Nobody’s life is without challenges. But homesteaders are among the demographic of people who often find ourselves butting up against the very edges of our capacity to do what needs to be done, and it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it is necessary to sit back and take stock of the situation. Juggling necessities, accepting reality, and knowing when to say “when” are a fact of life for everyone, but within the context of homesteading these can be particularly challenging. Burnout is real. Read on for a few ways to help you assess whether or not you are approaching burnout and how to choose a direction from where you are.
The Juggling Act
When it comes to juggling, homesteaders are pros. Between off-farm jobs, children, extended family, community involvement, livestock, gardens, food preparation and preservation, repair and maintenance of infrastructure and equipment, household tasks, and pet care, we are spread pretty thin most of the time. Some days it seems like we are being pulled in a thousand different directions, with each one a top priority.
Having extra tasks to juggle is part and parcel of living this kind of life. When we homesteaders made the commitment to raise our own food and live close to the land, most of us went into it with eyes wide open. We knew it would be rough. We knew that while city people were acquiring their weekly food needs by way of an easy hour spent in the aisles of their nearest supermarket, we would be toiling over vegetable gardens and milk stands. While our city counterparts are opening prepackaged-food boxes, we are canning green beans and making cheese and kneading bread. They turn up the thermostat while we chop and stack firewood.
As homesteaders, most of us have not only added work, but added lives for which we bear responsibility. We are in charge of the nutrition, health, safety, and comfort of not only kids and possibly elders, but often a multitude of farm animals with myriad needs as well.
It is inevitable to feel overloaded at times. If this sounds all too familiar, it may be a good time to ask yourself a few questions about what is going on.
Is the feeling of being overloaded temporary? For example, is your plate overflowing due to an unexpected accident or illness which you will someday look back and see as merely a bump in the road? Or is it long-term and chronic?
If this is the baseline, what if something unexpected does happen? Are you equipped to handle an emergency and its aftermath, not only physically but financially and emotionally as well? If you or your partner gets Lyme disease or falls and breaks a bone, can the other pick up the extra tasks and play nursemaid as well?
If your constitution, time, and resources have zero wiggle room for potential disaster, are there others in your life who would step up and help, or with whom you could barter for what you need to get through? If not, can you take steps to create such a community?
If you are truly living on the edge, with no margin of error and no outside support, can you tolerate the stress that such a life entails? Some people can, and others cannot. Everyone has different strengths, and what is tolerable for one person might be too much for another. Use your answers to these questions to help you think through whether or not your personal plate is too full.
As a goal-oriented person who likes to have things done, it is possible for me to get sucked up into thinking a thing has to be done just because it was on my to-do list. It is true that in a perfect world—or at least in my perfect world—everything would be fed, mucked out, swept up, canned, groomed, fixed, mowed, baked, washed, topped off with gas, harvested,returned, and polished. Finished, put away, and with plenty of time to spare.
If you are wired that way as well, you may be on the fast track to burnout. One of the first steps to determining where you are on the burnout-o-meter is to ask if you are trying to accomplish more than actually needs to be done. Out on the homestead, it may be possible to let some tasks fall by the wayside while still holding onto what is truly most important.
For example, perhaps a few weeds in the front flower garden don’t matter—or maybe it is not even important to grow flowers at all. Out in the barnyard, you may need to assess whether or not it is crucial to participate in every goat-show with all animals, or if you could get by with hitting only the high spots with the herd’s best. Leaning fences need to be repaired, but a temporary fix with a cattle panel might buy you some time during your busiest seasons so that the real work can be done later.
At some point, we all have to look reality in the eye. Is your load genuinely too much? Even the strongest people have limits.
It might be of value to ask yourself why you are doing what you do. There are nearly as many reasons for homesteading as there are homesteaders. You might be drawn to the lifestyle because you want to be self-reliant, or treat animals humanely, or do your part to save the planet. You may have been motivated toward independence by concern for the nation’s political horizons. Perhaps you want to avoid synthetic chemicals or bioengineering in your food, or you want to raise your children in a rural area, or you embrace the simplicity a homesteading life can offer.
Whatever compelled you to take up homesteading, ask yourself this: is it still important to me? Do you still wince at the thought of commuting on eight lanes of stop-and-go traffic every day? Do you hate the idea of your kids eating high-fructose-corn-syrup-laced snacks and spending their days indoors? Would buying your food at the grocery store be a letdown? Would you chafe at the idea of depending upon someone else for your sustenance and security?
If your reality is that it still matters, that is a big deal… If you still want to do it, you still can. You may have to make adjustments and learn to let go of that which is not critical. Life requires flexibility. But if homesteading is where your passion lies, you can do it.
Another aspect to consider is this: what would make your life easier? Aside from the standard witty replies of “winning the lottery” or “having myself cloned” or “inventing animals that tended themselves and lawns that never needed mowing,” what is the real answer?
Perhaps compromise is in order. An easier life might be attained by taking a less demanding off-farm job and living with the salary cut, or growing only fruit and bartering for vegetables with a neighbor, or taking a season off from volunteering in dog foster-care or master gardening.
When to Say “When“
I once met a couple who picked up their well-heeled lives as engineers in Silicon Valley and touched down in an off-grid home on twenty acres in rural Maine. Their stunned friends and family asked them if they planned to live like that forever.
“We plan to live like this until it isn’t fun anymore,” they replied.
I try to make that my mantra. This is not to say that everything about homesteading is always fun. Some of it is never fun. But when the whole package ceases to be rewarding overall, it may be time to reconsider.
If you are wondering if you should throw in the towel, have you pictured how your life would be from that point forward? When everything is coming at you at once and you feel like you have not had time for as much as a deep breath in recent memory, you might be so intent on getting out from under feed-store bills and eighteen-hour days that you have not really considered the alternative. Would you move back to the city, or into a spare bedroom of a relative’s in a village, or buy a smaller farm?
During my most discouraging times, when it seemed like all the equipment broke down on the same day and a windstorm knocked a tree over onto the chicken-house roof and the vet came to the farm three times in one week, I sometimes gave thought to what my life would be like somewhere else. And the truth was, I just could not picture myself anywhere but on my homestead. As long as that remains true, I’m staying.
That is not to say that downsizing is out of the question. In certain situations, even a partial downsize can bring relief to a homesteader in danger of burnout.
During a particularly difficult summer, it occurred to me one day that I seemed to be starting my milking chores later every morning. It was clear I was procrastinating, and when I carefully examined my motives, I realized I just did not enjoy it anymore. The deep love I had once held for the activity, the gentle sweetness of time spent with my favorite goat doe, the magical nature of lactation—had been reduced to just a chore to get through.
Not only that, but the goats themselves had become more of a burden than a joy, and I rarely spent time with them anymore.
I made the heart wrenching decision to sell my goat herd. I screened buyers carefully and still continue to follow their progress on social media, and it is clear now that selling them to better homes than I was providing was the right move for all of us.
Selling off an entire herd of livestock is by no means the right answer for everyone. What is the right answer is to conduct honest, hardcore soul-searching that will help you arrive at the right answer for you.
There is no shame in saying “uncle.” Every lifestyle is not optimum for every person at every stage of his or her life. If homesteading is beating you to death and you are long since burnt out, it is time to consider other options.
There may be some great ways to reduce burnout without letting go of your homesteading dream. In addition to creating a dynamic in which you receive support from others around you, letting go of non-essential activities, and cutting corners where possible, there are other modifications you can try.
First, consider getting help. If hiring a regular farmhand or even an occasional day-laborer is out of the question, this may be the perfect juncture to consider inviting relatives to sign-on at your homestead. An arrangement with grown children or middle-aged parents might be just right for some families. You can create unlimited permutations of a basic cheap-rent-for-farm-help deal. Your home may be big enough to house the whole clan, or there may be enough cash on hand to build an in-law apartment. Otherwise, it might work to put up a cabin, yurt, or tiny house on the property, for either you or the newcomers.
If no relatives are interested, you may be able to find an apprentice or partner through programs that connect farms to farmers. Look into farmers’ organizations, cooperative extension programs, or even Craigslist (with caution, of course) for a good fit. It might take some persistence, but do not rule it out without trying.
If you do decide to downsize, it does not have to be all or nothing. You may be able to sell off some livestock, cut down on crops, dry off dairy animals, and commit to doing less food preservation. Cutting back on the number and scope of projects might make a difference too, although I will be the first to acknowledge that homesteaders are optimistic by nature and hate to scale back. You may even consider subdividing property and keeping only that which is most dear to your heart and most vital to your operation.
You may opt for selling the whole place and starting over on another property instead. Somewhere smaller, less expensive, closer to work, further from town, or with better infrastructure might be enough of a trade-up to make continuing as a homesteader possible and more pleasurable.
In the same way that homesteaders do not fit into cookie-cutter shapes, there is no single right answer for addressing homesteading burnout. It is a tough life, and it does happen. But we homesteaders are a tough lot. We have the strength and resilience we need to assess, cope, adapt, compromise, and accept whatever changes needed to be made.