Transitioning into a Homestead

The realities of homesteading that not everyone talks about...

​Since we have made the transition into a homesteading lifestyle, I have encountered three main reactions from the people around me:

1. Are you crazy? Why bother? I'd hate to live like that.

2. That's awesome! Not my cup of tea, but I'd love to learn how to (insert traditional skill here).

3. OMG! I am totally going to be a homesteader ~ it's so much easier and I'll have so much more money.

Now, to be clear, I am not referring to "urban homesteading", that focuses on learning forgotten skills, cutting back on waste, small-scale gardening, and even raising a few chickens in your backyard, among many other things. That is a commendable and fantastic adaptation of the homesteading lifestyle to make it work into your current way of life. Some people may use this as a way to prepare themselves for a more "hardcore" homestead move later on, and others may find that they really don't enjoy it as much as they thought they would. Either way, it's an excellent idea (in my opinion) to learn from and enjoy this bit of self-sufficiency.

In this post. I'm talking about those who see a few YouTube videos about beautiful green pastures, sweet cooing hens, and a gorgeous weed-free garden stretching as far as the eye can see, then decide that they are going to quit their job, move into an off-grid cabin and live off the land.

That's just not how it works.

First, allow me to just bring you back down to Earth by reminding you that you will ALWAYS need some sort of income. I hate to break it to you, but it's true. There are many things that you need to pay for, and at the top of the list are your land taxes. Then, consider how you plan to feed your future livestock. Sure, they can free-range and graze in the summer, although they will quickly run out of wild food sources unless you have acres of pasture on which to rotate them. But what about winter? They eat just as much in January as they do in July - even more, in some cases, to keep their body heat up. Bottom line, you will need to purchase food, hay, straw, and sometimes medicines for most living creatures you have in your care.

Next, let's think about where you will find your staples, such as flour, grains, sugar and salt. Of course, there is a lot of bartering in the homesteading community, but if you're relying on trading for goods, how do you propose to hold up your end of the deal? Will you make products? If so, where will you find the raw materials? Do you already have a stockpile of heirloom seeds, enough to grow food for you and your family to last an entire year? Do you know how to cultivate, harvest and seed-save? Will you have time (and enough land) to cut, chop and stack cord after cord of firewood in order to cook and heat your home? I could go on, but I think you get my point.

Next, let's talk about your work ethic. During the growing season, you are going to be working, non-stop. Sure, you get rainy days and lunch breaks, and often you aren't literally in the garden every minute of every day. But you are outside for hours at a time. This means when you do get to go indoors, you need to catch up on all of the regular household chores that need to be done regardless of how tired you feel. Laundry, dishes, housework, and cooking all take time - and I say this assuming you're going to have electricity and running water in your home. If you're off-grid, it's going to take much longer.

If you have livestock, you'll find yourself with even less leisure time, as their care is just as time-consuming. I will be honest and tell you that you learn early on to appreciate the winter, as it gives you somewhat of a break. I am not saying that you won't find a spare moment to yourself, or that you will be miserably rushing from this chore to that. But if you are used to punching a clock and putting your feet up when you walk through the door, this will be a big adjustment, especially if you try to go "cold turkey".

Another thing to consider is this: how tough is your stomach? Because animals poop. A lot. You will be walking through, shovelling, moving - and quite often covered in - manure. Cleaning a chicken coop in spring does not surround you with the scent of roses. If you raise them to be friendly, they may like to perch on your shoulders or back when you're in the coop, and you're going to be pooped on. When something goes wrong, and you need to make repairs, you may find yourself laying in well-soiled bedding on the floor of your coop (ask me how I know... you can read all about that fun experience here).

Aside from the manure, ask yourself if you're prepared to deal with the reality of death on a homestead. You are eventually going to lose an animal. Whether it's sick, injured or intended for food, you may need to take the life of a living creature. Or one morning, you may find one of your hens laying lifeless on the floor, having passed away mysteriously in the night. The feeling of grief and sadness in the pit of your stomach at such a sight is indescribable. Are you prepared to handle this reality?

Personally, I adore this lifestyle. Don't get me wrong, we can hardly be considered "hardcore", and we are not off-grid. We still go to town every few weeks, stopping by Tim Horton's for tea, grocery shopping at Walmart, and eating at restaurants on occasion. The difference is, we don't do it nearly as often as we did before, and the supplies I buy at the grocery store are mostly ingredients, rather than pre-packaged or ready-made meals. If there happens to be discounted produce, I take it home to preserve it. We are more aware of ingredient and nutrition labels, although we learned very quickly that it is difficult to completely avoid certain companies and their GMOs, so we do our best to keep them to a minimum.

I find myself paying more attention to sales and bargains, and I try to get most of my shopping done in one place, rather than running from store to store. I order the majority of my pantry staples online, as well. I make many products at home to use instead of store-bought ~ balms for burns, lotions, laundry soap, cough syrup, after-bite balm, bug repellant, and most recently, lye-based soap. It's not always cheaper, but I have the satisfaction of knowing what goes into these products, and that I am learning and maintaining a skill set that has been albeit forgotten by the vast majority.

A piece of advice that I will pass on to anyone who dreams of transitioning to a homesteading lifestyle is this: don't jump into it. Be patient, take your time and learn everything you can, no matter how unimportant it might seem. Read books - older books on the topic, not so much the new "hipster homesteader" ones. The books that I have learned most from were written between 1890 to 1940. Talk to your elders - sadly, post-WW2 babies weren't raised to be quite as self-sufficient as their parents and grandparents were, but they still have a lot to teach us.

An often-overlooked resource is the local history section of your library. Read up on how generations of the past managed to survive in harsh conditions, then try some of the skills they used - start with baking a basic bread recipe. Then try making some simple cheese. Move on to canning and preserving. Learn to cook on (and take care of) cast iron. Begin collecting tools and utensils built to last, like glass and stainless steel measuring cups and bowls, as opposed to plastic ones. Get used to hand-washing your dishes. If you have a backyard fire pit, collect fallen trees and chop them for firewood. Grow a small vegetable or herb garden. Collect hand tools such as rakes and hoes, spades and buckets.

Join groups, either locally or online, that focus on different elements of homesteading. If you can't find any, start one! You may find that there is an "open farm" day in an area near you, where local farmers open their doors to the public so that they can tour and ask questions. But most importantly, just start. You will never, ever learn or master a skill if you don't pick it up and try it. If you fail, just troubleshoot and try again. Watch videos, but always be suspicious of anyone who claims that the lifestyle is "easy", that they have no struggle,  or claim to be 100% self-sufficient with no income or outside resources (remember what I said earlier about flour and land taxes?).

Patience and persistence are key traits of any successful homesteader I know of. In our instant-gratification society, we don't learn the art of patience. That may have been the most difficult lesson I've had to learn ~ you can't rush the natural cycles, and you must let everything happen in its own time. You cannot force your tomatoes to be ripe before they're meant to be. You can't use your homemade soap until it's had time to fully cure. You can't make your hens lay eggs before they're old enough.

The idea of humans ruling over nature is a massive illusion. But in being patient, I've learned to slow down and notice the small blessings in life. Spend the "meantime" reading, practicing another skill, and anticipating the completion of any number of projects that are "on the go". In winter time when my hens aren't laying, I find that I am not in such a rush to collect the eggs and dash back inside with them ~ I spend a few minutes petting and talking to them, appreciating their adorable personalities and laughing at their silliness. And I'm all the happier for it.

So, although this post seems to be discouraging you from adopting the homesteading lifestyle, that is most definitely not my intention. What I'm saying is, don't jump in with pie-in-the-sky ideas, because you'll be setting yourself up for massive failure and disappointment. Take your time, learn the skills you'll need, gather your tools, and make subtle lifestyle changes right now, wherever you are. Over time, you will figure out exactly what you want from your homestead (or if you want one at all), and be in a much better position to make the move.

Then you can get to work and enjoy the bliss (and the blisters) that come along with it. I'm rooting for you!

manure in wheelbarrow homesteader small farm