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Friday, 30 January, 2015

What is your brand of Sustainability?

By Sue Moore
26 January, 2015

Plenty of blogs and Facebook pages creatively illustrate a myriad of different styles in newbie homesteading. It can be a bit confusing. Country folk, born and raised with this stuff, tend to be quiet and keep to themselves, sharing hints on how to do things for free, etc. It is we “newbies” who are so excited about the prospect of being self-sufficient that you see the gamut of results shared in photos, blogs and articles that the wannabe newbies gobble up.

What is even more confusing is that most of us think we have to go “full steam” into off-grid farming in order to jump on the bandwagon. You don’t. The more I work at this the more I’m convinced a blend of ideas that meets somewhere in the middle is best for us. As middle-aged newbies, we’re a little better settled on what we want and need.

I am so grateful I had a little introduction to owning land earlier on. We had a 12-acre place and developed lots of plans we never implemented, but soaked up the culture and atmosphere of the countryside. That was very valuable later now that we’re returning to the land to “homestead” to prepare for an uncertain future in America.

Now I have a little six acre place. I realize now that I could have accomplished my plans with probably 2-3 unrestricted acres really. We purchased a re-sale farm with a house that needed some cosmetic updating. It’s the updating that has been my only headache. I had a farm plan already drawn up for the place before we even went to settlement.

Deciding on what we really “needed” as opposed to what we wanted is where the deciding vote is cast. I needed chickens and a garden that would supplement the diet of two adults. In retrospect I would highly recommend that one chicken per person is plenty. Never having had chickens before, I started out with a whopping eight. My reasoning for 8 young pullets was that I thought maybe a chick might die, and some might not lay – was I ever wrong. I’ve had eggs coming out my ears all fall and winter…yes, WINTER.

Fortunately, my neighbor didn’t have the result that I did and she gladly took three of my girls off my hands. So that left me with five, and that is still too much for two people who love eggs, make a lot of egg salad and egg breakfasts. I think the reasonable amount of pullets to start with would have been 3. You need more than one because they’re social animals who need each other also to keep warm in the cold months. So realistically 2-3 chickens are right for the two adults in my home.

I love gardening and I struggle with it like a weekend golfer, but it’s a lot more rewarding. Now in this case, even after gardening all my adult life – I underestimated the amount of garden beds that I need. We built eight 4x8 boxes and several little ones to fit in the area I fenced off around my new little stick-built greenhouse (thank you sweetie!)

Now some readers I am sure are gasping that is too much for them – well take into consideration there were lots of perennial plants I wanted to establish to come back year after year…like asparagus, rosemary, and certain medicinal plants I thought would be good to cultivate and experiment with, so I need space. Just my asparagus takes up half a 4x8 bed.

My idea is to do my gardening as organically as possible and rotate the crops in my veg beds so that pests, etc. that affect certain vegetables are not allowed to make destructive colonies that feast year after year. I learned to use “companion plants” that also reduce those destructive little creeps. So I’m learning to preserve food. That includes canning, vacuum sealing, and seed saving.

And of course, I wanted the greenhouse. I needed a greenhouse. I wanted to overwinter some more sensitive plants in pots and start my seedlings early. I also just needed a command post with all my gardening accoutrements. If you’re not familiar with my greenhouse adventure, I suggest you read a previous article called “Tale of the Dream Greenhouse”. That will give you an idea of the things you need to consider if you’re new to all this.

Now let’s talk about livestock. Here’s where people tend to jump overboard without their life vests. Those animal babies are just too darn cute. At first I thought I might want goats, and make goat cheese and get goat milk. That was before I went on a determined mission to the grocery store to finally buy some goat cheese and “try” it. I learned I do not like it. Goats are particularly hard to keep contained on your farm too. So research until you have an idea what you “need” and then I suggest you research some more before you leap.

Then, I launched into pining for a milk cow. I wanted my own milk cow to make cheese and have milk of course, because I still had that dream transferred from the goat idea. We looked at 3-4 milk cows for sale after reading lots of books and blogs and settling on the idea of getting a sweet hand-milkable “jersey”. I had lots of good fenced-in established pasture, so why not. I wanted to just do it. Prices for this Jersey dream girl ran from $1,000-$2,000 through private sellers. Farm neighbors told me to look for ex dairy cows being sold because they’re dry in one quarter. This is a good idea. What turned my idea sour for the time being is that my hands are starting to get sorer in my fifties and I need to buy a milking machine in order to pursue this. Hand milking isn’t going to last with me for more than a week. I’m just being honest. You need twenty-something hands I think in order to be a hand milking nature child. Meh. So for now I’m buying an extra gallon of milk from the organic section and experimenting with cheese recipes without the upkeep of that jersey girl.

We discovered livestock auctions. Doing some on the spot calculations we figure it’s the most cost effective for us to buy there and raise them after their weaned. Remember I have a few acres of good fodder and a barn. Private sellers will charge more usually. So this is the new dream. Grass-fed beef. No, we don’t want to breed just out of the gate. We want to raise 2-3 to have grass-fed beef in our freezer and to have some to sell. So we learned that the best tasting (according to locals) would be the Angus cows, and that we want young castrated males called “steers”.

Down the road I might add that jersey and do some milking. So this is the new plan. I will let you know how it goes. We are thinking eggs, chicken, grass-fed beef, and we can add raising rabbits for supplemental meat if we need to. We live in a rural area and can barter for rabbits to start if needed.

The big additions this year are “honeybees” and the Border Collie. Because we’re mindful about what we choose to add to our family and chores, and those animals need to have several jobs in order to make the cut. Essentially this is the litmus test. How long am I willing to spend time and care on the live creatures that we ultimately choose to share our lives with? Think about this – change in this country could be overnight…or it could still be twenty years away. Adding the bees are a no brainer, as I want improved pollination for the new 20-tree orchard and berries and vegetable garden that I’ve planted, and I chose a Border Collie puppy because I wanted to hand raise a friend, a livestock guardian and a security asset. My pup has been started on guarding chickens while supervised, and she’s learning from the start to be careful with them and she knows that they are “mine” and need protection. As a lifelong advocate for dog adoption, I did not want to risk baggage on this task.

In the meantime, we will work on rebuilding one of our barns and remodeling the…house. Our home is a rambler with a good footprint and we are fully on the grid. We discussed having a well installed “just in case” with excited whispers when we first moved in. After research we found out how expensive those wells are to drill and cap. So that’s in the future, and in the meantime we will collect some run-off rain from the barn that has a metal roof. Fortunately, we live in an area where there is good rainfall and lots of streams and creeks.

There are power considerations if the grid fails for certain. We would go dark, but we have a portable generator as long as the gasoline holds out. We have a small solar kit, which will probably be used solely to recharge phones, the ham radio, and laptops that will have some libraries on thumb drives and will help with entertainment needs like the occasional movie. During the greenhouse construction, a reasonable 12x14 size, we installed solar lighting. We will move into the solar camp slowly, but we don’t plan on converting our whole house to solar. We will just be living like our ancestors did in a worst case scenario. I have oil lamps and hurricane lamps for outside chores in the dark. People have survived like this for thousands of years and I believe in the resilience of our species.

A fireplace is important. If the grid fails, we have firewood to keep us warm throughout a winter and we can close off the family room to maintain the heat only in there and the kitchen. So we would be ok. If the water fails, we could use the secondary sources and flush the toilets with gray water.

Reserves are important. Even castles failed during a siege not because of lack of military preparation, but because their food and water ran out. Our grandparents knew the old rhyme “Use it up, wear it out, make it DO, do without!” We all need to be honest with what our families need in a sustained quarantine for ANY reason. To do any less is failing in your responsibilities to your family and animal companions. Farms are designed to work in harmony – grow food, feed livestock, livestock feed you and provide fertilizer so you can….GROW FOOD, feed your livestock…etc. and you see the pattern repeat.

So there you have it. This is our brand of sustainability. We are more worried about being able to afford the food we need as we go into the future and we continue to review every threat that could come down the road. I realize there are pros and cons to the things we’ve chosen to do, and for the things others have “recommended” we do. But we feel good about it. Navigating this change in our American dream is sometimes blind, but age and experience will help you.