Bravo to those already on their own land, who are old hands at gardening and raising animals and bettering their lives. These are the folks the rest of us look up to. Hopefully we can use their experience to help us avoid the pitfalls they’ve already fallen into and climbed out of.
Of course, we all seem determined to make our own mistakes. And everyone is different; what works for one may not work for the next up-and-coming. No matter what, a Homesteader-in-the-Making needs a plan, one that fits with who they are, what they want, and their own unique situation in life.
The following is a Ten-step Preparedness Plan we’ve followed (and constantly updated) for about seven years. It’s taken us from apartment-dwellers to home-owners on the verge of making the big move to the country.
Step 1: The Mind
Wrap your head around it.
Annie Plessinger wrote a report the Vanderbilt University psychology department in 2007 called “The Mental Edge”. She cites scientific studies comparing control groups with those who are trained in visualization in preparation for a variety of sports. The outcomes of these studies found a significant improvement in performance for the visualizers. Imagery works because it lays down the same neural patterns in your brain as if you had just performed the action. It appears your brain doesn’t know the difference between what you visualize, and what you’ve actually experienced. (This also works for negative visualization by the way, so beware.)
Get a binder, something with loose leaf pages you can rip out and replace when life throws you a curve. Any time you read an article or see a picture in a magazine that inspires you, cut it out and put it in your binder. We have floor plans, pictures of homes we like, garden layouts, wind turbines, ads for metal outbuildings, beautiful scenery, goat cheese recipes, photos of goats—get creative!
Make a wish list and stick it in your binder. Imagine yourself on your property. What does it look like? What will your days be like? What critters, plants, and chores will you encounter? Create a timeline with tangible mileposts like paying off the mortgage or getting a blacksmith license…whatever! Include any idea, no matter how unlikely you may be to follow it.
Update your binder regularly. Hone your plan as time goes by. Keep the vision alive.
Step 2: The Body
How old are you? How healthy? How strong?
Don’t limit yourself. If you’re a single woman, you can do this. If you want to retire to homesteading, you will be able to. Anyone, no matter who they are, has physical strengths and limitations. Get to know what yours are.
For instance, we’re closing in on the “golden years”. What this means is we need to get real about our physical age and what’s to come. So far we’re doing very well, but no matter how old you are, you should be aware of your blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), blood sugar, etc. Are you fit? Are you doing everything you can to stay (or get) that way:
This is even more important if you’re older. In a 2013 report, Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation warns that, without immediate action, the average baby boomer may spend his or her last ten years in sickness, disability and immobility. The good news: you can radically change this with exercise now. Weight training is one of the best ways to fight the effects of aging.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exercises using weights “have been shown to increase the strength of your muscles, maintain the integrity of your bones, and improve your balance, coordination, and mobility. In addition, strength training can help reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic diseases, including arthritis.”
So quit smoking, limit alcohol, eat right, and exercise.
Step 3: The Soul
Match your homestead to your philosophy.
Are you a strict vegetarian? If not, do you think you could “do in” your own chickens? What about rabbits, cattle, or other animals? If you are a sensitive person likely to make pets of all your critters, then that’s splendid; you just need to take that into consideration when planning your homestead.
If you long for wide open spaces with few neighbors, you’ll either need to win the lottery or move to the parts of the country that offer this kind of land at cheaper prices. Don’t go looking for them in Florida or Maryland. On the other hand, if you thrive in a communal setting, there are many successful and long standing cooperative homesteads out there. It seems we’ve learned a lot since the failed back-to-the-land movement in the sixties.
For us, a diversified small farm with a large garden area and enough pasture to support some animals is good, but owning some natural woodland where we can go to recharge is also a requirement. We want peace and quiet and a natural setting. So a property adjacent to a dirt bike track or snowmobile trail is probably not a good idea.
Take some time to consider what gives you joy and what bugs you. You won’t last long if you’re successful at feeding yourself and your family, but don’t have peace of mind.
Step 4: Your Character
Know your strengths and your limitations.
Look at your past behavior; do you have a slew of unfinished projects strung behind you? Procrastination makes achieving goals almost impossible. On the other hand, are you so goal oriented you miss out on the journey and neglect family or friends? Ask people you know well and trust to be honest with you to give you a good personality assessment. What they tell you will help you design your homestead.
For instance, I am an introvert, but hubby is an extrovert. What turns his crank is having a gang of people over, listening to music and having loud conversations. The more he gets of this, the more energized he becomes. His people skills are excellent, and we’re sure to have a lot of company. All this, for me, is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I like company, but after a while I need a break—somewhere to go for a breather.
Knowing this, we’re building our home so that there is a cozy, quiet place far from the main living area. Hubby and I are well aware of our different personalities, and we have learned to accept who we are and the need to adapt. This kind of self-awareness will help when you make your essentials list for your homestead.
Step 5: The People
Like it or not, you will need them.
I grew up in a small agricultural community of about 1,000 people. Everyone knew everyone. If you sneezed, the news went out and furthest neighbor over called to say “bless you”. This can be a good thing, and it can be a little trying at times. If you’ve always lived in a larger urban area you may be a little disconcerted by this when you make your move to the country.
Expect drop-ins. People will want to get to know you. Prepare for this and count your blessings. Develop your people skills. If you’ll need help consider farm interns or apprentices. These are usually younger people who want to learn more about farming. There are many options for this: you can offer free room and board and the chance for people to learn without any cash outlay, or you can pay them something. Many agrarian colleges and universities offer courses where field-work is mandatory. See if you can sign up and be prepared to keep work records for students.
If you plan to participate in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture group), farms often ask members if they’d like to volunteer. First choice of pickings or the chance to see where their food comes from is good incentive for city folk who don’t mind putting in a few hours on a weekend.
You could also try WWOOFers (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). These are folks from all over the world who will work for free. All they need is room and board and an opportunity to learn. They can stay for years or weeks, whatever suits you both. WWOOF.net links up workers with farmers.
Step 6: The Place
Research different locations.
Make a checklist of what you’re going to grow. If primarily veggies, good soil is important. If you’re going to raise grass-fed beef then you want land that provides good pasture. Know the ground you’re looking for. Will you grow your own winter forage? How much acreage will you need to do that? There are online calculators for figuring out how much land you need per animal to provide enough pasture and hay. And, of course, you’ll want access to good clean water.
What are your plans for energy? Focus on the energy options that make the most sense for where you’re going. We plan on moving to the Maritimes, where nor’easter winds make windmill power commonsense. This area is also famous as the cloudiest in the country. Even so, we will have solar, but it may not be our main source of energy.
Once you’ve determined where you want to go, get as many maps as possible. You want to know topography, watersheds, population densities, and type of farms around you. Are there a lot of factory farms in your location? Do you really want to be downwind of a giant manure pit? Is the water source downstream from a city or mining field?
Look at development: are people moving into or out of the area? What zoning is currently in place? Go to the local Chamber of Commerce and see what zoning applications have been submitted. If your area is zoned for forestry, that beautiful view might change. It also might limit the type of homestead you can have.
Check out mineral rights. Could someone else make a claim on your property? If you want deep woods, how prepared are you for the annual hunting season? Is your area slated for “development”? You might not want to plant yourself beside a road that will become a major artery in the near future.
Make a list of all potential negatives. Don’t be scared. Be prepared.
Step 7: Your Product
What will you grow and why will you grow it?
What are your reasons for homesteading? If you aim to be as self-reliant as possible, take a look at your pantry. Can you grow what you see? If you love bread, will you be able to grow your own wheat? If not, consider your location and the communities or farms around it. Is there a farmers’ market near you? If your area is covered mostly by corn or soybeans, you might find yourself driving to town for supplies more often than you like.
If you plan to sell some of what you grow how will you distribute your produce? If a CSA, you’ll need to be within reach of your market. Draw circles around any urban areas where you plan to locate. Where the circles intersect will be the best distribution point. If not a CSA, is there a local farmers’ market or other outlet where you can sell what you produce? If you intend to sell items online, what is the internet service like where you’re going? What about courier services if you need them?
If you want to raise meat animals and won’t be processing them on-site, how far is the nearest abattoir? Does it meet with your personal standards? Is there a portable service available? Make a wish list of everything you want to grow or raise and reference it often. Make an A-list for “must haves”, and a B-list for “would like to haves”. This will help you keep your eye on the prize, and you’ll be able to make adjustments to your B-list as you get closer to your move.
Step 8: The Market
Self-sustainability or business, how to get the word out.
The very best way to start a business is to buy one that’s already doing well. The same goes for a small farm. We looked for a while at a greenhouse growing operation that had a well-established market. The factors that turned us against it were the size of the business (too large for us) and the price. For now we want to be self-sustaining and perhaps just sell our excess.
However, you may want to make your homestead a money-making venture. Good for you! Be prepared for paperwork. You need to keep track of output vs. input and eliminate anything that drains your bankbook without giving something back. There’s nothing wrong with being sensible about profit.
Check to see what folks are already doing in your preferred area. You could partner with other farmers at farmers’ markets: offer home-made jams to go with freshly baked bread, jarred pickles to sell alongside grass-fed beef or pork for instance. Ask market organizers about costs; a stand facing an incoming door or along a main aisle may be the best position and could cost more, but you’ll make it up by selling more.
If you want to market online, check out sites that already sell what you have to offer. Tell the web host what you want to do and ask how they’d drive business to your site. If you’re not selling online but want to bring people to you, a website with information about your farm, when you’re open and driving directions is invaluable. Many people now use the internet to plan their daytrips to the country. Websites are also invaluable for CSAs to get volunteers or let people know what they grow.
Local fairs and events may offer vendor’s free listings in brochures. Local newspapers are always looking for a new story. Consider offering tours and tastings, or write food or opinion columns.
Step 9: The Money
Try to get lots of it.
I was once told to buy guns with credit and butter with cash. The idea is that a gun is an investment, something that will last a long time and bring meat to the table. Butter on the other hand is a perishable item. A luxury to be enjoyed with no future potential beyond that savory melting moment on the tongue. Credit therefore is worth it if there’s a long-term return on your investment. So finance businesses with credit and groceries with cash; get mortgages for housing and greenbacks for toys. Trouble is we’ve gotten into a very bad habit of borrowing against future income for virtually everything.
Old-timers will tell you it’s always better to pay cash up front. That’s partially true. You need a good credit rating, and cash won’t give you that. Besides, it’s just not do-able to ask everyone to wait twenty years to pay for their home with cash. Perhaps a better way to look at it is to say that credit isn’t bad, but debt is.
The less debt you have when you start your venture the better. One of the reasons you’re doing this is to assert some control over your own life. Debt means someone else can call in your loan and kill your dream. With the economy the way it is, we just can’t rely on the traditional financial process anymore. Being as debt-free as possible is power.
You also don’t want all your cash tied up in assets. Like it or not, you’ll need some cash flow to counter those unplanned for costs that crop up almost as often as garden weeds. You won’t be able to sell your tractor to pay for a flooded basement or dental emergency. Credit might get you the farm, but cash is the oil that keeps the engine running.
Step 10: Your Experience
While you’re saving for that day you pack up the family and head for the farm, there are skills you can learn now that will help when you get there. Make up your own list and get going! Here’s a good place to start:
- Learn simple accounting.
- Join and volunteer at a CSA.
- Take a farm vacation.
- Research locations, regulations, soil types, breeds, and seeds as if you’re ready to buy. You might not become an expert this way, but you’ll have better questions when you’re ready.
- Volunteer with urban gardening groups working to improve food accessibility in cities.
- Grow a garden. Save your seeds.
- Meet like-minded people in your area at meetup.com.
- Learn how to drive stick-shift.
- Check your regulations and get some backyard chickens if you can.
- Learn to sew, preserve food, make soap, cheese, or bake bread.
- Read everything you can get your hands on about homesteading.
- Do light weight-training. Eat right. Exercise.
- Make your own compost.
- Grow mushrooms.
- Volunteer with community support groups like Habitat for Humanity.
- Organize a farmers’ market in your community.
Have faith. The time will come when you can implement everything you’ve learned on your very own homestead. Create the future you want to live in. And don’t forget to dream.