It all started with a chicken. A rooster actually.
Living in a run down, 120 year old original homestead that was home to more mice inside then outside, I quickly began researching chemical free alternatives to eliminate these nasty unwelcomed house guests. In the midst of my research I came across a story about “old timers” using chickens as mouse control. I wasted no time to thumb my local craigslist ads and hours later, I came home with 2 regal roosters, for free! Not just any roosters, Buckeye roosters. The exact breed I was searching for, and as it turned out, they are quit rare. I took that as a serendipitous moment. It was meant to be. Katie + Roosters = Love. I quickly fell love with this breed. I even flew in hatching eggs from top breeder’s in Ohio and begin hatching them out by the dozens. Too this day, I have only found one other homestead in our area that intently breeds the Buckeye Chicken.
As my chicken math quickly began to add up, the chickens were taking over the gazillion year old barn that graced the property and I was quickly running out of space. I research and taught myself how to build a chicken coop. I designed a easy functional coop, with multiple poultry in mind. I scraped out and leveled the land. I laid every cinder block, measured, cut and nailed every board. Every shingle. Every window was put in my by me. A girl.
With the completion of the chicken coop, came a large garden. After the garden came milking goats. Then a greenhouse, then a root cellar. Then a second garden. Needless to say within a six-month time frame. I went from having a career, to being a stay at home, full-time homesteader. I was making cheese, fermenting cabbage and grinding my own flour. All was well, except I was EXHAUSTED. My new found ambitions were quick to burn me out. If I could start over again, I would start slow. I often get asked what is one piece of advice I have for a new homesteader. My answer, just that, START SLOW. While excitement to build up a homestead is running rapid through your mind, you don’t need to try do it all in the first year.
While it is virtually impossible to tell somebody ‘how to start a homestead’ as each person’s homestead dreams and visions are different, there are definitely several must have steps in the process to achieving a happy, functional homestead.
Get up early
Early I say! If your laying in bed listening to your rooster crow, your not getting up early enough, Just kidding.. kind of.. The saying “there’s not enough hours in the day” plays exceptionally true on the homestead. While most people are dreading the 6am alarm clock, the homesteader has already been up for hours. Garden needs watered. Veggies need harvested. Cows need milked. Meals need prepped. Bread needs rising and so on. Living a life from scratch takes extra time and extra planning. And on the other side of this, at the end of the day, while the rest of the world is on their way out to dinner or watching tv, the exhausted homesteader is no doubt sitting by the fireplace reading a “how-to” book and followed by an early hit to the hay.
Every homestead needs a garden. Whether your looking for complete self sufficiency or plan on urban small-steading, your garden will become your livelihood. Not only does the garden feed your family but the excess will also feed your poultry, cows and swine. A garden need not be big, but it does need to be efficient. Choose a plot in full sun and free of gopher holes (takes this advice from me). A garden should be near a easily accessible water source. If getting water to the garden is a complication, your garden will not be adequately watered, which will leave the garden fighting to produce to its full potential.
I preferred to plant my garden based on several of the old native American teachings.
“When the snow on furthest mountain has melt, it is safe to sow “.
This is typically around the middle of May here in the PNW.
“The three sisters are sacred, and they should be planted together to watch over one another”.
Corn, beans and squash represents the three sisters. This is my favorite method to plant in the garden. While it is the most efficient use of space, planting this way is also extremely time consuming. Albeit rewarding, but time consuming. The corn stalk acts as a pole for the peas/beans to climb. The squash/pumpkins leaves are are used for shade and the beans/peas deposit much needed nitrogen to the heavy feeding corn. The three sister act as a sustainable tripod.
At the end of the garden season, feed your corn stalks to the cows for added warmth and pumpkins to the chickens as a fall dewormer.
“In order to live off a garden, you practically have to live in it.
– Frank McKinney Hubbard
Keep a Journal
From vegetable yields to crop rotations, keeping a journal or a homestead management binder will help keep you on schedule and budget accountable. What works for you one year may not work the next, knowing where and when you planted peas sounds silly, but it could make or break your next crop. Its amazing during the harvest hustle all the simple things that are forgotten. Be organized, be prepared, keep a journal.
Learning how to cook on the homestead takes lots of time and organization. Cooking seasonally takes on a whole new level. “Easy” food that was once a microwaveable dinner or take out, now ceases to exist.
Cooking is easiest during the abundance of summer, when the garden is ripe, cream is at its peak and eggs come easy. Taking advantage of this overflow will serve you well. Garden vegetables will grace your plate three times a day. Cheese and yogurt making become as frequent as a load of laundry. Using what you have on the homestead will be a new personal challenge. Watching greens wilt and tomatoes go to waste will not only be costly but also a colossal waste of your time. If you plan on sowing it, milking it or raising it, you need to learn how to cook it. If a food won’t be consumed or used before its past its prime, it should be preserved for later or fed back to a food source animal. Whey from cheese making should be froze for the winter months when the cows are dry. This can be used in place of milk for bread and baking. Baking is for the cold of winter. It will keep you busy, keep you fed and keep your house warm.
With a garden, comes bounty. This bounty needs to be preserved for the winter months. Learning to can, dehydrate and save seeds will be a first year homesteading mission. I have read virtually every canning book available and each year I reread my favorite ones. I strongly recommend the Ball Guide to canning and Preserving as one of the first homestead purchases you make. These are tried and true safe recipes that are simple to follow. Canning jars should be treated a family heirloom, passed down from generation to generation. I have purchased 99% of my canning jars from Craigslist. Mostly from elderly couples that were down sizing and unfortunately their children had no interest in learning the trade. I once scored 110 dozen jars for $100. *always look for imperfections in the jars prior to using. Small cracks on the rim can prevent lids from sealing properly.
A food dehydrator is also a excellent purchase the first year. While this isn’t a necessity, it does make easy work out of dehydrating. Fruit leather, dried mushrooms, and meat can be easily stored without any further processing.
It’s true. Chickens are the gateway animal (See opening statement. which is why I recommend them the first year of homesteading. For the most part, chickens are easy keepers. They will bless you with eggs, meat and fertilizer for your garden. Many chickens will spend all day foraging for worms, seeds and bugs. While some hybrid chickens have lost this ability (as well as mating), thanks to over-breeding. After 13 years, I still choose to raise Buckeye chickens for this reason. During the non-snow months, I can easily keep a flock of 2 – 3 dozen chickens and only fill up their feeder every week or so. However, when snow is laid heavy on the ground, I fill up their feeder daily. Buying quality heritage breed poultry will keep your feed bill low and your freezer full.
I have read Gail Damerow’s book a dozen times and still reference it during incubator season. I also strongly recommend Janet Garman’s book, Chickens From Scratch.
If you are lucky enough to keep a rooster, then replenishing your laying stock yearly will come in a economical way. While allowing mama to brood her own eggs is ideal, it is not guaranteed on when or how many will hatch. I started with a simple styrofoam LG incubator and have hatched 100’s of chicks in it. Using a tabletop styrofoam incubator does takes time, dedication and some babysitting. Since adding continual responsibility and ahem .. more children to my plate, I have now advanced to a more reliable “set it and forget it” type incubator.
Be your own best student.
I won’t lie to you. Living on the homestead is tough. Physically, emotionally and spiritually. Trail and error becomes our best friend. While blogs and books can lay out a homesteading plan for you, the only one able to achieve it is yourself, with your own blood, sweat and countless tears. You will fail more than once and that’s ok. That’s how you learn. You will better yourself and your farming practices each time. Be patient and kind to yourself. Learn from your mistakes and applaud your achievements.