Advice For Beginning Agrarians

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Some of this advice we learned from doing things right.  Some of it we learned from our mistakes.  Some of it we’re still learning.

All Aboard

I have a dear friend who is as passionate about homesteading as I am and I’ve watched the struggles she’s had over the years as she’s tried to do the work of an entire family by herself. Make sure everyone in the family understands what you’re getting ready to do and that everyone will have responsibilities and make sacrifices for the good of the entire family. Reassure your children that when they are grown they can move back to town and get on cable if they want to but be firm in conveying that for the short period of childhood this is how things are going to be. Admittedly, in our family the idea of homesteading originated mostly with me, but I am blessed that David was open minded in allowing us to move towards a more and more agrarian lifestyle and acknowledging the wisdom of continuing our journey.

Be Prepared

This is an area that in retrospect we did well. I’m an avid reader and a natural scientist. Every day is an experiment for me and that meshes well with trying to stuff generations of life knowledge into just part of a lifetime.

Read:  I notice a resurgence of homesteading books lately and admittedly I’ve read very few of the new ones. They do seem to have lots of pretty pictures, though. Over the years we’ve concentrated on collecting a library of older references – works from authors like John Vivian, Gene Logsdon and the Nearings. We also have several old farming texts from the turn of the century through the ’40’s and a treasured copy of Morrison’s Feeds And Feeding. I’ve got almost all of the first 10 years of the Mother Earth News. To me, the older works are just meatier and many can be downloaded for free from Google books and other archival sites . In addition to books on homesteading I read lots of historical accounts of life on the land.  BBC’s Tales From The Green Valley is hugely inspirational and available on YouTube.  Devour everything you can and don’t worry about the differences of opinion you might find. You’ll soon be able to sort through them and find your own best way.

Practice: You’ll hear me talk a lot about skills and many of those skills can be learned and practiced right in the middle of suburbia or even in an apartment. Start now learning the basics – food preparation with whole ingredients, food preservation, useful crafts, gardening (even if it’s just in pots). Begin to adjust to life without the luxuries of urban life. If you plan to be off grid start now to reduce your electricity use as much as possible. Begin to learn and practice water conservation, particularly if you foresee moving to an arid or dry summer climate. Don’t wait until you move to your land to start homesteading. Start right now.

Go back to school: Here in Oklahoma our Vocational-Technical education system offers a number of classes that would be useful to new homesteaders. Explore the possibility of taking in classes in such areas as small engine repair or welding.  We also have a non-profit foundation, The Kerr Center For Sustainable Agriculture, that offers beginning farmer classes.  If Oklahoma has something like this available, trust me, other states do as well.

Do Nothing

The first thing you’ll want to do when you acquire land is nothing. Maybe not truly nothing, but first of all take time to get to know your property. Permaculture teaches performing a comprehensive site assessment and the first step in any problem solving method is gathering data. Try not to build too many permanent structures until you’ve observed the land for the cycle of a full year. You don’t want to build a cabin one summer and find water running through it next spring. Observe, photograph and take notes on things like rainfall runoff, drainage, light patterns, soil patterns,wildlife and native plant activity and temperatures. Our homestead sits at the bottom of a canyon and is regularly 7 degrees cooler than portions of our land ¼ mile away.  We didn’t realize that until we had lived here through the fall and winter.

Carrying Capacity

Unless you’re vegan you almost certainly are planning livestock and aside from water availability the most important aspect of your land as it relates to animals is carrying capacity. “But the book said good land would carry one animal unit per acre!!!” laments the new agrarian who envisioned his stock growing fat on God’s free forage yet finds himself feeding hay in June. Simplistically, carrying capacity is the number of animal units per acre that a piece of land will support and animal unit is an expression that allows us to compare apples to oranges.  One animal unit, again for our simple purpose, would equal one mature cow or bull, one horse or mule, five sheep or goats, 5 feeder pigs, or 100 chickens or turkeys.  Suckling offspring are included as part of the animal unit.  It’s really easy in our enthusiasm to over-estimate the carrying capacity of our land.

Understand that though I advocate reading everything you can get your hands on two things can come into play. The author may be writing from the perspective of experience gleaned on good, fertile Iowa soil as opposed to red Oklahoma clay (which in the best of situations might have a carrying capacity of one animal unit per 5 or 10 acres)  or, and this does happen, he may be simply parroting something he himself read in order to sell books. This is where you learn to skin your own cat. (We’ll talk about that in a bit.) Talk to the local NRCS office, the county extension agent or even the old cowboy-looking guy who drives around in with a cattle cube feeder in the back of his truck and drinks his coffee down at the quick stop about the carrying capacity of your new homestead preferably before you buy and certainly before you invest in livestock.

Acclimate

As a new homesteader you will likely find yourself outdoors more than you’ve ever been and an important issue is acclimating yourself to working in extremes of temperature. To not do so can be dangerous and even deadly. Here in southern Oklahoma our biggest danger is the heat of summer, though we do have times of single digit temperatures some winters. You can’t expect to simply charge out and begin working full days in the middle of summer without a period of adjustment. The two items most important for learning to work in the heat are hydration and frequent shade breaks. (I plan to discuss our hot weather strategies in more detail in a future post.) There are others out there more qualified to discuss managing in cold weather, but as a woman and prone to a chill I’ve found several ways to make working in the cold even pleasurable. Layered natural fiber clothing is much toastier than a single heavy jacket. A covered head makes for a warm body. David brought home several of the large scarves that are worn in Afghanistan and undoubtedly those mountain folk know what they’re doing because those things are really warm despite being lightweight. Good gloves and muck boots are essential. Nothing is more miserable than working in the cold with wet hands and feet. Last, make sure everyone in the family has real rain gear, not yellow shower curtains from Wal-Mart.

There Will Be Dirt

And I’m not just talking about in the garden. Get ready for it. Understand the difference between dirt and filth. My grandson Oran says, “God made dirt, so dirt don’t hurt.” Studies have actually shown that children raised on farms and exposed to a less than sterile environment have less allergies and asthma than their city counterparts. On your new homestead you’ll have more important things to attend to than worrying about the dust on the knick-knacks.

One Thing At A Time

Though it’s tempting, resist the urge to try to put in gardens and fruit trees and learn to raise chickens and rabbits and goats and pigs and start a home business all at once. You’ll do none of them as well as if you take it one step at a time. It’s a big adjustment just moving to your land, especially if you’re jumping off-grid. Remember the dirt? Start by working up a small garden well and investing in chickens then add more dimensions to your homestead as you learn.

First Things First

The main activity of a homestead is food production. If you don’t focus your initial efforts on getting those systems in place all you have is a house in the country. Without adequate facilities your animals won’t be productive. Without adequate work areas for the preparation and preservation of food you won’t be productive. Without adequate storage space for the fruits of your labor and tools required to produce those fruits you’ll find yourself running in circles. Don’t skimp on pantry space. I speak from experience here. My pantry in our first house was 4ft x 10ft.  The pantry down here on Big Turtle Creek is a separate 9ft x 24ft building!  Our next couple of projects, which also should have been done long ago, are expanding the goat barn and building a workshop for David.

Acquire Good Tools

As you can afford it invest in tools. On his October 27 Christian Farm and Homestead radio show Scott Terry discussed his picks for essential homestead tools and his advice was excellent. Sometimes older tools are better than new, other times used or antique isn’t such a good buy. Either way, buy quality and store them where you can put your hands on them. (Hence, the priority of a workshop.) Perhaps soon I can persuade David to help me with a post on his advice and preferences for purchasing for homestead tools.

A Drop Saved Is A Drop You Don’t Have To Pump Out Of The Ground

In arid climates, water catchment is a wise priority.  It’s ridiculous not to catch the water that runs off the roof as God pours it out of the sky. I say this with my dunce cap firmly on my head, as we have yet to put good water catchment in place. Each inch of rain will supply approximately one-half gallon of water per square foot of roof. Put gutters and tanks at the top part of your list!

Skinning Cats

Figuratively. Well, maybe literally as well. Bobcat loin makes delicious cutlets. But I digress. My daddy always said, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Listen to the “experts”, consider their words, compare opinions but know that you are capable of figuring out your own best way.

No Relaxing ‘Til The Feeding’s Done

This is David’s ironclad rule. Making sure your animals are warm, watered and fed as a priority habit will always serve you well.

Finish What You Start

This is another area we still struggle with. Having half a dozen unfinished projects sitting around is overwhelming and unproductive. ‘Nuff said.

Grow A Thick Skin

Unless you live among the Amish you will eventually get the reputation in town as “those crazy rednecks.” Probably even in your family you’re going to to encounter everything from thinly veiled skepticism and raised eyebrows to blatant hostility for choosing an agrarian lifestyle. It’s all OK. Sticks and stones. . .

“Sunshine And Baby Ducks”

No, not always. I did a blog post years ago titled “Its Not Always Sunshine And Baby Ducks.” I wish I could dig it up for you. (If anyone out there has it saved I would love a copy.) Life has its ups and downs and though agrarian living is infinitely more peaceful and satisfying for me than another life choice I still have those days. That’s when I know it’s time to focus on counting my blessings with humility and thanksgiving. On Nourishing Days recently Stewart Stonger wrote an excellent post called The Blessing In The Thorns on doing just that.

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6 thoughts on “Advice For Beginning Agrarians

  1. Reblogged this on we bought a farm and commented:
    This is a fantastic post. There are a lot of books with pretty pictures without much content that I have wasted money on. It does take much longer than I first expected, especially when you realize that the house needs major work. This year was chickens, with no effort in the garden, next year will be bees and a garden (Hopefully.)

  2. Thank you for the lovely post! It is very helpful for someone like me, who only recently gained a steady and serious interest in homesteading. Your advice is most helpful, and the resources are wonderful! You’ve got me hooked on that BBC show. 😀

  3. I like “No relaxing till the feedings’ done.” My husband grew up with livestock to take care of, but for me it was a rude awakening to my schedule no longer being my own. The rule around our house in the morning is “Animals ged fed first, then the humans.” This helps us to remember that just like our own bellies are grumbling, so are theirs! And they can’t all feed themselves like we can!

    1. It’s hard sometimes when your tired or sick and it’s cold or hot, but we believe our animals like our land are gifts from the Lord and that our responsibility is to be good stewards of all He has given us. Truthfully, we fail often, but we can say the animals are always well fed.

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