At sixty years old, I live alone in a circle of trees in the middle of twelve wild and wooly acres. People are either intrigued by the way I live or they think that I’ve lost my mind. If they’re intrigued, I subject them to a tour of the homestead and make new friends. If not, well I just go about my own business, hugging to myself the secret happiness of my crazy-good life.
When I came to this place in my fifties, all that was here was a falling-down tobacco barn, some overgrown pastures, a creek, a mud-bottom farm pond, and a few acres of hardwoods and cedar. Although, I didn’t know it at the time, I was in the last years of my career. I contracted for a little house to be built and hired someone to repair the barn and to fence a three-acre pasture. My plan was to keep working full-time while building the beekeeping business that my partner and I had started, and to eventually retire into full-time homesteading with this good man on this piece of land.
But the good man died, and the job went to two younger, more poorly-paid workers. Losing the job catapulted me into retirement before I was really ready for it. Here is where I say that even if YOU plan to work until you’re seventy years old, most employers have something else in mind! I weighed looking for another job against jumping into homesteading with both feet. I knew I’d never replace my former income and I’d always wanted to be a homesteader. If not now, when? So, I jumped!
Since then, I’ve carved out new bee yards and grown the bee business; built a chicken coop and two goat sheds; learned to repair and put up new fences for the goats; grown most of my own food; and cut and split firewood to heat my home. And although you can certainly tell where the professionals’ work of the early years left off and my more rustic work began, I feel liberated and find real soul-satisfaction in the work!
The people who are intrigued by what I’m doing have three big questions: How do I do all the physical work of it myself? How do I make it work financially? And, don’t I get lonely? Well, let me take you on a tour of my crazy-good life and show you the answers to those questions.
First, how do I do all the work? Slowly, imperfectly, but with relish! Being older, and a woman, I cannot just muscle my way through tasks. It takes longer, and I have to plan and prepare. Because I love the physical work and the creative process of doing a job as much, if not more than, actually having it done, it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. For goats, I need good, sturdy farm fences but can’t afford to pay someone else to install them. So, I cut and limb a few appropriately-sized cedar trees as wooden posts. Then I dig as many post holes as my strength and energy allow that day, put in the posts, pour some Quikrete and water into the hole, and leave it to set a couple of days. I buy the metal posts, either new or at farm and garage sales, and pound them into the ground—but only in wet, soft-earth times of the year. Then, with the use of the hitch on my truck, a come-along, a fence stretcher, and chains, I install the fence from post to post along the string-line I’ve laid out.
The most difficult part of this job is handling the large, heavy rolls of welded-wire fencing. No way can I lift a roll of this stuff myself. The farm store folks load it for me in the back of my pickup. I drive it to the area I’ll be fencing, climb into the back of the truck, and push the roll out onto the ground with my feet. Then I can unroll and cut what I will need to stretch. Once on the ground, I sometimes have to use a long pole through the center of the roll as leverage to maneuver it so it rolls in the direction I wish.
I work until I get tired or have to stop for something more pressing, and then I leave the work for another day. Little by little, the goat herd is growing and the fencing is, too. I’ve cross-fenced to create a buck pen and another pasture, and now I’m working on fencing the goats out of the garden, which will increase their pasture space.
Another example involves the bees. When I had to start doing all the bee work myself, I had to change the way I did things to compensate for my lesser muscle-mass. I situated all my hives so that I can drive up behind them and tend to each one while working off the tailgate of my truck. When harvesting honey, rather than lifting and carrying full boxes of honey and using a bee blower to blow out the bees, I have to pull frames, one by one, from the hive, brush away the bees, and put the frames in a screen-covered box in the back of the truck. It takes longer, but it gets done.
I like to make my rounds of the homestead each day, doing what needs to be done, crossing things off my to-do list, and adding new things. “Little by little” is my motto. Doing a little of a task each day is less taxing and overwhelming than trying to get it all done at once. However, when I look back over a year’s time, it’s amazing how much can actually get accomplished this way.
As I take you on this tour of my homestead, I’ll try not to apologize for things still undone. A few weeds in the garden are nothing, as long as the veggies are there, too. Wildflowers in the fencerows and overgrown pastures are good for the bees and other wild things. A good life is not all work. Sharing a glass of homemade mead or iced tea on the porch with a friend, taking a siesta in the hammock, or pasture-izing (sitting in the pasture) with the goats just might be a little more important at times.
How do I make it work financially? Good fortune, good health, and thrift. I have worked my whole life, sometimes two jobs. Even with two jobs in my best years, I had to budget. But I managed well and paid off my debts before “retirement.” Being debt-free at this stage is huge. Still, after living most of my life single, raising two children, and helping my children with their college expenses, I had very little savings. When my parents died, they left me a little money but nowhere near enough to “live off the interest.” The financial planners would laugh in my face if they knew what I had cooked up.
I calculated that if I could withdraw only $13,000 per year, I could make it to Social Security age, and that would be about the amount I would receive then. (We won’t get into how big an IF Social Security is.) But this would give me a little room for bad years with my bee business and time to get my goat herd established. I’d also have a small cushion left for emergencies, like illness or a vehicle repair.
So far, so good. Living frugally my whole life has made this goal quite achievable. I’ve also been able to add between $6,000 and $9,000 each year from my bee business. I sell honey and beeswax candles from the farm as well as at the local farmer’s market. I have made nothing from the goats yet, as this is their first kidding season; but I anticipate a small income from them, in time.
The joy of being able to run my own homestead on my own time has been a very motivating factor to continue being thrifty. My first goal is to minimize expenses. Growing veggies and keeping chickens is a big step in that direction. I eat seasonally and well; I don’t miss eating out as often because my food is so much better than what I can get at a restaurant.
When it comes to food and growing vegetables, I do sell some of my surplus at the farmer’s market along with my honey. However, my rule is to “pay myself first.” That means it’s cheaper to grow my own good food than it is to sell my vegetables and eggs to someone else and then try to buy equal-quality food with that money! I only sell my surplus—never from my larder.
I save money on utilities by burning wood. My brother and his wife have a similar lifestyle, and we work together hauling, cutting, and splitting wood for our two homes. He either finds it free for hauling it away or we harvest downed trees from my property, and we use my wood splitter to finish it. We get together about once a week in the winter to work on our woodpiles, to share company and maybe some lunch. It’s been great for our friendship, and we are three years ahead on our wood piles!
I save money on travel because I truly love being right where I am. I’ve done my share of travel and know that for every great vacation, there are quite a few more that I wished I’d just stayed home and saved the money. However, travel is not completely out of the question. Good honey-years allow some traveling money. I recently bought a small utility trailer that I’ve been outfitting as a camper so that I can go camping with my siblings. I must admit that since I live in this beautiful natural world, my motivation for camping is more social than “getting away from it all.”
I don’t need a gym membership! I get all the daily exercise I need right here on the homestead and it’s been great for my health.
And that brings us to the biggie: health! Health is the main reason that people, my age, give for having to work well past retirement age. Who can afford health care insurance? That’s right! Who can afford it?! Even with the Affordable Care Act, premiums are still too expensive for some folks. When I thought about that, I weighed it against the fact that as a single person, if I became ill and couldn’t work, I’d lose my health insurance anyway. If I continued to work in the high-stress environment I (and most Americans) worked in, I would get sick! I suffer from inordinately good health, so I had no priors and am on no medications. I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a low-premium “catastrophic,” high-deductible plan for $129 per month. I know, ridiculous. Even with the fine, I’m going to have to pay for not having a qualified plan, I can do it. Basically, it means that if I fall off my roof one day, my cushion will be depleted but I won’t lose the farm.
Many people my age have chronic illness and may truly have to continue in jobs they hate to provide themselves with health care. I cannot counsel anyone to forgo health insurance or to avoid traditional healthcare providers, BUT think about this: according to a Journal of American Medical Association article, at least one-third of deaths are caused by medical care: procedures, drugs, or infections contracted in the hospital. I’m saying, weigh the odds and decide for yourself based on your medical history and tolerance for health risk. I’m an old-ish woman and although I don’t want to die tomorrow, I don’t fear the prospect. I’m already too old to die young, and I have to go sometime. I’d much rather live while I’m alive than fear and plan for my ill health and demise. So I avoid medical doctors at all costs. I had to go to one for my insurance physical, and he tried to sell me on HRT and a host of “old-lady” supplements! Couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But then, I’m fortunate. Old age runs in my family.
Do I get lonely? Doesn’t everyone from time to time? Even those of us who are constantly surrounded by people—especially people who don’t accept or get us? I don’t have to worry about that. The only people in my life want to be here, and that’s refreshing. That said, getting to live alone and enjoy my own company for the majority of the time has made me really appreciate my friends and family when I do see them. I don’t care who they voted for in the last election, whether they pray to the same (or any) god, or how much or how little money they make. They are fellow human beings, and, for the most part, I believe they are doing the best they can. Age has made me less judgmental and more appreciative of differences. It has also made me not worry too much about the impression I’m making on others and happy to leave it up to them whether they want to continue the friendship.
The first year after losing my job, I was at loose ends. The job ended in October and the winter months left me asea. I volunteered at the local historical archives that month, cleaning old documents of coal dust and restoring them to be filed. I sat at a long table with other volunteers chatting, laughing, and cleaning—it was soothing salve to my soul. Summer came and with it my usual booth at the farmer’s market where I’ve met many good friends. Now, if I feel lonely, I realize that I need to extend myself. I need to call and invite someone over for a meal, a walk, or an inexpensive outing. I don’t wait for others to call. I have one friend who likes to do projects with me. Together, among other things, we’ve weeded each other’s gardens, made soap, and pounded mushroom-spore plugs into logs.
A huge advantage of growing your own food is that you almost always have food to share. Each fall, I invite as many people as I can cram into my small house for a “Harvest Dinner.” Most of the food served and all of the blueberry and persimmon mead comes from my homestead. I invite neighbors and folks I have met at the farmer’s market and any other people who I know will appreciate such an effort. We have always had a fabulous time, and after receiving such bounty from my humble abode, reciprocal invitations come flying in the rest of the winter months!
Homesteading is different for each of us, young or old. Like me, some of you are beginning in town, learning new skills, starting right where you are, while making your living as you must, dreaming of the day you can leave that job and run your own homestead. It only works for those of us who truly love the work of it. Young people have more energy and strength that they can bring to the effort. Older people may be more financially established to support their late start. But we’re all in it together and can learn from one another.
One day, I will not be able to work this small piece of ground. I would love to do as women did in the old days when the dowager (widow) maintained her home and the next generation built a new home, farmed, and inherited the land. My children are urbanites right now, but who knows? I have an older friend who makes his living from his blueberry farm. He has no children and has much more acreage than he can use. He has invited seven others (some single, some coupled, most much younger) to come homestead on his land. He will stay in his home until he dies and each of these friends will inherit 20 or so acres from him. Instead of flesh-and-blood kin, he has created kin-of-spirit, kindred spirits.
I love to tour my friends’ homesteads and always garner ideas from them when I do. I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour and that it’s given you a few ideas on how to make homesteading work for you—at any age!