Homesteading (and farming) can be a solitary affair. Something about living in tune with the land calls to our spirit like nothing else can. If we're lucky, we can find that one person, a partner who hears the call too.
Sometimes, though, there comes an urge to find more than just one... to find folks with a same mind, who want to live away from the hustle and bustle of the city, who want to grow tremendous amounts of food, who want to raise their own meat animals. In my experience, this urge to find people happens when I'm looking for information on a specific topic, or for day labourers (beyond the few reliable and trustworthy friends we have) for building projects.
One of the joys of this modern age of computers and information travelling around the world in seconds, is that it's not too hard to find those who also long to live off the land. More to the point, it's not too hard to find those who are already doing just that... and are willing to share how they are doing it.
From early on in our relationship, my hubby and I knew, one day, we'd be living in the country. It was something we discussed on our second date. He was a hunter living with his mom, brother, and uncles to help offset some bills; I was a gardener, stuck living in an apartment with a roommate, uncomfortable with so many people around me. We saw kindred spirits in each other, in that longing to be outside of the city, living on land that was ours, being (in our minds) free.
It took us 14 years to get there, and that's okay. There was always something that derailed us from getting where we wanted to be, but the dream never truly died.
In the time between our initial moment of recognition of the desire to live off the land, and the moment we actually made the land purchase, I wanted to find the best local places from which to source food. I had hoped that along the way, while purchasing directly from farms, that I could “pick the brains” of the people who were already doing the work that we wanted to be doing. I wanted to build a support community, where we could turn for assistance, and in turn, would offer our help in exchange.
The first task that I set for myself, was finding a local source for eggs. That might sound like it should be an easy task, but, it unfortunately wasn't. I spent countless hours online, looking for local farmers advertising their eggs for sale. I knew I wanted farm fresh; I knew I wanted to be able to talk directly to the farmer; and, honestly, I was hoping to find someone who would let us come and see their operation.
The first place I checked was with the local Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) groups. That led me to a directory of local (and some not quite so local) farms that were selling meats, produce, and some eggs. However, what I was running into were programs that wanted to sell a share, or a half-share, of product for the summer time. I wasn't looking for vegetables. In our yard in the city, I had a garden big enough, and planted intensely enough, that I could put up just about enough food for the winter and into the next growing season. Buying into a CSA share program was not what I was looking for.
All this investigation on my part lead me to many Facebook pages of farms in the province. And then, by sheer luck of the draw, I found the one farm that would eventually become my source for farm-fresh eggs... Ivy Hill Farm. It was through their Facebook page that I “met” Farmer Sue. For the next two years, I bought eggs from her weekly. She invited us out to the farm to meet their animals and our families became friends. I will admit, I was the annoying friend always asking questions about every little farm-related thing. From chickens to cattle to horses to feeds, if I thought of it, I asked her about it. Ahh, but Farmer Sue was patient with me, and answered every question she could, and redirected me to others when she couldn't.
Then, I learned about Open Farm Day. It's an event put on by the provincial agricultural department, with a plethora of farms opening their operations up to consumers so they can see what goes into farming on a daily basis. I felt like I hit the jackpot with this! We made our lists, we planned our day and went off to the farms that were interesting to us. That first year we were up early and went to 3 different farms: a dairy, a large bison operation, and a horse breeding/training farm. At each one we asked questions and learned everything we could in the time we had.
Even now, nearly four years into our farm-life journey, we still check out the brochure for Open Farm Day when it comes, and, if there's a farm on the list working with something we'd love to try (eventually), we make sure we go.
This type of networking is invaluable, especially for anyone interested in getting into selling any extras, like meat and eggs. For us, the emphasis has been on the care protocols for animals. Selling of anything has been secondary, because we wanted to be sure any animals we raised for consumption were raised in the best possible way, for ourselves and for the animals.
For each of the farms we visited, I found their Facebook pages and followed them. Then, I began to look at Facebook groups. Did you know there are Facebook groups for just about anything? I was happily surprised to see so many agricultural ones, including many that cater to female farmers.
I also found a few groups that catered to people in my local area. This, I discovered, could be a double-edged sword. Most of the people I met via the groups had been easy going, happy to share knowledge, or willing to host workshops for a small fee. I have always thought that hosting a well-taught workshop for whatever skill one had was a great idea. Ultimately, I wanted to be able to grow my farm from a small hobby into a business that sustained itself through sales and teaching, with a hint of agri-tourism thrown in.
What I didn't know was that there are some who are disdainful of anyone who dares to charge any sort of fee for teaching, and I felt the wrath of a few folks when I made mention of how we were hoping to teach a class in butchering chickens.
Reactions ranged from surprise that I would charge for knowledge easily found on YouTube, to downright nasty and threatening messages.
While unpleasant and surprising, the experience did teach me a few things:
1. Not everyone is going to be happy with how you do things.
2. Some people are happier when they are being nasty.
3. This one is most important: when you run into folks like that, those are not the people you want in your community. Weeding them out of your potential-homesteader garden early is critical.
Undeterred, I continued to explore the buy-and-sell groups for our area, and I have had some wonderful experiences. We found our year-old laying hens in a local buy/sell group, as well as our piglets. In fact, our piglets ended up coming from a neighbour that we hadn't yet met. This year, when we look to replace our layers, we'll contact the same person, just because the experience with him was so positive. There's also the bonus of being able to take hens that were used in a commercial operation and give them a second chance at life on a small farm. We're like that here... we're second-chance kinda people.
Our greatest place for finding community, though, has been with our neighbours, and our local horse-community. Yes, horses on a homestead are luxuries, but, many of their needs are transferable to other livestock. Quality feed, good vet care, and knowledgeable advisors are all things that are vital to having happy, healthy livestock.
Truth be told, the love of horses is what started us on our journey into homesteading and farm life. Long before we bought our piece of land, our daughter was taking riding lessons, and the draw towards having our own horses, on our own land reignited our desire for living outside the city limits.
Ultimately, it was through the folks who own the stable that we found our hay supplier. As everyone who has livestock knows, a reliable source for quality hay is worth its weight in gold. Our first year with the horses, hay was a hit-or-miss situation. That which wasn't full of foxtail was great hay, but foxtail is a no-no for horses, and some of the bales were so full of it, there was no picking it out. That year I burned about 10,000 pounds of hay. It was sheer luck that my husband was chatting with the barn manager at the stable, and mentioned we had this issue. She was sure their guy would have enough to be able to supply a hobby farm like ours, so she suggested we talk to the stable owner and get his number. The rest is, as they say, history. We are lucky to have a reliable source for great hay. That's an important thing to have in place when the homestead grows by a milking animal and steers for the freezer. Similarly, we found our vet and our hoof care specialist via the local horse-community.
Our neighbours have been invaluable when it comes to help on the homestead. Moving into a new community, we needed to find things like feed for our piglets and chickens, someone to pump the septic tank as needed (and, ultimately, get repair septic system... but that's a whole different story!), a source for building materials for fencing and shelters, plus a place to get gravel for the driveway and top soil to rejuvenate the garden areas, before the horse manure had a chance to cook in the compost pile. Being able to ask neighbours for ideas on who to use for these services has been, and continues to be, a great thing. And, there is the added bonus of keeping the community economy strong by using local people and their products.
At the end of the day, we've been lucky to be able to find, and build, the supportive community that we have. From neighbours around the old home in the city, to new neighbours of the Farm; from folks we've met online and have become real-life friends with, to those far away in cyberspace, but who share the same dreams and goals. Not to mention the livestock communities, be they horse, pig, chicken, or cattle.
The main thing we've learned is that in order to find those with like minds, and to build any sort of community, it takes work. Realistically, you get out of it what you put in—just like anything in life. If you're not willing to put in the time to find those of like mind, build a relationship, and offer a helping hand when and where you can, then, when you need a helping hand, chances are, you're going to on your own.
Having those people who are willing to have your back when you need it is not something we can take for granted. You never know when you might need a hand to chase down those ornery ponies who've escaped in the middle of the night because they imagined some crazy predator is going to eat them and made a run through the fence... but the predator turns out to be nothing more than a tarp flapping in the wind.
Not that I would know anything about having naughty ponies like that. Not at all. My horses are perfect darlings who would never, ever run from a perfectly mundane thing like a flapping tarp.
I'm just glad that when my neighbour called and said “Uh, I just saw your horses running past our living-room window,” her next statement was “I'll meet you outside.” Thank goodness!