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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Dishing up the Dirt on Homesteading

One of the very primitive,
back woods locations
where I lived for a time.

I have been a modern day homesteader with two husbands in  three states and as many eras (70's western Colorado, 80's western Washington state and since 2008 here in Maine). My kids grew up largely off grid on homestead #2. I have always been connected to the earth, as have "my people." Some would grow, I'll tell you the story some time) since toddler, in my family's small yard in a sorta small town. Every summer we visited grandparents in Iowa and I helped with their large garden,
My maternal
weeding, picking and getting pummeled with early hail as i helped Grandpa put protection over his tomato plants. It seems I have always wanted to be away from people and close to nature and I have managed to do so whenever I could. Many of my ancestors farmed; others were itinerant workers who seemed to have traveled about several states in the midwest, using their equipment to help plant and harvest grain crops. It's in my blood, it would seem. I was planting things (not always things that

Life does not always cooperate and changes of situation ended me in an occasional city as that was where the jobs were, for my late-in-life chosen career.

I guess I was was a late entry into the "first" back to the land
Building a greenhouse
addition to our home
from PVC, early 80s
movement. Took another turn at it 10 years later and had to bail when the marriage went south. Twelve miles outside a poke-n-plum town is not a good place to try to find work and with heavy heart, I visualized myself as a "potted plant" so that I could follow the work that called me during the dot-com boom.

When given the chance, by unemployment insurance and other factors, I moved to my "dream location" -- or one of them. Maine was closer than Alaska.

Having been tech savvy for ages, I have frequented homesteading boards on a variety of venues. For most of the time that tech and homesteading have been able to share a universe, most of the participants on the boards -- at least those posting and responding -- have been "actual homesteaders." That is, people, whether living on a smaller plot in a town or a larger one "in the boonies" who are actually making a stab at doing the work. Occasionally there would be a "newbie" with questions, but they were much less common.

Recently -- like in the last month, I would say, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of aspiring homesteaders posting on my usual forums. Many are looking for land and all are looking for information, suggestions and direction. So, here goes. From the point of view of an experienced (and admittedly "older") homesteader... numbered but in no particular order other than the sequence in which I captured my thoughts.

1. Homesteading is harder work than you have ever done. I will grant the possible exceptions for those who have/do work in a foundry or the timber industry.

2. You will have longer hours. Unlike a more typical "job" or career, you can not really get away. You will be "on call" 24/7/365 for emergencies that will range from "fox in the hen house" to "hail on the garden." I know some folks have had success with farm sitters in order to take a vacation, but if you try this option, make sure you know their skills and they know your homestead. Milking someone else's goats is never quite like milking your own. Ask me about that some time!

3. "But I will be my own boss!"  WRONG, in so many ways. It's almost as bad as being a church janitor. You will be at the mercy of each and every bird and beast, the season, the changing length of the days, and of course the weather.

4. Unless you have won the lottery or are a "trust fund baby"
Starving Artist With
Food Stamp
I felt like I had won the
lottery when I found this $1
token in an old jacket pocket.
someone will still have to have off-farm job. Maybe both of you.
And while we are on this topic, have you heard the joke about the farmer who won a million dollars and was asked what he planned to do with it? Do you remember his response? Just keep farming until it runs out is more truth than you want to believe.

5. And while we are on the topic of money, monetizing a
Our short-lived
marketing venture
homestead is uphill battle. While you may plan, and hope to sell veg, fruits, home made goodies and even home raised meat, there are often expensive hurdles in the way to do so legally. And even if you surmount the hurdles, most likely you will be competing with others in your area that have been serving the locavore market since before you bought your land. Breaking into a market is not easy. And unless you are lucky enough to have a location where a farm stand by the drive is practical, it will mean more time off the homestead, "babysitting a parking lot" in town.

6. Work at home, on the other hand, can supplement your income. When I moved to my current homestead, I was running a small
At work, painting a
Dutch (Deutsch) hex sign
business doing graphic design and starting a side-line painting "Pennsylvania Dutch" hex signs. Both businesses, being based in virtual space, were quite portable, with a catch. Many of the properties we looked at in rural Maine did not have sufficient connectivity for me to ply my trade and we ended up in a less-optimal location. But compromises are often necessary and we are now planted her. The other issue with working at home -- like an off-homestead job, is that both eat up your time.

7. Accept it: cash flow issues are a given. Even if you are lucky
One of our first "tractors"
"Fergie" our old, used,
Massey-Ferguson tractor
arrives on the homestead.
enough to not have a mortgage, rural incomes skew lower and tools and equipment prices do not. Even the small commercial farmers that I know, struggle to keep old equipment running.

If you decry the cost of living in town, remember that rising prices of necessary tools keep pace with that of consumer goods.

8. You will learn why, back in the "old days" folks had large families. Many hands do make light work and if there are only two of you, get used to the idea of living a life of projects in process. Probably even if there are extra hands, as well. Pioneer kids were raised in a different world, with many fewer pastimes and distractions.

9. To end this list, let me remind us all that we do live in the modern era and can usually, if necessary, count on services like the police and fire departments and for that matter even the relative proximity and ease of access of various stores.  When I was starting on my second round of homesteading, I had three young daughters who were fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series of books. We read, and re-read them all and often when a problem came up someone would ask "How did the pioneers do it." The usual answer was "mostly they died a lot." This kept us appreciative of our position in time and space and the ability to choose "appropriate technology" from various eras, as needed.

So, all this being said, why do I do it? As bizarre as it sounds, it give me joy! Even though I am old and my partner in all this insanity is disabled, even though on any given day we both have to work through serious pain upon arising -- or even just to get up, we both know that the aches and pains represent true gain: fruits, veg and meat in our freezers and on our shelves. Food that we do not have to wonder about where it came from, how it
-- and homesteaders--
DO kick ass!

was grown, how it might have been contaminated between the source and our plates. And digging in the dirt, even more than plying my "trade" as a folk artist or actually spinning and plying the wool that our sheep give us, keeps me sane. I am thankful, though, for those sheep and my love of fiber, as much as I am the rest of our little homestead, as the spinning gives me balance and contributes much to my spiritual practice. But that is a story for another time. 

Good luck on your homesteading ventures!