We began our homesteading experience from scratch. At that time my husband and I had no friends or close relatives with farming experience. In fact, homesteading was not planned at all. It was a step I took that looked only natural after moving to a rural area and finding myself with some additional time on my hands. I had just started homeschooling our two boys when we moved to a house on my husband’s family land.
Homeschooling our kids would keep me away from earning an income so we moved to a house with a lower payment than when I was working outside the home. In this new place, there were only a few scattered houses around… these fairly modern houses surrounded by unattended land. Some of his family members built theirs but did not live in them; they used them occasionally as weekend retreats.
Very little land was used to grow food (one of his uncles did it on a very small scale) and none was used to raise animals. There was not even a hen around. Although the whole place was inherited to this family as a result of them having a really good and dedicated homesteader as their father, only two of his ten children followed in his steps. They did so on a much smaller scale and his legacy was more anecdotal than practical in nature. But that was more than 40 years ago.
After six months in this house I decided to grow some beans. Now, in my mid-thirties, this would be the first time I touched dirt to plant a seed. I remember asking my father-in-law how to do it, to which he replied, “You just plant it and in sixty days you have beans”.
I was so excited. I planted a seed in a nice spot and would check on it daily. He would come by from time to time to do just that (it had been a long time since anyone close to him showed interest in growing anything) and we talked about it. We were both so enthusiastic about me growing a bean plant. He would remember how his father cultivated all sorts of crops on this property and how they, as kids, all had chores and things to do to help him. He managed a herd too… he was the real deal.
Well, sixty some days passed and my plant had three pods with beans in them. I wondered how a six-inch plant could bear all the beans I needed to cook a nice meal. I took my father-in-law to check on my beans in order to tell me when I was supposed to harvest them. He said, “They are ready.” Then added, “Well, now you know how to grow beans”. To which I replied, “So, how long before it grows more and I get enough to make some nice rice with beans?” He looked at me and said, “Oh, well… it won’t. For that you would have to plant many more seeds. You see, from one seed, this is what you get and then the plant dies. Oh yes, for that you need to plant many, many more seeds.” You can imagine how silly I felt and how much we laughed that day. He obviously did not know of my intentions and not for one minute he thought I was serious about growing some food for our family.
This taught me a couple of things. First, to make sure available learning resources worked for me (in order to do that I needed to have an informed plan) and the second, that around the farm, time was much too precious to be wasted. I quickly learned in our farm I was a “doer” and that homesteading was not going to happen if I did not have a plan; know what to do, and how to do it. I did not want our farming experience to be full of frustrations. I wanted to succeed; I wanted to put some food on my family’s plates.
Mistakes are unavoidable. Nevertheless, they can cost time, resources, and many headaches. More so, when animals are added to the equation, the tone gets more serious because mishaps can be a matter of life and death. Obviously, once you have animals, you want them to be healthy and content. Anything outside of that can be the source of real problems.
I took the time to learn and practice as much as I could. It was not until I felt prepared that I began adding activities and tasks to our homestead. I started little, but soon realized farming is (like any activity that depends on nature) a constant occurrence of a diversity of situations. As a result, countless lessons have come from unwanted events and experiences. It is curious to see that the sadder and harder the experiences, the bigger and stronger the lessons learned.
Don’ts are hard to share. In addition to bringing back memories I’d rather forget, they present, in a shockingly clear way how, accountable we are for what goes on around the farm and how potentially dangerous our actions can be. When sharing our successes we end up with superhero-like feeling. On the other hand, when the opposite happens, you end up with a feeling of inadequacy…and who likes that, right? Yet, I am sharing them, because it is worth it.
If any of my mistakes, ordeals, or mishaps can help fellow homesteaders be better, then dealing with them may have been, in some way, worthwhile. Some of them are simple mistakes that, if avoided, will save you some time and anger. The others are pretty sad ones which may save you from big frustrations and sorrow. Nonetheless, they were all errors or accidents that never happened as purposeful or ill-intentioned acts. Some were just bad things that happened. I am glad I can share our top ten with you. I am glad, because I can say these are ten things I will never do again (or at least I’ll try).
10. Give kids kid-friendly chores: Our two boys really like the country life. They enjoy the animals and learning from what we do. They get to help out and keep an eye on the overall status and well-being of the farm. It is usually they who will alert us first of anything out of the ordinary on the farm. However, they don’t have in their heads our farming plans; that’s more of an administrative aspect and we do that. Feeding the animals is part of what they can do, though. Yet, sometimes I forget and think they see everything as I do. As a result, in the past, I have given them chores, and have let them do things, they are not ready to do.
For example, one time they were feeding the rabbits and I did not tell them I had noticed the lock of a couple of doors were loose. I had been carefully checking on them every day without telling anyone, thinking I would fix them later. That day, I forgot to check after they fed the rabbits.
The next day, one of the kids noticed one of our young does was missing. Where we live there are no wild rabbits and, outside of a farmer’s care, they don’t stand a chance of survival. The kids were very sad, felt guilty, and I was mad at myself. We never found her and just thinking where she could have ended up or how she may have died was heart wrenching. Developing a double-checking or buddy system has worked for us. We have also gotten them used to sharing with everyone else what they do on the farm and we try to do the same to keep everybody on the same page.
9. Fool me once…: Identify bad mommas in your flocks and herds. If reproduction is part of your plan I suggest you pay close attention to the mothering instincts of your girls. Culling, or eliminating, a member of our herd is never a happy moment. I remember not doing that when I first started, only to have to deal with its negative results later on. I got tired of having to discard cannibalized or abandoned babies just because I kept giving bad mommas a chance to get their act together and “learn” to be good. This is not too common, but I have found some that are just bad moms. Here they don’t get a second chance anymore. Well, a second maybe… but not a third.
8. Be patient (some animal trades and sells I regret): I have my bad days, just like everybody else. Some days, I feel the workload is too hard, so I decide to sell some animals. Other days, I wake up with the idea that I want a different kind of breed or animal, so I trade some I have. It is then, when those emotional ideas cross my mind that I have made decisions I regret. My latest has been to trade a gorgeous ten-month-old Nubian buck (that I bottle-raised) for two Vietnamese pigs and selling all my Pekin ducks, because I was tired of dealing with their kiddie pool.
How do I know those were mistakes that probably having a bit more patience would have avoided? Besides missing the buck and my gorgeous ducks immensely, those decisions had never been part of my “informed plan”. They had undesirable consequences for the farm. I eliminated the benefits that having those ducks added to the flock, and now spend much more time cleaning up after my pigs. I also lost the chance of selling a really nice buck for a profit. There is no way I can make a similar profit on the pigs, for there are so many available around here.
7. Oh please, check your freezer daily: An aunt gave me a chest freezer she was not using anymore and I was so happy with the gift that I began storing meat, fruit juices, and veggies in it immediately. After a few years of growing some of our food, I finally had enough space to store it. I was not going to touch anything inside unless I needed it for our family. One day I opened it (really just to admire all the food I had been able to produce and store for us) just to find out the freezer was not running. My husband unplugged it two days before to do something and forgot to plug it back in. Yeah… it still gets to me. If you have a freezer, check on it regularly.
6. Know the old ways: One of the big pros of modern homesteading is that humane slaughtering techniques have been made available to us for the benefit of the more conscious homesteader and his animals. I recall childhood stories of how, in the past, farm animals were slaughtered in, what seemed to me, very harsh ways. I can also still vividly remember a couple of shocking scenes of my grandma ending the life of chickens she would have for dinner, just by twisting their necks. Homesteaders then would mostly use their hands and very simple tools for these tasks and the goal was probably just to get the food on the plate as quickly as possible. Due, maybe, to a more modern upbringing, I was sure this was not the way I wanted, or was going to be able, to do things. Gladly, nowadays I would be able to find more tools and sophisticated ways of slaughtering an animal for the sake of doing it as quickly and painless as possible for them and less personal for me.
However, one must also not lose sight of the purpose of this task, which is to provide for our families (or clients, if that’s your plan). I have always been clear that I don’t operate a zoo, but a farm. Besides, what happens if you find yourself without the proper tools? What happens if those tools or techniques fail their purpose? Is always good to know the old ways to handle slaughtering, too. As the saying goes, “it’s better to have the knowledge and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”
I remember never wanting to see, or try, killing a rabbit with my bare hands… well, any animal, for that matter, so for this I use a pellet gun. One time though, after I had gotten used to what I consider a quicker, more humane technique, a rabbit moved right before I shot the gun. I hit it but it was not a clean shot. It was visibly suffering and nowhere near dying. I wanted to end this fast and wished I knew how to use my bare hands to kill the rabbit quickly. I recharged the gun, which, in my mind, took forever, and shot it again. It was a terrible feeling. But because of that terrible feling, I learned the old method and, although is not my first choice, I have had to use it a couple more times when something does not go as planned with my preferred method.
5. Look up before digging: We have tall trees in the area I chose to grow a vegetable garden to use for the first time There are 30-40-foot-tall avocado, tamarind, breadfruit, and mango trees. I decided to plant pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and several kinds of herbs there. I did not take the time to look up and did not take account of the trees’ shade patterns. Pumpkins scattered quickly and began to grow fruit. It was such a shame though that most of the fruits ended up under tree shades and grew a third of the size the ones outside of the shades did. So, if you take this as serious as I do… believe me, you will be sorry for not taking the time to check for shade patterns before you sow your seeds.
4. Who’s the next in charge: It is very important to train someone to take care of your homestead in case you can’t be there. Planned or not, you leaving the farm means someone will need to be there to substitute you.
The first time I had to leave the farm was on a three-day family vacation. A very well-intentioned family member volunteered to care for the animals and veggies for that period of time. I left every kind of food measured and identified. I made a little map of the areas and the number of animals per area. I erroneously thought that was enough. When we returned there had been some losses and the feeling was just horrible. It had been my mistake; I explained too much and trained too little. A couple turkey pullets and a baby rabbit were MIA, not to mention some of veggies that had been forgotten. I felt so bad for our helper and for my animals. For this reason I recommend training someone as soon as you can, and way before you plan to be absent from your farm. You can lose a lot in a short amount of time if you leave your homestead ill-supervised.
3. “Follow your heart, your intuition”: As stated by former fellow-homesteader and now pop-singer Jewel Kilcher, “it will lead you in the right direction”. This is an article about the don’ts, but I have to mention that many of my dos have to do with acting right at the moment when my intuition tells me to. On the other hand, not following my intuition many times have been in detriment of the farm.
Some time ago, I passed by one of my rabbit does who had just kindled a couple days earlier and had the feeling something was not quite right. It was something in her eyes I can’t explain. Still, I did not take the time to observe her, touch her, or hold her. I just thought, “babies look fine, she’s eating… she’s ok”. The next day one baby was dead. I removed it from the nest, still thinking something did not feel right, but I did nothing. She had a big litter and is not uncommon to find one or two dead babies, so I kept walking. The next day I found two dead babies and this time she did not come to greet me as all of them do at feeding time. Oh no, this was bad. I did what I should have done from the beginning. I held her and checked her to find she had a massive infection caused by mastitis not easily identifiable unless I turned her over. Needless to say all babies died and she underwent heavy medication for close to two months to get her out of that infection alive. If I had followed my initial instinct I am sure things would have been very different.
2. Carrot fiasco: I wanted to grow carrots really bad. Why would I do this without learning how to do it first? I can think of many excuses that just don’t add up to a good reason for not doing it the right way from the beginning. Some research goes a long way sometimes… ask me now how I know it. I sowed them the same way I did many other seeds that day with the wishful thinking that it would be enough. The tops of these carrots looked amazing and I just could not wait to taste them. Harvest day came and this is what I pulled out. Seriously? Uhg, I totally wasted the seeds, the soil, those planting spots, and precious time. My pigs and chickens were happy to get them, though.
1. Keep records and use them: I am sad to end our countdown on our worst experience, but maybe this will help to stress the huge lesson learned by this event even more.
Before we began farming we already had a Labrador dog. She was very young when we started, but never got used to being around chickens, ducks, rabbits, and goats so we had to keep her away from them so she would not kill them.
However, we realized that, unlike our other dog (who would just run away if we let him walk with us to the fields), Peka would stay with us all the time when planting or checking on my husband’s plantain field. She would guard the kids and prey on iguanas that came close to the field. So, we took her on our walks there and enjoyed her company, feeling safer when she was around.
One afternoon, we took her along to see how the plants were doing when we heard a strange noise coming towards us from a hill on the left side of the path. She stepped forward as we stopped. Two mongooses were fighting each other and ended up right in front of us. We immediately knew they could be potential carriers of rabies for the way they were acting. As much as we tried to hold Peka back, we could not and she got a hold of one of the mongooses. My husband was able to kill it with his machete and we took Peka home.
I ran to check her rabies vaccine records and she had needed her annual vaccine for some months now. We followed the recommended protocol, separating her from the family and other animals and checking if, indeed, the mongoose had rabies. When the results came back positive we had to put Peka down since she posed a risk for having had contact with the virus because her vaccine was not up-to-date. Many well respected sources will argue our vaccines cover an animal for much more than a year (in fact many other jurisdictions will give the same dose we use yearly, for a period of three years), but our laws require evidence of annual vaccination not to put an animal that has been exposed to rabies down.
I am sure your animals and/or your family (in case you don’t keep a herd) appreciate all the time and care you put into your work which ultimately benefits them. I am also sure they appreciate and benefit from all measures you adopt to help them be healthy and safe. I have been able to give a better quality of life to mine, learning from other people’s mishaps. It is my hope that I can help others be more successful by sharing my own.
This is all about the don’ts, and although I feel tempted to share some success stories I won’t (this time). However, I would like to also share some lessons learned.
Having a good mentor is a great asset.
Prepare for less than ideal scenarios. Many times we idealize situations and get prepared for the good things, not paying attention to what can go wrong.
If you are growing your own food, it is good to learn a little also about pests and how to manage them.
If you are raising animals it is good to know about common diseases, learn how to administer drugs (just in case), and familiarize yourself with common interactions between diverse breeds.
Did I mention how valuable it is to keep records? Well, I did and I’ll say it again. Keep records and use them.
Know when to stop. Starting small is good. Growing is better done in small increments. Keep evaluating if your growth status is still responding to your homesteading goals (your informed plan). You don’t need to spend tons of money on chicken food if you are only keeping them for your family of three. If you are increasing your costs unnecessarily, maybe it’s time to sell some or have friends over for dinner.