Homesteading Life

Don’t Quit Your Day Job – Bringing Home the Bacon So You Can Afford to Feed the Pigs

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Dreaming about living in the country is easy, even when you’re not quite there.

Rural images ripple unbidden through burbling brooks of the mind like so many flashing, darting minnows—abrupt, startling sensory overlays to whatever is passing for reality at the time.

Steaming in stalled traffic, toxic fumes rising from the tailpipes of a million other commuters, all windows closed to the stench, breathing “conditioned” air, radio turned full up to stifle the cacophony of a million other radios and a million other engines, right in the middle of a nice mental image of ramming your car into the one ahead of you, and the one ahead of THAT one, and the one ahead of THAT one,  (poof) and you’re in the middle of a field of cows—nice clean cows with doe-like eyes and lashes to die for, all contentedly chewing on their organic cuds.  Perhaps humming something classical under their chlorophyll-scented breath.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.

Cubicle, inbox, outbox, sticky pads, telephone, rolling black chair (kept carefully on the hard plastic carpet guard), office gossip circulates, virus-like, infecting everyone it touches.  There must be no softness shown, no sympathy, no common sense, and above all no refusal to pick a side.  You MUST be on a side, you must choose, this is important to the well-being of the entire universe, this ISSUE must be cussed, discussed, discovered, covered, recovered, hashed, rehashed, solved, resolved, until it’s unrecognizable from whatever it started out to be (were we deciding between plain/coated paper clips, or pizza/salads for lunch???).  There’s an opening, a tiny imperceptible rift in the space between gray fabric covered co-workers and gray fabric covered cubicle wall and a break is made—to the ladies’ room!  The door slams shut, the latch is latched and the body slumps onto the stool—head spinning, breathing in the carefully sterilized aroma of Lysol, glass cleaner and as many different perfumes as there are women in the office.  Torn as to the next logical action—laughter, screaming, head banging or just giving up and flushing yourself, (poof) and you’re in a vegetable garden.  Sun shining, the earth warm and fragrant under your bare feet, the tomatoes could be harvested blindfolded; they’re so intoxicatingly spicy.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.

(Only one more, I promise…)

Arriving home after a day at work, the odor of cooking wafts through the air.  Someone else’s cooking.  In someone else’s apartment. The sound of someone else’s child pounding on something while singing off key at the top of their tiny voice can be heard over the chorus of a herd of television sets all marching to the tune of different drummers.  Wearily, drapes closed to the mirror images of your life across the street, you pet the cat in your lap and (poof) you and the cat are sitting in a rocking chair in front of a fireplace.  The pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof keeps time with the spring peepers’ concert literally over the river and through the woods.  There’s a pie in the oven.  Apple pie.  Made with apples from your apple tree.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.

If only.  If only there was a way to get from here to there… the dream becomes a mission and the mission becomes an obsession and the obsession becomes (poof) a place in the country with your name on the mortgage.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Hyperventilate.

Suddenly all the above becomes reality.  But what you didn’t think about is that most likely ALL the above becomes reality.  The good, the bad, the urban, the rural, the paper clips and the tomatoes.  A big ol’ simultaneous mess of clashing lifestyles that it becomes horrifyingly clear is YOUR new lifestyle, because you need that hated job to pay for that loved homestead.  Inhale.  Turn blue.  Pass out.

Some folks have the sense to save up for a country place during their working years, retire with a nice party and a gold watch, pack up the U-haul and move into a paid for dwelling nestled on acreage.  Once a month, their retirement check is deposited in their account and they pay their bills.  Easy.

Some folks have the good fortune to be born on a large family farm where it’s assumed that home is already here, and you are already home.

Some folks have a pre-learned trade, skill, knowledge or some such that allows them to actually make a living without ever leaving the property.

Then there are the rest of us.

Oh, I know the bookshelves at Amazon are chock full of tomes preaching that if a soul is serious about being a True Homesteader, everything that’s needed will be produced by the sweat of your brow and spring from the loins of your property, but I’m here to witness honestly that I’ve been at this Small Homesteader Thing for well nigh a quarter of a century and I’ve yet to be able to pay all my farm bills from something I do that’s actually farm-related.

I do have a Homestead.  And I’m right proud and serious about it.  But while I’ve always managed to raise up, sell, plant, harvest and otherwise oversee creation of things that bring in some cash to defray the cost of the farm proper, I’ve always had to have employment off the farm to pay for those little luxuries like clothing for the children, upkeep on vehicles, health/auto/property insurance, taxes, and stuff we can’t grow, like toilet paper and ink pens.

I do have a Homestead.  And I’m right proud and serious about it.  But while I’ve always managed to raise up, sell, plant, harvest and otherwise oversee creation of things that bring in some cash to defray the cost of the farm proper, I’ve always had to have employment off the farm to pay for those little luxuries like clothing for the children, upkeep on vehicles, health/auto/property insurance, taxes, and stuff we can’t grow, like toilet paper and ink pens.

I’ve tried to work a normal job during normal hours and still maintain the farm, and it’s a dreary, precarious slog.  When my co-workers were enjoying a cuppa and the morning paper before their drive in to work, I’d been up already for at least an hour, milking goats, tending horses, and then diving into the shower to become halfway presentable, and almost always not quite making it—the stray hay in my coat pocket, forgetting to take off my “barn shoes” before leaving for work, arriving to work just a tad late because I forgot to turn off the water hose to the horse tanks and had to turn around and go home to turn it off—all proof to the world that you can take this old gal physically off of the farm, but it always follows me like a fed cat.

Daylight savings time is a particularly nasty season for normally employed small homesteaders.  For fully half the year the critters get fed in the dark in the morning, and fed in the dark at night.  It’s almost enough to make anyone throw in the towel and move on back into town.

But here’s the thing.  Just because you need a “real” job to support your country living dreams, doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the 9-5/M-F nightmare.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is that 9-5/M-F is an inconvenient time to be away from the farm.  That’s daylight.  And when the Vet is available.  And….daylight.  So the first logical option is that if there are multiple shifts at your workplace, apply for your same position, but not 1st shift.  Either 2nd or 3rd shifts are good options for homesteaders (and they generally pay more, which is an extra bonus).

Are you trained in something that’s open to working flextime?  Many medical positions can be arranged so that you can work say, 3 twelve-hour shifts instead of 5 eights.  I know one Flight for Life nurse who works 2 sixteen-hour shifts and is done for the week.  If there’s no Dr. in front of your name, and no RN or LVN behind it, there’s a wide assortment of 2-year degrees that would afford the same schedules: X-ray tech, lab tech… check out your local community college for the different courses.  While the thought of having to go back to school for 2 years may give you the heebie-jeebies, stop and think a minute about being trapped in your cubicle for another 20 years.  Better?

Do you have small children?  Do you LIKE to have children around? Daycare is a wide-open field and, depending on where your farm is located, there may be a niche waiting for small people to enjoy YOUR wide open fields while their moms work at the jobs you don’t want to, and pay you to stay on your homestead, bless their hearts.  Make sure to check state and local guidelines regarding certification and insurance requirements.

Keep your eyes and ears open at your current employment; when there was a brand new position coming up at my workplace, I was offered the job and I took it even though my original intent was to QUIT as soon as I could afford it.  The benefit of being the first person on a job is that there’s no existing job description, and the possibility of writing your own and pretty much making up the job as you go is both an awesome responsibility and wonderfully freeing.  While I won’t even pretend that if we won the lottery tomorrow I’d stay on my job for the love of it, it’s been just what we’ve needed to allow us to do what we need to do on the farm, and for our family.  Of course I’m very careful not to take advantage of that freedom.

An online home computer is a rural person’s friend.  Whether you’re looking up the dosage of penicillin to give a feverish goat, finding planting tips for State-Fair-worthy eggplants, or finding employment, the answers are truly right there in front of us.  Everyone knows SOMEONE who works from home with the help of his or her computer.  The work may be repetitive and mind-numbingly boring, but if you can put in your hours and get the work done, some character on your farm will be happy to liven things up a bit for you: there are fences to jump over or get hung up in; other characters to be fought with, courted inappropriately, or eaten; and general mayhem waiting to occur at any given moment.  It continually amazes me that my animal family is so devoted to making sure that I’m never bored, and it’s brought a tear to my eye more than once.  Really.

Obviously, anything promising many dollars for little work should be researched with extreme caution, or avoided altogether.

While most folks have a goal of making their farm a Working Venture, the truth is that it takes time, trial and error and money to achieve this in any way, form, or manner.

Can you eventually make your living from dairy goats, fiber animals, free-range hens, grass-fed beef, and organic produce?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  The hard fact is that there’s a learning curve to all the above, and all the above need to be approached in a tiny way at first; these are living things who will depend on you for everything they have including the quality of their very lives, even the plants.

And even IF there is a ready market for piebald miniature alpacas in your area this year, there may not be next year.  But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that your own operating expenses will still be there, up to and including X number of sacks of Alpaca Chow every week.

Be very, very sure of your consumer base.

Start small, no matter how excited you are to start.

Grow slowly, no matter how excited you are to grow.

And always, always have a Plan B for the rainy day when the bottom falls out and pulls out the rug under your feet with it.

Having to have a “real job” does not mean you are a failure at Homesteading.  All it means is that right now, at this moment, your goal of a successful homestead requires this of you.  It’s to your credit that your homestead means enough for you to do what you need to do to attain and maintain it.

The only real failure is not to try at all.

The silver lining of having to work off the farm is that while you are stuck in traffic or your cubicle, when you get *poofed* to that idyllic scenario in your head, it’s not just a dream—if you can keep from throttling the copy machine, your co-workers or disgruntled customers for just a few more hours, you WILL be sitting in your rocking chair with your cat in your lap, listening to the rain pitter patter on the roof.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.  Smile.

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