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Homesteading for the Beginner

I was recently asked a question that, on the surface, seems fairly straightforward. “How do you start homesteading?” What a great question, but what a loaded question at that! The answer is not ever going to be the same for any two families (or individuals, for that matter). I’ll do my best to answer this question though, and go through ten points to consider as you embark on your homesteading journey.

#1 Find Your “Why”

If you ask me how to start homesteading, my first question to you will probably be something along the lines of “Why do you want to homestead?” As a homeschooling parent, I know all too well the importance of having this “why” statement figured out. It’s so important to have this figured out, because you will always have something to fall back on during the hard days or when people ask weird and uncomfortable questions. There will be days you wonder why you bother living this way. There will be days when you feel like throwing in the towel. After all, nowadays it’s easy enough to go back to “normal life.” There must be a reason you want to live differently.

#2 Assess Your Skills and Your Resources

Before you start digging into the homesteading life, it’ll be good to take inventory of your skills and resources. What kind of land do you have access to? What things do you already know how to do? What are your financial resources? What tools and supplies do you own? What people do you know?

#3 Set Your Goals

While there may be some overlap here with your why, you should set goals for yourself every so often. I set goals every year, but I also set them for my day every day, and throughout the year. They help me stay on task, keep me focused, and keep me moving forward. Goals don’t have to be big and important. It can be little things, like do the dishes and laundry every day, or getting up at the same time every day, all year round. But it can be something larger like getting chickens or growing most of the food you will need for the year.

Sometimes big goals will take years to reach, sometimes they’ll be postponed because of life’s circumstances, finances, or simply because you’ve changed directions for a time, and that’s okay too. Don’t let the fear of other’s judgement stop you from doing what is right for you and your family, and don’t feel funny if your plans change along the way. In this day and age, when everybody can hide behind a keyboard and berate other people without feeling uncomfortable about it, it’s inevitable you will hear judgement from people when plans go another direction.

#4 Build Your Team

Build your team by starting with those you love. There’s a chance that some or all of your family will not share your dream. They may not be interested in growing a big garden, helping with the chores, or keeping animals. Sometimes their lack of interest means that you will not be able to do certain things that you’d like. I would like to have a milking animal, but right now, my husband is not fully on board with that. It’s a huge commitment, so I can’t make it without having the whole family on the same pace. (And to be fair, I’m not quite ready just yet, anyway.) My husband wants a garden, but he lacks the time to be able to help with it, so the job belongs to the kids and me. Our kids like to help with things, but they don’t always want to. Sometimes, as a parent, I have to say that we’re all going to do it, whether people want to or not. And sometimes it’s my job to read their reactions to a situation and to allow them to work on a different task.

My kids are my primary team when it comes to the homestead, but they aren’t my only support system. (Scott is part of the team as well, but because he works all day, his function within this system is very different.) Outside of our immediate family, there are some key local people who have been a huge help. We have a collection of friends and family who get what it is that we’re trying to do here. They share resources, help when they can, share wisdom and advice, offer moral support, pray for us, and quite frankly, we wouldn’t be where we are today without them. Believe me, not everybody gets what we are doing. Not everyone agrees with it or likes it. Not everyone is willing to support us when we need a little help. I’m blessed and have an amazing amount of support, but I know that it’s not like that for everybody. You have to find your team. You have to find the connections that are going to work for you. Pray about it, reach out to people, ask questions, invite people to stumble and learn with you.

You can also find your people online. Between chat rooms and social media pages like Facebook and Instagram, you can find a lot of places to seek out advice and support. Facebook has some great homesteading groups out there. Some are not as great, so you’ve got to look for the one that’s right for you. And something as simple as Instagram where it’s not nearly as much about the conversation, you can find some comfort and strength in seeing what other people are doing and going through.

#5 Food Preservation

You might think that I’d list having a garden or raising animals before I’d list food preservation, but the fact of the matter is that you don’t ever have to raise food to practice food preservation. There are a lot of different methods to preserve food, some is inexpensive to start with, others costs quite a bit more, but allow you to be able to store different foods for different lengths of time.

The primary methods of preservation include dehydrating/drying, freezing, water bath canning, pressure canning, freeze drying, pickling, and fermenting. Fermentation can be a pretty low expense method of preservation to get started with. In fact, to start a sourdough starter, all you really need is water, flour, a jar, and a rubber band. Dehydrating/drying can be done at no expense. Tie some string around a bundle of herbs and let it dry, and there you go! You’ve dehydrated something! You can do all kinds of dehydrating without an actual dehydrator or even without an oven. Depending on the type of pickling, you basically are going to need jars and vinegar, plus whatever other ingredients you’ll be using to pickle (beets, cucumbers, spices…). Freezing, too can cost you next to nothing. Some ziplock bags and a little know-how and you are good to go. The downside of freezing is that if you have power problems, you can end up with a lot of spoiled food.

Water bath canning is pretty straightforward. A little intimidating to begin with (as I think all canning can be), but once you get the hang of it, it becomes pretty automatic. You need a water bath canner, jars, lids, the tongs for taking jars out of the canner, and a funnel. It’s not great for all types of preservation, but it’s good for a lot of fruit stuff. Anything that’s high in acidity. Pressure canning is for low-acid foods, like veggies and meats. It requires most of the same equipment, but you need an actual pressure canner. We have an All-American Pressure Canner, and I’ve been loving it for the few years we’ve been using it. It allows us to store significantly more food on the shelves, rather than in the freezer. A freeze dryer is not something I have personally experimented with, but I hear they are great. However, I know they are very pricey, and it’s yet another piece of equipment that you need to store, and from what I know, they are kind of bulky. It does allow you to store food long-term, so depending on what your goals are, it might be a really good option for you.

#6 Fruits and Veggies

Obviously, if you can start your own garden, that’s a great thing to do. If you have the space for it, I’d highly recommend planting fruit trees and shrubs as soon as you can as these things need time to grow and develop before they can produce fruit, or before they’ll produce anything substantial enough to qualify as really harvesting. While these things do require maintenance, it’s practically nothing to what a seasonal veggie garden requires of your time.

There are a million different methods for gardening, but I really do recommend starting with something along the lines of a Back to Eden garden or something that uses mulch, because it makes the chances of success your first year a lot greater. Mulch helps prevent a lot of watering mistakes that can happen, but there are potential issues with mulching, and it’s obviously not practical for everybody.

If your space is limited, it would serve you really well to study square foot gardening, vertical gardening, and container gardening. They can help you make the best use of the space that you have, and in addition to that if you are just starting, it will allow you to maintain a smaller space with greater impact without burning yourself out. I wouldn’t recommend starting with a half-acre garden if you’ve never gardened before. There’s a lot that could go wrong, and you’ll likely end up very frustrated. But then again, I can’t tell you just how much you should plant or what you should plant, and I can’t claim to know your reasons or even that I know everything about gardening! So do what’s right for your situation.

Before you plant anything, take a bit of time to do some thinking. What veggies do you actually eat a lot of? Which ones will you never eat? (If you’ve had zucchini before and just hate it, don’t take up space in your garden with a bunch of zucchini plants just because it’s easy to grow. Though I do have to say that it can still be a great learning experience, and it might push you out of your food comfort zone and get you experimenting with new recipes.) It’s always okay to plant a food you’ve never tried and find out that you can’t stand it, but don’t dedicate most of your garden space to something like that the first time you try it.

Then research the things you’d like to plant. What does it take to grow potatoes? Tomatoes? Watermelon? Carrots? I’ll be honest, this isn’t something I’ve gotten very good at until about now, and there are still things that I’m struggling with that are probably pretty avoidable. We were having problems growing carrots after we moved here, and quite frankly, I still don’t really know what went wrong. But we planted carrots in different places last year and this year, and both times, we’ve had huge success. I didn’t have problems at our old house. It could have been the soil in the space we were planting, it could simply have been weather conditions… But I didn’t bother to look into the problem until my carrots didn’t grow again two years ago.

Of course, you don’t have to grow your own food, either. Sometimes families share the bounty of grandma and grandpa’s harvest. Some people solely buy their produce from a farmers market or a pick your own, and they can that. The excess generously shared by a neighbor can go a long way towards filling a pantry. And don’t be so shy to ask. Always be polite and respectful, but if you know people who never pick the apples from their trees, they might be okay with you picking the fruit so they don’t have to clean their yard. And investing in fruit shrubs can be costly, so keep your eyes open for people who are giving away their excess. We got raspberry plants for our old place from people who were cleaning up their raspberry patch.

#7 Livestock

Livestock is not a must if you are going to homestead. It’s a lot of work to care for animals, even when you get low-maintenance ones. Chickens are always called “the gateway animal” of homesteading, and it makes a lot of sense, because they are pretty easy to care for and the rewards are pretty immediate. Who doesn’t love getting fresh eggs? But chickens are not for everybody. Neither are goats or ducks or cows or horses or bees for that matter. You don’t have to get chickens first just because that’s what it appears the majority of homesteaders have done.

Whatever animal you endeavor to care for, just make sure you do lots of research before jumping headlong into animal husbandry. We’ve had chickens for about 5 years now, and I’m still learning. Our first flock of chickens came with the house, and I didn’t know for a fact that they’d be ours until moving day. We wanted them, but it wasn’t a guarantee until then. And I really should have done my research beforehand. I was newly pregnant when we moved and suffering from morning sickness, so Scott and I shared the job, but neither of us was as committed to caring for those chickens as we should have been. We had to learn how to deal with predators, make 1st time chicken keeping mistakes and learn from those, and I’m still learning, because we’ve always got a lot going on here, and the chickens are not my main focus, nor are they my pets, even if I do love having them around.

Livestock can serve a lot of different purposes on a homestead. Land management, milk, meat, manure, honey, pollination…. I would recommend that you start with one type of animal and get good (or at least decent) at taking care of it before you add more to your land. And don’t go bigger than you are prepared to handle. Don’t buy 200 chickens if you have no clue what you are doing. Don’t get a whole herd of cattle because you want to start selling beef if you’ve never laid hands on a cow or don’t know the first thing about bovine husbandry. But think about WHY you want a certain type of livestock so that when you have those bad days, you stay motivated to keep going.

And if meat is your primary goal, don’t forget that hunting is the better option for some people. We still aren’t quite ready to make the leap into cattle, and part of the reason we’ve held off is because Scott goes deer hunting in the fall, and a few weekends of hunting in November is a much smaller time investment for us than raising cattle for beef for as long as we’d need to. Around here, lots of people duck hunt and turkey hunt, too. If hunting is something that is practical for you, even if you’ve never done it before, it might make more sense than trying to raise livestock.

#8 Creative Sources

Obviously, homesteading can be what you make it to be. Don’t think that you have to have a garden or have to raise animals to homestead, because as I said before, you clearly don’t. Maybe you want to make your own soap, sew your own clothes, cook all of your meals from scratch, learn how to blacksmith or do woodworking. The term homestead can mean a lot of things. It’s definition as a noun is like a farmhouse with outbuildings. And while a part of that is true for me, in this day and age, it’s a verb, an action, a way of living that is centered around a life at home. If you already posses a skill that’s a bit homesteady in nature ( Homesteady is a word, right? 😉 ), then think about how you can expand it to do something more. I’ve been sewing since I was a little girl, and I make gifts, decorate my home, make some of my clothing, mend things for our family, make some blankets… I don’t get to do a lot of it, but it’s all stuff that allows me to make our home what we want it to be.

#9 Research

As I have said repeatedly throughout this post, do your research. Take the time to go price shopping on supplies, read the books, watch the YouTube videos, reach out to people who homestead, butcher chickens with your neighbor so you know how to when you get meat birds next year, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you are looking for people in your area to help you learn, pay attention at the farmers markets, or to roadside stands, to those flyers for buying meat locally… reach out to the people who run things and ask questions. Not everybody will be helpful, but most people are. Just remember that if they appear to be running a business or if they’ve got young kids at home, they’re probably pretty busy, so be considerate of their time.

We went on a couple of homestead tours in our area when we were first starting on this journey. It was really helpful for us to be able to see what we liked and what we didn’t. I’ve always been inspired by an apple orchard we’ve been going to for years, and it’s helped me to learn so much as we build up our place.

Our neighborhood is filled with a lot of people who are essentially homesteaders but don’t really think of themselves in those terms. A lot of people call them hobby farmers. It was kind of funny, because when we first embarked on this journey, I felt pretty alone, like the only people who we were on close to the same wavelength with were the big farmers, and that’s still so very different from what we do a lot of the time. But it turns out that a good chunk of the parishioners at our church keep chickens or ducks or bees, make maple syrup, and have huge gardens. It’s a country parish, so not really surprising, and yet in this day and age, it is. Especially when you consider how many of them are my parents age or younger.

Research is also important, because sometimes what looks like a relatively inexpensive endeavor turns out to be a pretty pricey one when all things are considered. Chicks might be inexpensive to get, but have you considered the continual cost of upkeep? The cost of setting up a run or building a coop? If you’ll be butchering, are you going to be investing in equipment for that? The same is true for any aspect of homesteading, be it livestock, gardening or anything else. Know what you are getting into before you jump in, because it’s not fun to discover you are lowon the capital needed to complete a project!

#10 Pray

Yes, I know that not everybody is Christian or believes in God, but I am here to tell you that I could not do this without God. I would not be here without Him, I would not be doing what I do, and I would have given up years ago if it weren’t for my faith. Prayer makes the bad days better. It centers you on the good things in life. It reminds us that our problems, though they seem large are really not that bad, and when they really are that bad, that we are still loved and blessed.

Prayer keeps me focused throughout the day. I start my mornings with it, and when I forget, it shows in my day. When I pray, I tend to stay on task and accomplish more. When I don’t, everything goes out the window and I often feel cranky and sluggish.

Prayer helps me to sleep well at night. Without faith that God’s in control, I’d never be able to sleep. I mean, I sleep poorly from not eating right and then my mind races, but I often fall asleep in the middle of prayer… right in the arms of my Father. I can’t guarantee that raccoons will leave my chickens alone, or that deer will stay out of my garden. I can’t ensure that it rains the right amount or that my crops will do well. I can do all I can, but then I place it in His hands and walk away. And when things do seem like they are going wrong, I look for the good, for the lesson learned, for the changes that can be made to do better next time, or the changes I need to make in myself. I always, always find something.

I think that James 2:26 has something for the gardener to learn about faith. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” I can plant a seed in the garden with faith, but without tending to that plant, the chances of it failing to sprout, shriveling up, or being eaten by animals or simply not producing any good fruit… those chances are very, very high. Yes, you can plant and walk away and have a great garden, but how much better will it do with your continued faith and love and action?

In Conclusion

So there you have it. My 10 steps to homesteading for beginners. I’ll admit that for many, many years of my life, I’ve kind of flown by the seat of my pants, jumping into things before I was really ready. I’m a sink or swim kinda gal, and I just learn how to swim over and over, I guess.

Perhaps the most frustrating piece of advice about homesteading that people give is that you shouldn’t take on more than you can handle, and I always cringe at that, because how are you supposed to know how much you can handle without pushing the limits? For the new homesteader, almost everything is pushing boundaries and limits, and there’s all kinds of testing that needs to happen. So I think that perhaps a better way of stating it is that you should set some goals, do your research, see what’s practical, and come up with a plan before jumping in. It could save a lot of headache and heartache.

If you are looking for some resources to get started, I recommend Tessa Zundel’s book “The Do It Yourself Homestead,” pretty much anything by Melissa K. Norris, Common Sense Home, or Justin Rhodes. There are a TON of YouTube channels and blogs out there dedicated to homesteading, but I feel like each of these has something special to offer. Tessa’s book is great because it has different “levels” of homesteading listed, and it gives you a so many ideas of things you can do. It’s a great jumping-off point. Melissa K. Norris has a lot of really helpful gardening info, as does Laurie at Common Sense Home. Melissa has lots of frugal ideas, and loves tying things back to the way things used to be. Laurie is a wealth of information on plants and cooking. And Justin has great info for the beginner chicken keeper, especially if you are looking to do any butchering. You also can’t go wrong watching all of the footage they recorded on the Great American Farm Tour. They visited so many different places, and shared so many great ideas.

You are also welcome to reach out to me with any questions that you have, and I will do the best I can to answer them. Just know that I don’t claim to be an expert in anything! But I might be able to guide you in the right direction.

What do you think… is there anything I missed?

Love and Blessings~ Danielle

2 Comments

  • Susan Casper

    I never thought of “homesteading” as being anything other than a total commitment to that life. It’s less intimidating to take on a few things at a time–or to think of a hobby farm as a homestead.

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