Welcome! It’s so fabulous that you’re here to find out more about how to start your homestead right, and I hope we can get to know each other better. I want you to know that you can homestead – it doesn’t matter where you live, really! City, town, village or completely rural? You can do this.
There are urban homesteaders, living in the heart of major cities.
There are suburban homesteaders, growing food and small livestock on small lots of land.
There are rural homesteaders who share traits of both of those – not everyone “out in the country” has a huge lot after all.
But OH, how many of us make the same mistakes on our path to sustainable and self-reliant living. We are no exceptions – in fact, this post was written in response to some huge mistakes that we have made. Let’s see how to prevent you from making the same homesteading mistakes!
There are some things that every homesteader should keep in mind before embarking on the journey towards freedom and personal responsibility that homesteading provides.
Okay, maybe not right now.
There’s work to be done first.
But don’t have it in your head that you’ll start homesteading later, when everything is right and you’re on your own acreage, etc. Because that’s the part that matters the least.
You need to start working on those skills now. It honestly does not matter if you are homesteading – that is, pursuing a sustainable and self-sufficient life – in the middle of a big city, in a small town, in a tiny village or deep in the woods.
How do I know?
Because I’ve done it in the city, and I’ve done it in the deep woods, and now we’re in a little village working on making a 130 year old house sustainable and disaster-ready. No matter where you are, some things are going to be more difficult and some things are going to be easier.
Are you ready to find out what you should be doing now? I knew you would be. Let’s see if we can keep you from making some of the mistakes we did!
Do your homework
If you are planning to have livestock, have you spent time at a farm? Will you know what breed of chicken you want when the breeder asks? Have you ever smelled a buck goat in rut?
I’m not saying it’s a horrible smell, but it’s definitely …. noticeable. (Okay, at times it’s kind of horrible.)
And the reality of small livestock is that, even when you’re so sick that the world is spinning and you’re throwing up every five minutes … the goats still need to be milked, fed and taken to the pasture. When a blizzard has just dumped three feet of snow on the world, the chickens still need water and grain and the eggs still need to be collected.
And then there are those days when you’re sick as a dog and a blizzard hit and the chimney’s backing up so there’s smoke everywhere …. you still need to get out and take care of those animals.
It’s one thing to sit in your nice apartment in town and say “But I won’t mind it”. The reality is that even people who grew up with milking animals sometimes mind it!
This is not just important when raising livestock. If you plan to make soap, for example, have you looked into the safety issues and watched someone making it before trying your own hand at the craft?
Many of us have an incredibly idealistic view of what life in the country looks like.
Have A Plan In Mind But Be Flexible
This is a catch-22. Before you begin homesteading, you form a plan and it looks great on paper. But then you start actively working towards it and you realize that a lot of your plans just don’t work.
But now you’re working from a poor plan and it needs to be adjusted.
Have an idea of what you want, but adjust as necessary. There is absolutely no shame in taking a step back and saying “WOW. That didn’t work. That really, really didn’t work.”
Don’t keep going forward on a bad plan.
Animal shelter comes first
After you have animal shelter built and ready for habitation, THEN you bring in food.
After that, you can go pick up your animals.
This is the only order in which to do it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a dog, a fish, or a flock of chickens.
Make sure you have their shelter and food ready before you even order your animals.
I want to stress this one because we made so many mistakes that caused us no end of headache.
We scrambled to get a chicken coop ready when the chicks were sitting and waiting for us, and then our goats got through our first winter in a far-too-small shelter.
We covered hay with a tarp because we didn’t have proper hay storage. (No waste, though – the bales that spoiled went right to the garden for mulch!)
And do not design your animal shelter for the nicest summer days, unless you live in a part of the world with wonderful weather all year long.
Plan as though every day will be either cold, windy and wet or frozen solid in a blizzard.
Livestock does not have to be goats and cows. If you’re on a smaller property, consider smaller livestock like rabbits and quail.
Don’t miss the rest. Keep reading so that you learn from our mistakes!
When you site your buildings, keep in mind that you will be walking to and from them at least twice a day, even when it is cold, windy and wet or frozen solid in a blizzard.
By our second winter at the cabin, the old idea of a housebarn has become very appealing. We put our barn too far from the house on our rural property – it’s impossible to carry water and feed through three feet of snow!
Perhaps blizzards are not what your homestead faces. If you are in a town or city, you have other challenges. Take into account the distance you need to go to your favourite farms to gather produce, eggs or milk.
Do you have ways to get to them when the weather is poor?
Size doesn’t matter
Now, most of us are not going to start homesteading and then, a few years later, upgrade to more land, so I’ve never understood those who say you should “start small” with a few acres and later get more. Most of us have the land that we have, and that is what we must make do with.
But it doesn’t matter.
At our cabin in the woods, I often felt embarrassed because we don’t have hundreds of acres, while other people, in more urban settings, brag about their large one acre lots. Figure out how to make the best of what you have and stop thinking about what other people have. There will always be someone with more and someone with less.
A quarter acre of land, well cared for, can be more productive than forty acres that are badly managed.
Keep reading for more important things to watch for and think about!
Know Your Land
We were given some very good advice before we moved here. We were told to come out to the property at different times during the year and observe the seasonal changes for a full year before moving.
It was great advice – which we really should have taken.
After two years on our property, we finally started to get a sense of the wet spots and dry spots, the places that are warmed first in the morning and the places where nothing grows.
Had we spent a year studying our property before moving in, the garden would be in a different spot and so would the barn and chicken coop. That alone would have made life much easier for us.
If you do not have acreage, you still need to know what land is available to you. Perhaps you have a north-facing balcony, or you can access a community garden. (See “Consider Distance” above!)
Perhaps the only “land” you can lay claim to is a sunny patch in front of your kitchen window.
Know your limits
One thing common to homesteaders, no matter where they live, is an interest in building up skills that are long forgotten to most people.
The problem, though, is that there are many, many skills that feel important once you pursue a life of self-reliance.
My love is cooking, and I have worked hard to become relatively expert in canning (pressure canning and boiling water bath canning). I also have come to love gardening, a nice tie-in to my love for cooking and preserving food.
But … I can’t sew.
I mean I can make a complete mess out of sewing a button. Although I have a long-range goal to eventually, somehow (maybe) learn how to sew, I would rather put my time and energy into keeping the pantry full.
Food Storage Does Take Space
I know, I know, I’m one of the first to say that even people in small apartments can store something, and it’s true. But if you are planning to put up a year or more worth of meat, produce, grains and more, you will need space.
Plan for it.
If you are going to homestead and rely on yourself more than the grocery stores, take some time to map out exactly where everything will go.
Prepare to be exhausted
There are times in the homesteading life when there is almost nothing to do. The animals need to be fed and watered, normal daily housework must be done and …. lots of time to read, write letters and relax.
But there are other times when the work load is incredible. Springtime is busy, with soil preparation and seed starting. Anyone who grows hay knows that haymaking is a sun-up till sun-down job for everyone old enough to work. What a relief when it’s over.
Everyone catches their breath until … the full impact of harvest hits, when bushels of tomatoes, green beans, zucchini and more must be harvested, prepared and preserved. Homesteading is a frequent jump back and forth between “not enough to do” and “too much to do”.
As a note, Old Order Mennonite farmers always set aside a time-intensive project to do during the quiet, slow winter months. Don’t try making quilts in the summer time.
Gardens Don’t Happen Overnight
Although I strongly advocate having a full and varied seedbox as an untouchable source of wealth, there are a few things absolutely necessary in order to grow a good garden.
Yes, you need soil (or soil amendments like compost) and you need some knowledge (or good books), but you also need …. time.
Armed with perfect soil and an encyclopedia of knowledge, a new homesteader will still not have a sustaining garden in the first year.
Don’t believe me?
In The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (a very depressing book, in my opinion), the family discusses their first year harvest, and it wasn’t enough to get them through a month, let alone a winter.
It takes time to build up a garden, especially if you are working the soil entirely by hand and using natural soil amendments.
If you have a large trust fund bankrolling your homestead, perhaps you don’t need to worry about this. But for the rest of us, some type of outside income is going to be necessary.
Have you ever heard about the farmer who won the lottery? He was asked what he planned to do with his $5 million winnings.
“Oh,” he said. “I figure I’ll keep farming until it’s all gone.”
It’ll Cost More
It’ll cost more than you think it will, and it will probably cost more than you have.
Prioritize what needs to be done and purchased, so that you know what you can wait on and what you really need to do right away.
You’ll often hear people say that it takes a lot of money to live simply, and unfortunately, it’s true.
The reason is that we no longer have the infrastructure necessary.
Most of us do not have the tools – from hand tools like good-quality shovels to large items like wood cookstoves – to live off-grid or sustainably. We also tend not to have communities that will gather together for things like barn raisings, quilting bees and other large-scale projects.
It’s just flat out more expensive to develop a homestead alone, without the aid of a mutually-assisting community.
And It Will Take More Time
As I said, gardens don’t happen overnight.
But neither do chicken flocks or goat herds or any other thing that you are looking to have.
After almost two years here, we finally had two pregnant goat does and a lovely buck. We still do not have a greenhouse, so I am still buying starts for my garden.
When you begin homesteading, no matter where you are located, it feels as though everything must be learned, acted upon and finished right NOW. It does no good when people tell you to set priorities, because they all feel like priorities.
Unfortunately, you can’t get them all done at once, and some will have to wait. One of the mister’s Mennonite friends once said in a letter to us that the farmer lives by three words: “Maybe next year.”
Your Diet Will Change
My children complained yesterday because of the boring breakfast. It was nothing special – an old-fashioned farmer’s breakfast of fried potatoes, eggs and sausage. “Not THIS again!” they cried.
They want cold cereal, like their friends in town have, but I don’t buy cold cereal. It’s more expensive than eggs and potatoes.
When the hens are laying, or the goats are in milk, or when the pantry is packed with food that needs to be used up, luxury foods can become a frustrating excess to get rid of.
Of course, it depends on what you or the farmers near you are raising and the season, but convenience foods are always going to be more expensive on a homestead.
Adjust your expectations
There’s no teacher quite so effective as experience. Before you move onto your homestead, you will have certain expectations.
Be prepared to change them as you learn.
I asked my husband for his number one tip for anyone considering homesteading.
Be aware, he is talking about off-grid homesteading deep in the woods, turning an old hunting cabin into a home.
This is not what most people do!
He says, “I don’t know anyone who didn’t grow up like this who will adjust to it easily. It’s difficult. If you have any doubts that you can do this, just … don’t.”
Don’t let that discourage you, though, if you know that this is what you want to do. But go into it with your eyes open.
Remember, homesteading does not mean you need to jump off into the wilderness like we did! Because if you do, you may, a few years in, realize that you need to make some serious changes and fix your mistakes!