I couldn’t say the exact date I started homesteading since it has been a steady progression over the last seventeen years. I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, the youngest of six. I went to school in the East and got both my Bachelors and Masters Degrees (with some work towards a Doctorate) in the field of education. In 2000, I was married and moving from the city of Erie, to teach on an Indian reservation. When I was pregnant with my daughter, Maria, in 2005, I knew I wanted to stay home with her, so I retired from teaching after thirteen years in the profession. This was my first major move toward a simpler way of life.
Here come the alpacas
Alpacas entered our farm just three months after Maria was born. With my teaching income gone and a truck and mortgage to pay off, I needed an income, and quickly. We moved from teacher-housing in Montana, in 2003, into our house where my daughter and I live today. The house-with-land quickly became a farm that first year, due to my love of animals and a simple life. Little, black, bantam-silky chickens arrived first, then the alpacas. Since then, we’ve upgraded to full-size chickens for eggs for ourselves and to sell at our local farmer’s markets.
In hindsight, I did not need the pricey, registered, pregnant-female alpaca to start our herd. I realized non-registered would have been fine when I found my weakness (or maybe it’s my strength) is not wanting to make an income by selling alpacas. I enjoy shearing each alpaca myself each spring and making finished products from their fiber. I love working with the fiber and also love each animal. I know now that I could have done the same fiber business with less-expensive animals. But the good thing is that the pregnant female named Aurigan, gave us one cria (baby alpaca) per year. She is now eighteen years old and we have a nice-sized herd of fifteen beautiful, healthy animals.
Accept the blessings
Being independent and trying to do things myself is something I take pride in, but I need to remember, when someone wants to help us, as a single mom, it’s important for me to accept the blessing and thank them, and God, for it. I’ve had it said to me, “Please don’t rob us of the blessing by not allowing us to help.”
A few years ago, when it became just my daughter and myself, we accepted the offer of help to build a pole-barn for our hay. I was buying a tarp almost every year because the wind would tear it up. When I found some used tin, I decided to accept help from neighbors to put up a pole building. The building went up in a few days and has made our lives so much easier. While acting as the main worker of erecting that pole barn, I was hooked on the pole-barn concept. It was so easy to put up; I never have to worry about 90-mile-per-hour wind tipping it over; and it was affordable.
Since that time, I’ve been using the pole-barn design to add value to our farm. An outhouse, alpaca barn-extension, and a greenhouse followed; this time, I put these buildings up myself with only my daughter’s help. She is now twelve and we do everything together.
I knew when Maria was born that homeschooling was for us. The freedom of learning, together, outside of the classroom, while bringing her up in the country were the reasons we took this route.
When I’d meet people when she was just a few years old, I felt like I had a sign on me that said, “Future Home-school Mom.” People would say things like, “You are going to homeschool her, right?” and then offer lots of encouragement. The area where we live is very supportive and populated with home-schooling families. Many are ranchers with lifestyles similar to ours. My daughter and I truly like each other and like being together; that’s a big plus. There have been so many life experiences, too, that Maria has been a part of that she would have missed had she been in the public school. Farm births, farm visitors, figuring life out together… all while learning and laughing from it are priceless memories.
When Maria and I were buying buckets of raw honey from our local producers, we learned that the family who runs and owns the apiary was also a homeschool family. They gave me a tip by telling me to give our school a name. They said when people ask where you go to school, it’s easiest to just say a name, so we call our school Sage Hill, since we live on a hill filled with beautiful and fragrant sagebrush.
Paying big propane-bills was my biggest motivation to try wood heat a few years ago. Since that time, I’ve found that I also love the warmth of wood heat so much more than forced-air heat. I found a woodstove that was being discarded at our local church camp. The director said the campers staying there were a new era of kids who didn’t like (nor did they remember) to get up to feed the fire at night. So the camp decided to go propane. The timing, that we like to call “God’s timing”, was perfect because Maria and I were volunteering in the kitchen of the camp the day we got our stove.
It was the end of the camping season, so the campers were gone and we were helping our friends to clean and organize the kitchen. Just the day before, we made a list of things we needed, and, at the top, was a used stove that I could afford. I was shocked, to say the least, when the very next day the camp director asked if any of us volunteers could use a woodstove. I said, “Yes, that would be us. We’d like one.” He didn’t think the old cabin-stoves would be good enough for home heat, though, so we went back to work in the kitchen. The perfect timing and that we had put it on our list just the night before made me question how this could seem so perfect, yet not work out. So I went to find him and ask if he was sure. I told him I’d buy the firebricks and have it professionally installed and made safe. There was one more stove to pull out of a cabin, he said, but doubted it would work for what we wanted it for. I went back to work smiling, knowing that was going to be the one. It seemed like an answered prayer. And it was. That one was the best of them all. We loaded the heavy stove onto my truck and the rest is history. I commented to my daughter on the drive off of the mountain that day that, though it was on our list of things to pray for, I hadn’t even prayed for it yet. Wise beyond her years, she said, “Don’t you think God could read the list you made last night?” Out of the mouths of babes…
I hired a local handyman to help me install triple-wall piping. The first year of wood heat, which was three years ago, I split fourteen cords with another family. It was delivered to my land, where the man took a chainsaw to it and hauled off his seven cords while I kept seven cords here. This was a big learning process. First, the wood diameter was very big and needed to be split several times. With big ambition and no splitter, I split the seven cords in one month’s time, by hand with a splitting hammer that I bought at Home Depot. Since that time, because wood is plentiful in our Big Horn Mountains, I only cut downed wood that is about twelve inches or less in diameter. No more splitting, except for the occasional extra-big logs.
I really admired the chainsaw and thought, “Why couldn’t I do that?” I had never worked a chainsaw, but I watched a lot of chainsaw videos on YouTube and talked to friends who cut their own wood. I purchased the full safety-gear set of chaps, a helmet with a shield on eBay, and then a cheap pair of steel-toed boots at Walmart. I got the chainsaw from a local man that sells used chainsaws. I bought a small one with just a fourteen-inch bar. It is perfect for me and I enjoy the lightness of it. Since then, I’ve purchased wood permits for $7.50 a cord from our local forest-service and have cut all our own wood. We have not used one bit of propane. We even cook with the woodstove.
Marie and I enjoy going to the mountains each summer and fall to get the wood. We make it our little vacation get-away. We stop by a local spring and load up on great drinking water. We only drink mountain water year-round, instead of our well water. My daughter is an eager helper and usually has the whole truck loaded by the time I am finished cutting the last log. Our record is fifty minutes, from when I stop the truck to when we pull away with a half a cord loaded and forest service tag on the wood. We always stop to get a selfie with the wood before we pull out. Girl Power!
Anyone with farm animals knows that the feeding, and manure production, of livestock is a constant production at your farm. For us, the producers of manure are two horses, a donkey, fifteen alpacas, ten chickens, eight ducks, two angora rabbits, and three geese.
I have tried to use this manure for heat in the past by burning it in our woodstove. Though it did work, I’m not sure the time and effort were worth it, at least not the way I was doing it. I would add manure from the alpacas to old bread-loaf pans (that I’d use only for this task). Then I’d add water and compress it into a loaf before letting it set in the sun for several days to dry. I put the finished, caked manure on wooden boards in the sun and waited until it was dry enough to stack in our garage. It did work, and it did burn and produce an odorless heat, but I’m not sure the amount of time and water I was using was worth it. So I found a better solution for us.
In addition to using the manure in our garden, I decided to sell it on eBay. People bought and liked it, but I felt bad about the amount of shipping I’d have to charge to ship manure around the country. So I decided to offer the manure for free to anyone locally who wanted it for their gardens. I had more than enough for our garden and felt good about sharing. The sharing had an added benefit: people were coming to help me clean out my alpaca pens! They’d back trailers and trucks up in the pen and my daughter and I would help them load. My pens got cleaned out with free help from happy gardeners. Some would offer to pay, but we wanted to stick with the free gift in return for helping us shovel out the pens. We did receive jars of wonderful, tasty, canned garden goods as thank-you gifts from generous families. And some wanted to shop at our farm store before they left. This is a manure management system that fits us well.
While neighbors around us lose poultry, horses, llamas, and even cattle to predators, we’ve never lost anything here to a predator, ever. This is all thanks to my guardians, who my daughter and I love dearly.
We have a donkey named Maggie, that became Aunt Maggie when Maria was born. And the great Pyrenees and Akbash guardian dogs. We consider each one a member of our farm family. When it became just Maria and myself, our guardian pack grew. They are our family; we feel safe and sleep well knowing they are on guard, loyally watching over us, and all the other animals here.
As an added profit for us, my daughter brushes the dogs when they blow their coats twice each year, and I spin it into yarn. I’ve not had a problem selling their yarn, as well as finished products that I make with it, like hats and scarves. Dog hair is as warm as wool and has no wet-dog smell once the oil is washed out.
So, that’s a brief summary of our story. There is so much more I hope to tell of how my daughter and I homestead our farm at Big Horn Mountain Alpacas in Parkman, Wyoming. Homesteading is a choice that we both love. I’ve heard it said that you can get or lose money, but you can’t get back time. We are thankful to be able to use our time to enjoy life.