~Your Questions: Where To Start?~

By God’s provision we were able to buy a beautiful 3 acre piece of land two weeks ago. I’ve always dreamed of living in the country and now that we are here I don’t know where to start. Our property came to us completely fenced for goats and equipped with a small chicken coop and fenced garden. I guess my question to you is where do you start? I’m a little overwhelmed with the laying out of our little farm. I’m excited about all of it and don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. A homeschooler like you, I need to be able to balance all the work and feel like I should ease in. I would appreciate any advise you can give as far as how to ease in.

 

When this great question came through my inbox, I knew I had to share it with my readers.
It is so easy to get excited about all there possibilities when you get your first piece of land, dive in the deep end head first, not realizing you don’t even know how to swim. I think that is a recipe for disaster. You’ll end up feeling overwhelmed, defeated, and, unless you’re of the most stubborn character, run the risk of failure. We all grew up on Easy Street and this type of hard work isn’t in our nature (otherwise you’d see more folks doing it because it’s just so satisfying) and increasing accessibility to sustainable food locally makes it simple to pay someone else to raise our food for us.
chickens
So if I was starting all over again on a new piece of land, where would I begin?

{Learn the Land}

One of the permaculture concepts is don’t do anything for a year,  until you’ve walked it, see where the water goes, see where the frost pockets are, see where the dry spots are. Let the land speak to you. Then start with something you like. What do you like to eat? What do you like to do? What fascinates you?  - Joel Salatin

Were I to move to a new piece of land, I wouldn’t make any permanent additions for the first full year. Each season you’d find me taking pictures, making notes, recording the first & last frost in my homesteading binder and all other relevant observations. Being armed with this information will increase your success the second year.
Let’s look at our orchard as an example. When we planted our orchard, the determining factor for deciding upon a location was, “Where do we have open space?” Our side yard seemed to have the most room and so that was where we planted. Thankfully, there is good southern sun in the winter and the young trees aren’t shaded, but we didn’t think about those things at the time. Worse than that though was that the trees were planted in the fall and it wasn’t until the following spring that we realized just how wet it gets there. We planted half the trees in a very low spot where water sits for months in the spring. Fruit trees prefer to be 3-4 feet above the water table and of the trees that survived that first year, their growth is visibly stunted. We have since built up the area and they’re doing better, thankfully, but careful observation would have prevented that issue.
I love that he suggests to grow what you like to eat. Originally, we were planning on getting goats for milk production because operating on such a small scale we thought that was our only option. The problem was, we don’t care for goat’s milk and I really wanted to learn the skills associated with having a dairy cow- ice cream, butter, and cheese, etc… I’m very glad that we decided to go with a cow and while our cow doesn’t produce enough cream for ice cream and butter, I have learned to make several types of cheeses and hopefully will one day have a cow capable of providing us with the others.

{Avoid and Reduce Debt}

The first thing I’d advise is don’t get too far into debt because debt is enslavement. Do things that take time and not money and use your creativity to do for yourself.

I would not recommend building your homestead by digging yourself into debt. Quite the opposite. If you happen to have debt, take that first year and try to get out of it. Reducing your monthly expenses will allow you to fit a new feed bill into the budget and ultimately give you so much more freedom to grow and expand when you are ready… not when the finances will allow.

{Start Small, Start Slow}

For many reasons “easing in” is one of the wisest things a new homesteader can do. Not only does it prevent burnout and help you stay out of debt, but it allows you to properly and thoroughly research each avenue you choose to explore. Starting slow, building knowledge, obtaining experience, gaining confidence,  and working towards mastering each new skill will allow much of the work to be done effortlessly and as a matter of habit. Going about these new tasks habitually will go a long way to improving morale when there is a bump in the road. And there will be bumps.
Especially since in this case there already is a hen house in place, I think that a small laying flock is a wonderful place to start. A few chicks this spring will generate a great deal of excitement and feeling of productivity, like you’re doing something other than waiting. Despite a lot of what you’ll read out there, chickens are relatively adaptable and probably the most foolproof of barnyard animals. After 5-6 months of enjoying your young chickens, you’ll start being able to gather eggs. Get a few new chicks each spring so you’ll have fresh layers in the fall when the older gals are molting and over the winter. They’ll keep you in at least a few eggs when everyone else is complaining of empty nesting boxes. After the 3rd or 4th year, cull out the oldest hens who are no longer laying and they can finish their contribution to the homestead by providing your family with a wonderful stock. (I have some simmering away on the stove right now.) You’ll also get the benefit of a new skill- chicken butchering.
The second year on the homestead I would plant a garden in the spring. You could even start seeds in the late winter or early spring. I typically start my onions in January, peppers in March, and tomatoes a couple weeks later. I have found this to be a perfect cure for the winter blues and a fantastic and frugal way to extend the gardening calendar. Make sure you mulch your garden. Mulching is a wonderful way to build soil fertility over time, reduce fungal diseases found in the soil from infecting your plants, and most importantly (for me at least ;D ) keeping the weeds at bay. Straw or hay mulching took weeding from a daily chore down to a once-a-week one that takes less than an hour of my time. As to adding too much else beyond the garden and the chickens I would be hesitant to do so. It’s hard to be patient, but gardening and food preservation will take more time than you think. Remember ease in. If you plan on putting in an orchard or berries, plant them in the late fall when the garden and all the related harvesting and food preservation isn’t consuming so much of your time.

For successive years… well what do you like? What “stokes your boiler?” Do that.

{Build Soil Fertility}

Assuming that growing food in the soil will be a part of every homestead, I would absolutely emphasize the importance of building the fertility of your soil. Since I believe in doing so sustainably and organically, the way food has been grown for thousands of years heretofore, I would recommend doing so via mulching, cover crops, compost, and aerobic compost teas. Test your soil, make necessary holistic amendments using compost tea, compost, and mulch. I highly, HIGHLY recommend a book I read this winter called Teaming With Microbes. It will give you all the science behind building your soil food web and then the tools and knowledge to test and amend your soil accordingly.

To this end, if you plan on putting in an orchard or berry patch in the first or second year, in The Holistic Orchard (another excellent resource), Michael Phillips recommends taking a whole year to prepare your orchard site for planting.

Fruit plantings happen in one of two ways. The go-getter turns the lawn under and, plop, the trees and assorted berries are in. No real transition toward the fungal state occurs prior to the nursery order being made and delivered. The soil biology can recover from such unbridled enthusiasm- it’s not “wrong” to do this- but soil preparation prior to planting offers certain advantages worthy of consideration. People with just a wee bit more foresight understand that a year of cover cropping and woodsy mulching not only offers the grower a chance to build organic matter and correct fertility imbalance but can also hasten fungal dominance.

Finally, having that new flock of layers will come in handy while you’re building soil fertility. Either by encouraging your free-ranging flock to congregate where you’ll be planting by laying down thick mulches for them to scratch through (and subsequently leave their contribution) or by proactively managing the manure of a contained flock via composting, the fertile manure of chickens will give your soil a big boost ahead of that first year of planting.

{Build Skills}

All of this doens’t mean that you can be actively homesteading. There is still much that can be done. My next recommendation is work on building your skills.

Food preservation such as canning, curing, smoking, experimenting with cheese or soap making will all go a long way to helping so that the future learning curve will be more focused on animal care rather than turning their products into useable goods. Learning to cook from scratch, if you don’t already know how, will help you to know how to prepare the food you grow or raise.

You can spend your time reading and researching the ventures you plan on beginning with. Having that knowledge to draw on when you need it will be so helpful, allowing you to attack a problem immediately when it arises.

You could find a mentor. That’s not always easy, particularly if you raise your food unconventionally. (Not much sense wasting your time learning how to raise hogs in a barn on concrete if you want yours out on pasture.) If you could find a mentor to learn from, gleaning from their acquired wisdom and experience, what a blessing that would be! When we started out we didn’t know anyone who felt the same as we do and this is where the internet has been a great benefit. One word of caution if you look to the internet for homesteading mentorship: Like the Titus 2 model that the Lord gives women for godly female mentorship where the older and therefore more experienced women are teaching the younger women, try to look for homesteaders who are sharing their wisdom and experience they have acquired over the years.

Another suggestion for anyone getting started on a homestead is to work out. I know this may seem like an odd one, particularly since homesteading often provides a built-in work out with all the chores to be done. Now I’m not talking about lifting weights or anything. And while a cardio workout might help with endurance, I think that, particularly if you will be adding livestock to the homestead, stretching daily could prevent a lot of injuries you could potentially incur while chasing rogue animals, slipping in the mud, etc…  I’ve been stretching twice a week with this workout, really enjoy it, and hope it will be beneficial I play a more active role around here in the coming months.

 

{Build Infrastructure}

If you don’t already have infrastructure in place, barn, buildings, fences, etc… the first year, while you are planning and observing is a great time to work on it (without going into debt, obviously.) Having the whole year set aside to work on these projects will mean fewer impulse purchases. (Like when we bought a cow, but weren’t ready for her. Who was supposed to be bred, but wasn’t so we bought a bull to breed her when we shouldn’t have. Who we then had to butcher because we didn’t have the space for him which meant buying all the supplies to get that job done. She also wasn’t supposed to be lactating, but was- to the tune of 4 gallons a day! and there was that start-up expense. So much for having 6 months to prepare!)

And if you already have these things in place, you could work on buying high quality tools and equipment. I emphasis high quality because frankly the tools you are going to get at a big box store are made for occasional suburban use. If you don’t buy high quality, plan on making an annual expense of the most used tools. (We have more shovel and rake heads than I can count!)

Finally, from the homemaker’s perspective, perhaps now would be a good time to get a mudroom if there isn’t one in your home. Our home doesn’t have one and without an addition there is no where to put one, but “one of these day’s” we intend to put at least an access in to the unfinished basement and set up a mudroom area there. Right now there 14 muddy- and by muddy, I mean “muddy”- boots strewn about our schoolroom which doubles as the common entry into the home. The walls are often scattered and splashed with mud. I took down my lace curtains over the door panels because I noticed they were no longer ivory, but beige. The maroon rugs look more dark grey than anything. I could go on. Point being, do yourself a favor and have a mudroom.

Of course, in some situations a mudroom might be out of the question. In which case, I HIGHLY recommend saving your sanity and all the time spent cleaning up after an unruly husband or children and investing in a pair of these. Maybe one for each door of your home even. I know I surely would have appreciated having them in the past!

Easing into building a homestead doesn’t mean that you can’t be busy building your  new lifestyle. There is always much work to be done and, as you’ll soon find out, the work is never really done. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the knowledge there is to be gained and the responsibility of stewarding that knowledge to the next generation so that it isn’t once again lost. I really feel like because of trial and error it could take more than a lifetime to recover these skills. There is really  no sense in rushing it. So relax and  enjoy the simple life and all the blessings and challenges it has to offer.

If you were starting all over again, where would you begin building your homestead? What lessons have you learned? 

 

  • Ann Marie @ 16 Muddy Feet

    Bravo, well said! Start out debt free!! I learned a bunch from this post, can’t wait to read the next one too.

  • angi

    Great answers. We moved onto our property about a year and a half ago. We only have 1.5 acres so chickens and bees are the only animals we have. But that is also by choice. While I love the idea of raising all our own food and having various animals I know that that would be just too much for us. This homestead dream is mine and my husband’s not necessarily our children’s so we’re careful not to do too much that would require a big commitment from the entire family. Most of our children are older and have their own dreams they want to pursue and we want to have time to support them. So, I think that’s an important thing for parents to consider when they are building a homestead.
    I’d add that if you’re going to have a garden you can just start a small one the first year. Even if you use transplants, it will still be cheaper than buying produce. When I say small I mean just one or two beds that are 4′X8′. You should be able to get some tomatoes, a couple of squash and zucchini plants, some green beans, and a few other plants in them. They shouldn’t require a lot of time commitment and they should provide your family with most of your veggie needs, although you probably won’t have much to preserve. If you find that you put your garden in the wrong area it won’t feel like starting over if you need to move it.

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      Thanks Angi for sharing this! I suppose I did come at the gardening angle with the mindset of someone who has to feed 9 people with growing appetites ;) in which case large scale gardening is the way to go. I’m starting to panic that between those growing appetites and growing shade trees with growing roots I’m never going to achieve my goal of supplying all, or even most, of our vegetable needs :/ So I appreciate your wisdom!

  • Daphne

    Wisdom here Quinn! We did everything wrong our first year, planted too big of a garden, grew 1/4 acre of cut flowers and went to 2 farmers markets (had only “farmed” 1/4 of an acre with a house plopped down in the middle of it ever before lol!), bought 3 beef cows off of Craigs List, layer hens, turkeys, what, you have to feed them??? Hmmm….should I feed my kids or the chickens since I only have enough money for one or the other? What? The cows aren’t yearlings but only 6 month heifers and now we have to overwinter them? How much does all of that electric fencing and chicken tractors and electrified poutry netting and market tent and portable outside chicken house cost??? Needless to say, we ran up an empty credit card, my goals of homeschooling over the summer never came to fruition, the younger children grew too wild and the older children grew frustrated and neglected.

    God is merciful and we came up with a new game plan. Friends from church overwintered our cattle and fed them lots of fresh hay in exchange for the beef from one of them the following year when they were finally ready to butcher. We had many family meetings and decided to focus on what worked – broilers, so nixed the cut flowers and spent our time working at what we had done well. We sent out letters explaining our pasture based broiler business, asked for deposits with the orders – enough to pay for each chick and 8 week’s worth of feed, then the balance was paid on a per pound basis when picking up the fresh chickens at the end of “processing day”. We only ordered enough chicks to cover the customer orders, at the end of the summer we took our proceeds and raised some for our own freezer. The turkeys laid, hatched, and raised this year’s flock of Bourbon Reds themselves, so Thanksgiving was pure profit! Sale of 1/2′s of the 3rd cow paid for processing of the other two – one for our friends and one for us. We re-gained our children’s hearts, made decisions as a family and learned to listen carefully to one another. While they all still have chores, not all of them share the same homesteading excitement that my husband and I have, so like Angi below, we are allowing them the time and space to explore other interests under our guidance and support.

    There will always be lessons learned each season I think, but the wisest thing we did was to separate out the farming venture from our personal budget. Any income from raising pastured meats or organic eggs and veggies goes back into the farm account to pay for feed, additional fencing, etc. Last summer we raised “free” meat for the year – pork, chicken, and beef – and put any additional money earned back into our farm account.

    And all of this was practice while renting someone else’s place and trying to make it work with out good buildings or proper infrastructure. By God’s grace, we just purchased our own 10 acre farm 4 months ago. We are renovating the house and slated to move in at the end of April. Thankfully, there is a fabulous old chicken house that friends helped us divide into 3 rooms – one for a winter home for layers, one for the Bourbon Reds (keeping them separate to prevent black head infection), and a small feed room. Chores are so much easier now! There is a fabulous barn and an already established garden area with Asparagus, strawberries, and rhubarb. Since the farm was purchased out of foreclosure, I drove over before our November closing and transplanted my blueberry bushes next to some great pine trees and mulched them with pine needles. Waiting to see if they made it through our MN winter!

    I so agree with living somewhere for a year to learn the lay out of the land, etc. We are converting 8 acres of row cropland back to pasture this year, using oats as a “nurse crop” and will only put chickens/broilers on it. Next year we will put up our fencing once the pasture root system is established enough to withstand the weight of heavier animals and any drought that might occur, then we will see if we can purchase a cow/calf pair or two. I am planning on just using the existing garden space this year to see what it will grow, and my goal this summer is to stay on top of weeds and “can as I go”.

    I am no longer in a hurry to “do it all” as we first were upon moving out to the country 2 1/2 years ago. There is wisdom in coming up with a 1,3,and 5 year plan. Honoring the Lord with our finances and enjoying the “scenery along the way” is so important! We have also cut up said credit card, and are on track for having our zealous mistakes paid off in 2 more years. My advice – pick one large project that is affordable per year, continue to learn and hone homesteading skills in other areas, do a yearly re-evaluation and refine your vision. May God bless your efforts!

  • Mrs. T @ A Separate Path

    This message is so timely, considering that I will be on our new property by the first week in April, Lord willing. You have helped to quell my anxiety. I was so afraid that I would feel like a homesteading failure if I didn’t get a lot accomplished.

    We’re trying to move slowly and only plan to have a large garden and chickens the first year (and my son’s beloved pigeons). We also have fencing and a well to put in! I loved your point about focusing on building your skills. We are going to be part of a cow share, so we can have access to raw milk. I hope to learn how to make cheese. Plus, this will be the first year that I plan to use my pressure canner! So there will be lots to do, even if I don’t have a cow, goats, or pigs this year!

    I also appreciate Angi’s point about considering the family. Homesteading is my dream and my son’s dream, but not hubby’s so much. He will take part in some of the building projects and he supports us, but I don’t want to overwhelm him, either :-).

    I plan to print out your article and keep going over it when I need a reality check, lol! Thanks SO much, this was excellent and just what I needed to hear!

    Brenda

  • Jennifer Dunn

    This is such a great post! I’m so glad to store this info away for when my dream of a homestead comes to light. Ease in and do it right is the best way to do everything!

  • kelli

    So funny that you did this post. I did one awhile back (with the same Salatin video too!), but not as “in detail” as yours. We’re putting an offer in on 5 acres this week and hoping it comes through. Planning on living out of an RV for awhile while we build a Florida Cracker style home. We too have a cow (Jersey) who we just bred, but she’s at a friend’s farm while we get her pasture ready on our own farm (Lord-willing). Thanks so much for this post as there were a few things that hadn’t crossed my mind!
    we4bates.blogspot.com
    Kelli

  • yazpistachio

    Wow, thank you Quinn!

    I have been a “lurker” on your blog for some time and have so enjoyed the life you’ve shared with us here. I would love to homestead, and we just purchased our very first 2 1/4 acre plot with a house– debt free!

    The house needs significant repair before we can move in, but I’m grateful in a way because it will give us time to survey the property and make notes like you suggested.

    One more question for you: do you know of any other homestead blogs that offer good, tested advice for young, “green” homesteaders like us?

  • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

    Stephanie F. says, “Wow! Thank you so much for all of this great information. You are helping me to reel things in a bit and slow down :)”

  • stephanie

    This was a great article! Thank you for sharing! I just bought my first little homestead 1.25 acres. Which I think is just perfect since it is just my daughter and I working it (aka as just me). I am really excited to get sheep and have a field that is already fenced (needing only a few repairs). I wanted to jump right in and get everything going at once! I mean this is what we have all been waiting for right? Instead I am learning by helping friends with their farm chores and lots of observations. Luckily I was In contract throughout the summer so I got to observe the changes then, and now going through my first winter, by the time spring rolls around I think I will have a good foundation of the lay of my property. There are many things that need to be worked on. I have been spending the winter working on what the 10 year plan is and working backwards. Rather than invest time and money into projects that will later have to be altered due to poor planning, visualize what you want your homestead to look like and produce 10 years down the road. In that regard, this year will be spent on clearing weeds and establishing feed crops for future livestock, irrigating the land to help control run-off issues, planting trees to start an orchard, and watching my chickens frolic and loosen my soil. All of which might not be as immediately rewarding (except the smiles from the chickens!), but will make a huge difference in the long run of my homestead! Good luck to all of us going the route of being more self sufficient and more connected to our food and earth!

  • nuggethead

    This is my inspiration. I have been dreaming about owning my own house and having a large land space, where I can have my own sanctuary, fruit trees, veggie beds, cows, chickens – and all the rest! I can’t imagine it will be for another few years yet, but I am beginning my journey in my current, small, all paved backyard I have right now. I have gathered some veggie beds. I started last November, beginning to build, learn and grow. I happened to stumble upon this website yesterday, I am so glad I did. I will be gathering inspiration and ideas, knowledge and support! Thanks for all the information, it will be put to very good use in the following years!
    All the best! x

    • http://www.reformationacres.com/ Quinn

      May your homestead dream come true! (And when it does may you remember the part about starting slow & getting burned out! Feeling it right now & I keep thinking, “I KNOW this, why can’t I remember it?!)