Taking Caution

I mentioned in my previous post about those who have failed and those who have succeeded in homesteading. While we may learn best from our own experiences, sometimes we could learn a lot from watching others and taking caution.

A Plain friend of mine years ago lived on a twenty acre homestead – pasture, garden, woods. They had a small log cabin with wood heat, a hand pump inside, and off-grid. It was a beautiful setting, very private, and they started out with the best of intentions. Two things defeated their efforts. One was lack of planning and budgetting. They acquired materials for a barn but took too long to build it, and when they were away,  thieves drove up to their lovely isolated site and took all the lumber. They ended up with a shanty barn made out of salvaged wood. They put their sheep in a plywood sided pen because they didn’t have enough room in the barn, and  a bear took two of them by reaching over the walls. They drove old vehicles that broke down a lot; second hand equipment that ceased running got left in the yard, cluttering the place and harboring vermin. The other pitfall was that my friend’s husband was not committed to living the Plain life, and was more than a little bit of a hoarder; soon the cabin was full of things “for later” but the things for now – a sink, a better woodstove, a functional vehicle for her – didn’t materialize. He was away working most of the time, and while she and the children were quite good at keeping the farm going, it was hard on her when he came home and didn’t want to  help with the things she couldn’t do like fix the propane refrigerator or cut wood with the chainsaw. He had a physically demanding job off the homestead, and they were both worked past exhaustion because they had not provided for the things they needed to make the effort easier – a log splitter, sheds for firewood and animals, storage for the food they grew. The homestead failed and their relationship broke down.

Our own previous off-grid experience was more accidental than planned, and after heavy rains saturated everything, flooded our little home, and pneumonia took three of the sheep in short order, we had to call it quits. A little more money and planning would have put us and the animals in better living circumstances. My own developing pneumonia could have killed me, and sapped all my energy. Nicholas was gone to work most days, and most of my time was spent cutting firewood, caring for animals, and trying to stem the rising tide in our two small rooms. Thankfully, a nearby friend invited us to live in his house, the sheep went to a friend’s farm, and I recovered gradually in a warm, dry place. We hadn’t meant to land on the property for an extended period without a better plan, but weather and circumstances overwhelmed us. Just a couple of thousand dollars would have seen us through, but we had no way to raise it, and for want of a nail that horseshoe, and the whole battle, were lost.

Recollections of homesteaders from the sixties and seventies are a bit vague; I was a child and a teenager then, but Maine was full of people living off-grid on old farms, getting back to the land. Some of them lived “alternative” lifestyles in small communes, hippies turned farmers. Some were genuinely interested in forming a new way of life; others were just growing pot. Some stayed on as artists, teachers, and animal breeders. Those who were involved in the underground economy often wasted their health and their means of living by sampling their own wares too much. Some got tired of the hard work, the long winters, the lack of stimulating culture. There were no first-run movies or rock concerts. Art galleries were unknown. It was the antithesis of a city and for those used to cultural activities of an enlightened sort, the local Baptist church hymn sing and the Kiwanis’ beanhole bean supper were a poor substitute. People and politics were seriously conservative. Multi-culturalism was French-language square dance calling and ployes suppers at the sugaring camp. (Things may not have changed much in the north.)

Those who came to homestead looking for a better life and who left when they didn’t find it may look back with nostalgia or pain. The reality of northern winters knocks the romance out of living in the woods for many newcomers.

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10 thoughts on “Taking Caution

  1. Yes, we see this a lot. Folks move out to the country with lots of ideas of ‘homesteading’. They figure on getting a couple animals and selling the meat and making enough to live on (with their old lifestyle). Unfortunately the only thing their ‘farms’ usually grow is grass or old used up pastures. They have to buy in all the animal feed and then they find out that local people don’t want/can’t to pay crazy prices for their meat. Soon the farm is back up for sale -unless one or both of them have high paying jobs in the city, then all the work income goes to support the farm instead of the farm supporting the family (like ours).

    Rarely do we see circumstances like yours, Magdalena. You guys really seemed to know what you were doing and what to expect. You were conspired against. That’s really sad when that happens, there just isn’t much you can do. We feel behind that same eight-ball some days. It really gets Colin down. And we don’t have the high paying job options.

    I hope this next forey into homesteading is everything you hope/want it to be.

    • Well, as I said before, we aren’t new to this. Our pioneer ancestors sometimes had bad years, too. I’ve known people who were able to homestead successfully, that is, they made a good go of their little farms and became mostly self-sufficient. But many, many people go to the land wanting the simple life while bringing their complicated past lives with them. One does have to scale back the expectations! We are mentally and emotionally prepared to give up a lot in order to gain the freedom of living this kind of life.

  2. I think you are going about things in a very sensible manner. We have taken ten years to get where we are, I NEVER could have done all that we do now ten years ago, we just did slowly did more and more, and now we provide an awful lot of what we eat from our property. We raised a steer, we are currently raising 50 broiler chickens, we can and can and can the produce from our garden, we bake our own bread, we cook from scratch, we like to do for ourselves, I sew and knit and quilt, my husband does our household repairs and maintenance, we are self reliant – but it did not happen over night.
    We spend a lot of time at home, and generally are very content, we are comfortable being alone, living in peace, we take satisfaction in our labor. But most importantly, we feel that we are living our life the way God planned for us to live it!

    • I did raise sheep for ten years, have usually gardened and canned – Nicholas’s stroke delayed our getting back to the land. We finally have some money to get started, too. What was really sweet today was that our landlords sent us a message telling us that we were the answer to their prayers!

  3. magdalena,

    Your observations are telling. Did you ever see that British comedy from the mid ’70’s called ‘The Good Life’?…about a couple who decided to be done with the material world and live completely self sufficiently in the English suburbs?? Though their antics week by week made us laugh, an awful lot of what you have written here could have been played out in any one of those episodes… I think people are searching for ‘The Good Life’ imagining a future ‘conclusion’ scenario where the farmhouse is complete, stoutly yet comfortably furnished, a fire in the hearth, bread baking in the oven, happy pigs rootling and a’tootling out in the fields, hens in the henhouse, cattle grazing the pastures, crops in the field or brought in, preserved and ready to get them through a long winter, cheeses maturing in the cellar and perhaps a few dark bottles in there with them from the first vintage. yes, it can be done, and if you look at the sustainable farming movements in the UK and Australia, there are many people who are doing it, but what the comedies or documentaries rarely touch upon (Rick Stien did, and it is to his credit for doing so), the backbreaking labour, ten years of drought and debt only to be put back a peg by the flooding rains at the wrong time followed by a plague of locusts the largest seen in 40 years (Australia right now), and the fact that the successful ones have often been passed down along with all the knowledge and gain from generation to generation, with support from fellows in the community on the same path.

    Underground ecconomy (made me chuckle somewhat ruefully) I know folk very well who were drawn, 20 years ago or so, to the promises of freedom the ‘underground ecconomy’ would provide…and yes, their health has suffered, to some extent, and the stories!!! They’re on a wonderful path now, but what a price to pay.

    Calabrian Corn won’t solve all your problems :-0 😛 🙂

    I long for it, but know it’s not on my path…my own vision impairment would narrow what I can do, and my husband isn’t cut out for it. His own brother lived this life for nearly 40 years and it has clear worn him out. they’re now back in the urban environment.

    Thank you for an excellent article, and it is my prayer that circumstances and the elements do not conspire against you this time around.

    • Oh, yes, we talk about The Good Life quite a bit. Farming is hard work, no way around it, but we do have young family around to help. Having been through some bad seasons, we know that you can survive even when things go wrong. I’ve seen friends struggle financially, sometimes through no fault of their own – markets, economy, drought, disease – and some struggle because they really can’t get it together! (Poor marketing skills in some cases, overextended financially in others.) At least now we have a bit of steady income, so we won’t be completely dependent on selling our production.

  4. THE GOOD LIFE!! I watch very little on my little, second hand compuer screen that goes with the dvd, but when I watch anything it is one of the episodes of the Good Life. I have them all. Mainly that is because I prefer British comedy – my English grandad and I watched some British comedy when I was only 4 yrs old and I can remembering laughing with him and him getting such a charge out of it. I think it was about nurses and dr.’s. I don’t know what channel at that time would have been playing it – I think the educational channel was new and was doing it. I forget now, but I found out once who was playing it.

    I don’t really watch it for the reasons most do. Bruce and I watched it when we first married 28 yrs ago and there are many other things in that show that remind me of people and places I have loved.

    My husband was once a farmer. He was young and working a full time job and farming full time. In the 80’s recession and his divorce, he lost the farm and we kept thinking we needed another, but never could afford one. I didn’t want it, but I thought he would never be happy without it. We live in a rural town surrounded by farms and a river. We have raised chickens for 10 yrs, but have never progressed to doing it for meat because we know we don’t have time. I am glad we did not get some place to learn what time showed us naturally. We dont know what we can do down the road, but we will not be jumping into anything quickly. I know my limits. In homeschooling life I have seen so many want to do this homesteading thing and often it just takes over everything and family gets ignored and health gets ignored. I watched a close friend go through terribly hard times with this and thankfully, they did successfully downscale, but it is still a lot of work and time. I am not sure how I feel about it all. I am still watching. I know it is not for me to do this. Not to that extent. But we can all find a place to cut back, make do, stretch, and have a say in what is important to us in our lives. Controlling what we can. God is the one in control anyhow!!
    joanie

  5. I often hang out on a Swedish forum for ‘alternative livestyles’ as they call it. By that they do not mean anything rauncy but people who would like to own a farm and grow and breed their food themselves. Some already have farms others like me are just dreaming and learning. I love that place and it is very diverse. What I have learned from the people there is priceless and this forum can partly make up for the lack of people in the family to ask about farming. It is place where people really try to help each other but we also get to discuss things with people who understand us.

    The biggest thing I have learned there is to not take on too much at the same time then you usually break down. My plan if I get my house is gardening and hens or/and ducks first and to really try to get a hang of that before I move on to anything more advanced. I know people from that forum who has had to give up their ‘alternative’ life and slaughter all animals because they started too big. They did not have any real catastrophe in their life, one day it simply grew too big and they crashed.

  6. I also want to add, if you have not done farming before, I firmly believe at least one should work at the same time so that the farm is not the only thing keeping you alive if it would go south. I understand that one might be eager to be self-sufficient but I would rather move too slow first than too fast.

    • Going too fast will only cost money in the long run. We sometimes want to jump in with both feet, but as your friends found out, it gets overwhelming soon. I don’t want to try grow our own vegetables, make our own cheese, breed first class animals, cut firewood, plant grain, and train a horse all in the same year!

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