Growing Your Homestead Without Going Into Debt
It was June, almost ten bee seasons ago, and Steve and a friend were moving an established hive of bees into my backyard. The bees were amassed against the screened-in front of the hive. Having been confined overnight, the buzzing ball of fury was eager to get out. My heart was pounding! What had I gotten myself into now? Would I ever be able to go into my own backyard again without being stung to death?
I had just traded a summer’s worth of Saturdays in beekeeping labor for this hive. However, I’d assumed the hive would come at the end of the summer, when I was a little more experienced, instead of the day after we made the deal! Steve later told me that he’d wanted to get that hive into my backyard before I could change my mind about helping him all summer.
When he’d settled the hive into place, Steve looked around my backyard and smiled. “You’ve got yourself a little farm here!” he said with obvious admiration. At the time, I lived in town on less than 1/4 acre. I’d established tall hedges and plantings around the perimeter of the backyard so the neighbors couldn’t tell what shenanigans I was up to. (The picture above is of this backyard in early spring. You are looking at a beehive, a chicken coop, and a fenced garden area.)
I was taking Joel Salatin’s advice literally. In his book You Can Farm, he said, “Don’t worry about the zoning ordinances—they’re just there for when people complain.” I had a large garden, a small chicken coop with six laying hens, and now a hive of bees all crammed into my backyard! It would still be three more years and three more beehives before I moved my growing menagerie out into the country on the twelve acres I have now, but even back then, I was already a homesteader.
You can be too! Today, right now, you can begin to realize and grow into your dream. You don’t have to wait until you have the money or the land. You can begin now to fill up whatever pot you’re currently planted in and bloom furiously until that pot is overflowing and you move on to a bigger pot. You can begin producing things now to meet your own needs and to reduce the amount of money going out of your household. Reducing the amount of money going out is critical to increasing the amount of time you have to put into your endeavor and minimizing the amount of time you spend working elsewhere.
To ensure that you’re successful, you’ll want to treat homesteading like starting a small business and follow some sound financial principals, including paying yourself first in the goods and services you produce and avoiding the pitfalls of new business startups. The U.S. Small Business Administration reports these reasons why small businesses fail:
Lack of experience
Insufficient capital (money)
Poor inventory management
Over-investment in fixed assets
Poor credit arrangement management
Personal use of business funds
By starting out small, right where you are, and growing into your homestead, you can avoid these pitfalls. Let’s discuss how.
Lack of experience, the first pitfall, can be a blessing in disguise. Lack of experience means that you have lots to learn and lots to keep you busy while you pine away and save for that little piece of eden in the countryside. Start by planting a garden, either in your own small yard, a community garden, or any place nearby that you can talk someone into letting you use. It’s amazing how little space it actually takes to produce a fair amount of food, and it’s a good training ground.
Some of the skills you will acquire while learning to garden include growing food; canning, freezing, dehydrating, and cooking food; building a rainwater catch-system; fencing; and maybe even marketing your excess vegetables.
You have lots of resources to help you learn. This site, Homestead.org, is a wealth of information and inspiration. Another great site is Tendingmygarden.com by Theresa Martz. Out of necessity, the author of this site has fed herself and her artist husband their whole lives from her garden. She is a master at keeping costs down—a recurring theme in all her advice. Theresa has broken gardening down into three key steps: loosening the soil deeply, adding organic materials, and keeping the soil mulched. (See her site or her book Organic Gardening: Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening.)
Visit successful gardens, apprentice yourself out as I did with beekeeping, and start gaining practical experience. Your vegetables will taste like nothing you’ve ever bought in a grocery store.
With gardening under your belt, if you are a true homesteader, you will soon find yourself thinking of other types of food production: perhaps half a dozen laying hens, rabbits, or a couple of beehives in the backyard or next to the community garden. Again, Homestead.org has lots of information to get you headed in the right direction. So does a great and practical life-long farmer named Gene Logsdon. He has a weekly well-indexed blog and has written multiple books on all aspects of homesteading. Your research will turn up many more resources.
Beyond food production, homesteading involves learning to provide or barter for many of your own goods and services. Use this time to gain new skills to first provide for your own needs, thus keeping money in the household. As you become more accomplished, you can then use these skills to also provide income by selling or trading your goods, services, or know-how to others.
If you’re right for homesteading, you will find joy in the time you spend learning new skills. In the years before I moved to the country, here are just a few of the skills, other than gardening and producing honey, that I learned and how they are now paying off, either in savings or in income:
Fencing. Setting my own fence posts and stretching garden fencing saved me a lot of money. I also learned how to add a hot-wire along the bottom to discourage raccoons and possums from climbing the fence to eat my produce or from slipping into my chicken coop at night. Later I used these skills to fence the goats out of my garden and to do my own cross-fencing in the pastures. Fence repair and maintenance is now a recurring January chore.
Using both hand and power tools for basic carpentry. I have since used those skills to build a chicken coop, two three-sided goat sheds, and put together countless beehives, a goat stanchion, and sleeping platforms for the goats.
Providing my own firewood. I learned to safely use a chainsaw, maul, axe, and hatchet to cut and split firewood, at first by helping a friend prepare his woodpile for winter. Now I have a wood splitter and wood provides all my heating, saving hundreds of dollars every winter.
Simple plumbing and home repairs. Knowing how to fix a leaky toilet or faucet saves a lot of money in not having to call a plumber or repair person.
Soapmaking. It’s a fun thing to do on a winter’s day. With all the competition in my area, I haven’t tried to sell my soap, but it does save me money in providing for my own needs and in gift giving on birthdays and holidays. Everyone loves handmade soap.
Mead making. Of course selling this would land me in jail, but providing for my own needs is legal and saves a lot of money!
Beeswax rendering. I sell beeswax candles at my farm booth and also one-ounce beeswax bars to local crafters.
Marketing. I have learned how to attract customers to a farm stand and a booth at local farmers markets where I sell honey, beeswax products, garlic, and pumpkins.
Learning new skills is never-ending and no doubt you can add many more things that you want to learn to this list. The list continues to grow since I have moved to my land. I am still learning about growing and marketing my goat herd and am just beginning to educate myself in using solar energy. Recently I installed a solar panel to energize my electric fencing. I can think of many more uses for solar in the future.
Insufficient capital (money) is one pitfall that can also be a blessing. You can’t be tempted to spend money you don’t have before you know what you’re doing or whether you even really want to do it. Your projects will have to pay for themselves as you go. In the beginning, this means the savings you will realize in producing rather than buying to meet your needs. This is a version of the “pay yourself first” principle.
The most obvious way to pay yourself first is by producing most of your own food. Planting a garden will produce food that tastes good and is good for you. In time, it will save you money at the grocery store. You will learn what to produce in your area, to eat in season, and how to preserve food for winter. You will discover whether you have what it takes or even want to have what it takes before you make the leap into buying land or moving to the country. In time, if you enjoy it and are persistent, your garden will grow and most of what you eat will come from the garden. If you really love it, you may expand into market gardening and produce enough to sell.
If you’ve outgrown your pot, but still don’t have the capital to buy your own land, renting land for livestock or a market garden is a lot cheaper, the cost can be covered by what you produce, and you may be able to make money. I have more people who have offered me space on their land for beehives than I can keep up with.
Poor location. Gaining experience where you are will take care of this pitfall when looking for land. You will have time to learn what good soil and pastures look like, what kind of water sources you have for your gardens and livestock, how far you are from potential markets, and whether there are problems in the neighborhood.
Poor inventory management is less of a problem with homesteading; however, letting vegetables rot in the field because you don’t have a market for them or time to tend them can be a problem. Likewise buying a herd of livestock in the fall and having to buy feed all winter is also a waste of money. Growing slowly, whether from a small garden to a bigger garden or in growing your own herd slowly, starting with a handful of healthy animals, will ensure that your ability to deal with what you produce grows with your production.
Over investment in fixed assets means land payments, houses, barns, or big equipment that you can’t afford and that your homestead income will never cover.
Poor credit arrangement or management. Stay out of debt! Yes you have to live somewhere and most people have to have a mortgage or pay rent, but beyond that do not borrow money to pay for any farming or homesteading enterprise. Grow into it and pay as you go.
Personal use of business funds. In the beginning, the money you make on your homestead will go most likely into your next project and to grow. But if you are staying out of debt, what you make is yours to do with as you please. Homesteading is about quality of life as much as it is making an income.
Unexpected growth can be a big problem in homesteading. Every year, I produce a little more honey than the year before, but every year I have more and more demand. I can’t keep up. In the beginning I had to go to three local farmers markets to sell it all. I have pared my markets down to one, but this year I already have a waiting list of customers and may sell it all from the farm. Others who produce quality products have the same problem when the word gets out. At one farmers market, I met a couple who sells pasture-raised, non-GMO beef from Red Devons and are slowly growing their herd. The meat is the best I’ve ever tasted. After only five years, they cannot keep up with demand for this delicious product.
This is where many who have been successful make a big mistake. They try to grow too fast, to meet the demand at all costs, cut corners, buy for resale, or over-invest in the next level before they are ready. The quality of the product slips, and quality along with your good name are what you really have going for you as a homesteader. Quality is why your customers want what you have and are willing to pay a little more for it. If you can grow without going into debt or letting quality slip, do it. Otherwise, start a waiting list of customers.
OK, you’ve grown slowly and you’ve avoided the pitfalls. Now you have several options. Maybe you’ve decided the work is too much and that homesteading is not for you. In that case, you’ve eaten some really good food, learned a ton of useful skills, and learned something valuable about yourself without going broke or investing all of your savings in an enterprise doomed to failure. A win. Or maybe you’re content where you are and decide to stay put. You like your life, enjoy good food, know how to do things for yourself, and have some extra money to spend on other things you might enjoy. Another win.
Or, like me, you may find yourself still enthusiastic, bursting at the seams, and chomping at the bit to make the move to the country and a few acres where you can spread out further. You’re finally ready to make the move. If you have arrived this point by outgrowing each previous step and by growing into each next step, you already know you will be successful. You know you are doing exactly what is right for you!
Go for it! After the move, continue growing slowly and paying yourself first. The food and goods you produce on your homestead are of the highest quality and you deserve the first fruits of your hard labor. Savor them. Take the long view and enjoy the journey. You’ve earned it. If you continue in this slow, deliberate way, in a few short years, you will look back in amazement at what you have accomplished and better still, you will be living the life you love.