One of the first and still one of the best! lots of good info about sustainable agriculture, composting, DIY projects and global issues that affect anyone who appreciates food and oxygen
-Backyard Poultry. Geared more towards suburban and urban poultry enthusiasts but still some good info for farm folk as well. Articles about poultry health and happiness, ‘coop improvement’ projects and lots of diversified breed info.
-Backwoods Home Magazine. Another of the firsts, also still one of the best. Off-grid transition and living info, firearms articles, recipes, Q&A with the awesome Jackie Clay, gardening info, supply stockpiling tips and more.

*Documentaries. Netflix Instant is truly awesome, not only for finding random old movies we liked as kids to turn on for our littles during rainy afternoons when SpongeBob is driving us insane. TONS of great documentaries are available to download online or to stream through any gaming console with internet capability. Some of our favorites are:
-Food, Inc. Nauseating but life-changing!
-Fresh. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms and Will Allen of Growing Power in one documentary. Enough said.
-Natural World: A Farm for the Future.  A filmmaker transitioning her family’s 5-acre hobby farm to run without fossil fuels of any kind
-Mad City Chickens. Stories from backyard chicken keepers, a feed store owner who rescues a foundling bird who narrowly escaped becoming a McNugget and an incredibly interesting segment on Murray McMurray , our favorite hatchery.

*Tha Interwebz. Websites, message boards, blogs (ha) you name it it’s out there. I recently heard through the goat-person grapevine about the ‘pooch test,’ which can supposedly tell you if a goat is bred relatively early. One entry in the Google search engine, and I spent over and hour in the barn  (on my butt in the straw while Fiona the goat tried to eat my hair) comparing the hundred-plus Google image results to my various doe goat’s lady parts. I guess its safe to say I appreciate this resource more than my goats do.

*Podcasts. We like Jack Spiriko’s The Survival Podcast (TSP) and In The Rabbit Hole, both of which have great homesteading info as well as prepping-related stuff. If anyone knows of any good farming podcasts, please comment and let me know! I need to something new to listen to while driving to the feed store.

*Old-timers, ‘farmin’ folk’ and pretty much anyone over 60. Some of the most invaluable advice we’ve been given has come from people who have been in agriculture for a long, long LONG time. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with just how open, insightful and encouraging the old-timers we’ve had the good fortune of meeting have been. The 70’s back-to-the-land movement is shockingly similar to the current interest in 20 and 30-something urbanites deciding to keep their mohawks and go farm instead of covering up their ink and looking for an office job; find the parallels to your situation and search out some like-minded people a generation or two ahead. I’ve learned a ton from our ‘hay guy’ Frank about hay composition, different cuttings and their availability at different times of the year, and which hay would optimize (or decrease) our doe goats’ milk quality once they start birthin’ babies and so on. Approach the conversation in a respectful, non-egotistical way and you’ll walk away with some great firsthand knowledge.

*Take the plunge and get your hands dirty. Make those mistakes, figure out solutions and grow your own special brand of smarts. Hopefully you’ll catch onto things a little quicker than we did, and won’t end up with goats trying to eat your porch or learning how to hijack the feed scoops.

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