Homesteading is exciting. If you’re considering starting your own homestead, you know exactly what I mean. You can spend hours researching greenhouses, chicken breeds, wind turbines, and the best dairy goats. You may even find that the words “sustainable” or “self-sufficient” worm their way into all of your conversations.
The homesteading bug bit me hard. Now, looking back with the clarity of hindsight, I’ve realized how much easier things would have gone if I’d heeded one simple piece of homesteading advice: don’t try to do everything at once.
Biting Off More Than You Can Chew
I did not grow up on an operational farm, but I did spend most of my life surrounded by horses, goats, and chickens. My partner even majored in animal science. We both worked part-time on sheep farms during college. It was around the same time that we became interested in draft animal power and vegetable farming.
In other words, we weren’t exactly experts. Nonetheless, we figured we had some idea about what we were getting into. We worked out a free lease on a neighbor’s empty pasture and, using family property, jumped into homesteading head first. It didn’t take too long before we realized we had bitten off more than we could chew.
In the first year of our venture, we found ourselves in possession of two half-trained draft horses, twelve ewes, more lambs than we could count, laying hens, meat hens, turkeys, two dairy goats, a billy goat, a Great Pyrenees puppy, meat rabbits, a hoop house, a slew of farming equipment, and full-time jobs.
Before you start shaking your head, you have to realize that the minute you start looking for farm animals and equipment, you find them. A friend knew someone selling horse-drawn equipment. Someone’s mother-in-law raised dairy goats up the street. Another friend knew a great chicken vendor who sold all kinds of heritage breeds a few towns over. Yet another friend was willing to work out a deal, trading labor for a starter flock of sheep.
Before we knew it, we had what amounted to a fully operational homestead.
Learning On the Job
Our story is fairly typical of homesteading. You find the perfect house or situation, and then, almost like magic, the animals and gardens appear. It is an experience I would not trade for anything, but I wish we had taken things slowly.
Animal husbandry, as it turns out, is not as cut and dry as it appears in textbooks, or even as it appears when someone else owns the animals. Working on farms can only prepare you so much for the realization that there is no one else to turn to—these animals are yours, and their care is entirely in your hands.
We made careless mistakes, and animals got sick. In a few unfortunate instances, they died. We escaped several situations that could have resulted in serious injury to ourselves. Money hemorrhaged out of our homestead.
By the end of our first year, we had learned several valuable lessons. We now knew how to care for our animals and gardens, how to negotiate leases, and when to ask for help.
Today, when people ask for my advice, the first thing I tell them is to rein in that homesteading spirit of self-sufficiency. You might be able to do everything on your own eventually, but you definitely won't be able to at first.
Taking Things One Step—and One Species—at a Time
If I could go back, there are a lot of things I would do differently. I would take it slowly and only try my hand at one new thing every season.
If you are interested in homesteading, limit yourself to one new species per year (or season), beginning with laying hens. Chickens are the perfect starter species: minimal investment, minimal work, and lots of rewards. Ten chickens can produce enough eggs to keep anyone's family, friends, and coworkers happy. You can even sell some of those eggs to offset the cost of raising chickens. You might also consider starting a garden at this time, as chickens love fresh vegetables. However, you should be sure to only till as much acreage as you can keep up with.
A season of chickens and gardening would be the ideal introduction to the realities of homesteading. You will learn to efficiently manage your time and establish a schedule for chores. It's enough work to keep you satisfied as you research your next addition. Most importantly, you won't be biting off more than you can chew.
Small ruminants, like goats and sheep, are relatively easy to handle and would be a smart next step to take as you delve deeper. I say "relatively" because I have spent my fair share of time chasing sheep over pastures and tracking down rogue goats. Never underestimate your livestock’s singular dedication to chaos. As you acquire a small flock, don’t be afraid to reach out to local farmers, homesteaders, veterinarians, and extension agents for advice.
A full year of raising sheep or goats will try your patience in ways you can’t imagine. From it, you will gain invaluable knowledge about animal husbandry, effective farm set-ups, and the inevitability of things sometimes going wrong. You will also come away with some delicious meat, milk, fiber, and a love/hate relationship with your animals you probably never thought was possible.
I would advise holding off on purchasing any draft animals until you are sure that everything else is running smoothly. This could take a season or several years, but the wait is necessary because working with draft animals will require a lot of your time and attention, even if you have done it before. Contact an expert, take lessons, and purchase or lease an older, experienced, and well-behaved team. A novice trying to train a green team is a recipe for disaster.
Take it from me: homesteading is a deeply rewarding way of life that will challenge you in many ways. You will grow from these experiences, learn important life lessons, and discover new things about yourself. You can spare yourself some of the painful parts by accepting that you can't do everything at once. If you try to, you will end up biting off way more than you can chew. You might also end up chasing animals around the neighborhood.