Starting a new homestead but don’t know where to begin? You’re not the only one! It’s easy to be overwhelmed. This is a great reader question and I’m going to share the lessons I’ve learned about where to start homesteading.
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 begin when starting a new homestead. 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.
It’s exciting when your homesteading dream finally becomes a reality! You want to get in there and do everything straight from the beginning! It’s finally happening!!
But it is so easy to get too excited about all the possibilities when you get your first piece of land! The temptation is to dive into the deep end head first, not realizing you don’t even know how to swim.
This is a recipe for disaster. You run the risk of end up feeling overwhelmed, defeated, and, unless you’re of the most stubborn character, maybe even 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, local food makes it simple to pay someone else to raise our food for us.
So where do you begin when starting a new homestead?
Starting a New Homestead: What You Need to Know
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 starting a new homestead, 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.
A Practical Example
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’s southern sun in the winter and they aren’t shaded, but we didn’t think about that at the time.
Worse 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. 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 Joel suggests growing 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! While our cow doesn’t produce enough cream for ice cream and butter (which is one of the cons of having a Dexter cow), 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
When starting a new homestead don’t get too far into debt because you lose freedom. 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. It prevents homestead burnout, helps you stay out of debt, allows you to thoroughly do your research. Starting a new homestead slowly, 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.
In the case of the reader asking the question, since 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
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) 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.
There are many reasons to keep good homestead records no matter how long you’ve been homesteading, but it’s even more important when you’re starting a new homestead and learning new things every day.
Keeping records will help you know how much you’re growing and what it’s actually costing you. This information will help you make better decisions about the best breeds, what to feed, your favorite seed varieties and which yield the most. What amendments work best, how to tackle those garden pests, what you actually ate from the pantry last year. What’s buried at the bottom of your deep freezer, when’s the best time to start seeds, how many eggs did we get last year?
I’ve created several tools that have been a tremendous blessing in helping me remember all of this information, get a good idea of whether we’re saving money by homesteading, and to have a better system for scheduling homesteading tasks. They’ve helped me organize my homestead and they will help you too!
Homesteading Organizational Resources
Homestead Management Printables– These are over 115+ printable worksheets for your homestead and garden binder! They’ll help you make and keep a schedule, keep records, plan a garden, and journal how your homestead works best.
SmartSteader Homestead Management App– Based on the Homestead Management Printables, this app makes keeping homesteading records even easier! They’re a math-free way to track your expenses and yields in every area of your homestead. The best part is you can take your binder with you wherever you go! It’s always on your phone, ready to use in a few taps. No more having to remember to write everything down when you get inside. This app is a game-changer for me and makes keeping homesteading records really, really easy!
Build Soil Fertility
Assuming that growing food in the soil will be a part of every homestead, I would focus on 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 on your new homestead. 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.
All of this doesn’t mean that you can be actively homesteading. There is still much that can be done. My next recommendation is work on building your homesteading 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.
Find a Homesteading Mentor
You could find a mentor. That’s not always easy, particularly if you raise your food unconventionally. If you find a mentor, gleaning from their acquired wisdom and experience, what a blessing that would be! When we started our homestead we didn’t know anyone like us. The community found on 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 the Lord gives women for godly female mentorship where the older, more experienced women are teaching younger women, try to look for homesteaders who are sharing wisdom and experience they have acquired over the years.
Lessons learned from novice homesteaders may just be flukes. Or they may not fully understand why things did or did not work for them. It’s folly to make generalizations and give advice based on only a small window of experience. By all means, glean from their experience, but always be discerning and thinking critically, even though it would definitely be really nice to have someone tell exactly what to do and have it all work out.
Places to find mentors would be active bloggers who engage with their communities, Facebook Groups, forums, or the Ladies Homestead Gathering. You can even be open to making connections as you buy and sell on your homestead as you meet the local like-minded people who come your way. Be willing to help others in your community and to ask for help too! We need each other more than we’d like to think!
Get Fit and Stay Healthy
Another suggestion for anyone starting a new homestead is to work out. This may seem odd since homesteading provides a built-in workout with all the chores to be done. I’m not talking about lifting weights or anything. While a cardio workout helps with endurance, if you’ll be raising livestock, stretching could prevent injuries that could happen while chasing 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.
If you don’t have the infrastructure in place, the first year 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 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 buy high-quality tools and equipment. I emphasize high quality because the tools you get at a big box store are made for occasional 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!)
Check out Lehman’s if you’re looking for a new tool! They have a large supply of traditional Amish tools (so you know they’ve got to be quality and build to stand the test of time!)
Finally, from the homemaker’s perspective, think about getting a mudroom if there isn’t one in your home. Our home doesn’t have one and without an addition, there is nowhere to put one. “One of these day’s” we intend to put in an access and use the unfinished basement as a mudroom. 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 gray 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 sure would have appreciated having them in the past!
Easing into starting a new 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’m overwhelmed by all the knowledge to be gained. It’s a big responsibility to steward that knowledge to the next generation so it isn’t lost again. 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!
Seasoned homesteaders, if you were starting a new homestead all over again, where would you share with someone just beginning? What lessons have you learned?