A Small Farm Is Better Than Homesteading

The Term Homesteading has gained wide popularity in the last decade, but many who attempt it find the lifestyle to be a tough taskmaster. I grew up on a rough patch of land in the Ozarks and saw my father struggle to raise cows where there was no pasture and crops where there was no topsoil. Father had a vision of self-sufficiency that did not accommodate his declining health. After watching the homesteading pattern repeat itself with neighbors and struggling myself for years with this mindset, I’ve come to some conclusions.

#1 – I believe that growing things is really good for the soul, but the homesteading ideal is too stressful for most people. Calculating the calorie needs of an entire family, along with the right levels of protein, carbs, and vitamins in itself can be daunting. Expecting that you will be able to raise all that food for yourself creates an incredible amount of stress on a new gardener/rancher. It’s never enough though…next you will be pressuring yourself to become an amateur electrician so you can wire up wind turbines for your electricity. Then it’s on to chemistry and plumbing as you set up your own water-catchment system complete with stainless steel cisterns. This pattern leads to burn-out and many people bail on the entire idea. You don’t have to do everything. Maybe there are a few people who do everything, but you don’t know what kind of struggles they went through to get there, and they may have started life in a family that already homesteaded, so their learning curve is not as steep. Exploring only one aspect of self-sufficiency AND ENJOYING IT is better than doing nothing self-sufficient at all. I would even propose that being entirely self-sufficient and HATING IT every day is not as good as doing just one little thing that you really enjoy.

#2 – The idea that you must do everything to be ‘self-sufficient’ forces the new homesteader to take on tasks that they really aren’t interested in. Self-sufficiency is an impossible ideal anyway. Even the Amish live in communities where they can buy sugar, wheat and canning jars from each other/family stores. You will find in true self-sufficient communities that some of the members specialize in fruits or grains while other members will focus on livestock or dairy. They may have additional backyard chickens or a garden, but even though many are full-time farmers, they focus on a handful of things they are really good at. Self-sufficiency is an admirable goal, but constantly falling short of the goal can be demoralizing. A hobby farm allows you to set one goal that you can achieve in an area that you truly enjoy. Raise only exotic Frizzle chickens if you want. Hand milk a single miniature Irish Dexter family cow if you wish. Cultivate a garden plot of only Martha Washington Asparagus if you want. There is a ton of joy in raising an animal or crop that tickles your fancy. You will accumulate tools and learn so much along the way that the next project that delights you will naturally build on your past success. Please don’t let some homesteading ‘Purist’ suck all the fun out of growing things.

#3 – Although the situation has greatly improved, there are still many people who will scoff or shame anyone who adopts the title of ‘homesteader’ because they associate the word with ‘prepper’ which really isn’t the same thing. I believe that a level of food independence is really good for the soul, but the approach that some preppers take is fear-based which is very corrosive to your mindset and energy. Initially it seems that cultivating that fear inside will give you the motivation necessary to become self-sufficient but there is a faster and more enjoyable way that doesn’t require you alienating friends and family. While in the prepping mindset; you can assess what the 2-3 most important areas are. Then of those 3, pick the one you most want to do. You may want to pursue an area because it has always fascinated you, it seems fast and easy, it is paramount to survival, you have a friend who could help you with it, or any other reason. The reason doesn’t matter, just frame it in your head that, “I WANT to try this” and forget any fear-based reason that would cause you exhaustion. Please choose to ENJOY your next project instead of letting fear drive you like a task-master.

#4 – Most importantly, enjoy yourself! Enjoying your project goes beyond just choosing the right breed of chicken or strain of sweet corn though. Consider your hobbies: do you buy the cheapest fishing pole, golf clubs or running shoes you can find? When something is for pleasure, we try to maximize our enjoyment as much as financially reasonable. So, buy the cute chicken coop, construct the fanciful bee hives, and build the sunken green house. To some degree you can justify a little splurging because it’s ‘kind of practical’. Besides investing money, invest time in making your project/hobby/farm as enjoyable as possible. Consider for a little bit, what the worst aspect of keeping an animal or a garden would be and start working that out. Keep all your notes for your project in one place. If you need a place to start, I highly recommend this classic that every homestead/farm should own. You also can reach out to me if you need someone to brainstorm with. My contact form is on the homepage, first column, under “Contact For Consultation”. I’d be happy to help.

#5 – Lastly though, the biggest reason I’ve seen folks give up on the homesteader track is that purist homesteading becomes a full-time job that crowds out the most pleasant aspects of conventional employment (the most pleasant aspect of all being a regular paycheck). It is such a far-ranging concept that it can devastate any attempt at time management. You can purchase all the supplies and books you need to start homesteading, but you will find that skill sets and experience are just as necessary and take much longer to accumulate. Depending on how much available time you have, you might have to focus in on only one area to reach proficiency. Much better to do a few things well than do everything poorly. Much cheaper too!

I use the term homesteading often because many people who are looking to return to the land or live in unbreakable abundance are most familiar with the term. I’ve learned all 5 of the above points the hard way though. My basement is full of tools, supplies and books that I haven’t ever opened. Even though I have a wide range of interests, I am discovering more freedom and energy by seeing myself as a hobby farmer instead of a homesteader.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How To Keep Your Chickens Warm Without Electricity

It gets really cold up here in zone 5. Valentine’s Day 2020 had a Low of -9 Fahrenheit and a High of 10 Fahrenheit. Children waited for the school bus inside their homes and ran out only when the bus approached. Condensation from your own breath froze on your face. Employees would turn on their cars every few hours to keep the batteries alive. Our Northern friends laugh at how soft we are, but it was a rough day. That was before we had animals.

I’ve read a lot of advice for chicken keeping (best chicken book yet by the way), but wasn’t able to complete my vision for an all-season coop at the farm because of my broken leg. I asked my Homestead Hero for advice, and she recommended surrounding the coop with bales of hay. I got that done two days after Christmas as the forecast was calling for more nights in the teens. A few days later on New Years the ice storm hit. You can see here it was a nice thick coating of ice.

Surprising advice about chickens is that it is more important that they have ventilation than heat. They must have proper ventilation or they develop respiratory problems in warm weather. If you try to make them warm in the winter but there isn’t ventilation at the top of the coop you greatly increase their chances of getting frost-bite on their comb. That is why I made certain that this hay bale remained under the three vent holes in the front of the coop.

This all hit in January, and I’ll need even more for February when we tend to get negative temperatures. Since the coop is just in the back yard I’ve been able to change out the water twice a day to make sure it doesn’t freeze solid, but I’ve been pleased to find that adding hay bales has kept the water from freezing solid unless the temp gets below 17F.

The delicate netting held up well to the ice and was almost jewel-like. The chickens seemed to not be very bothered by the ice…although they rarely walked on it. They mostly developed their own version of ‘fly-skating’ where they flapped their wings to propel them forward to some rock, pile of leaves or crumple of frozen netting where they could stand.

As I was making plans to move the chickens from the summer shelter back to the subdivision I had to prepare for the first freezing nights. A smart solution used a free piece of plastic I got from the side of the road. The thickness was about that of the flimsy sneeze guards you saw everywhere in 2020. I was able to cut it with heavy kitchen scissors to a perfect fit and attach it with only a few screws to the inside of the ‘wire atrium’.

The higher quality plastic creates a nice window into the coop so the hens can still be watched from the house. This not only blocks winter winds, but it also protected the feed and deep litter from fall rains. I plan to leave it up permanently because the chickens will be back at the farm when the weather gets so hot that the plastic would be a problem. There was only the one sheet, so 2-liter bottles and salad lids became the plastic used on the wall away from the house. It kept the entrance to the roosting area dry, but I should have put a solid sheet across the bottom first. That will have to be a priority going into the bitter part of winter. The draft can be hard on the chickens and the windbreak makes a huge difference in how quickly ice forms in the waterer.

The first load of hay was used to try to insulate the walls from the INSIDE. I opened the bail and put “chips” as my dad called them all around the inside of the coop. It would have worked great, but chickens won’t leave anything alone. In 24 hours it was piled across the floor of the coop.

The extra hay that wasn’t placed inside was put on the roof or rested on it’s small end. Three reasons for this ‘half measure’: #1- Chickens need time to acclimate to the season changes. Imagine for yourself how cold 50 degrees feels in the fall and how warm it seems in the early spring. Do what you can within reason to allow the hens to adjust to cold weather especially in the early fall when the cold snaps are just annoying, not deadly. Adding heat lamps or heat sources too early can cause them to delay their ‘winter preps’.

#2- Electricity is fickle! As wonderful as heat lamps or warming platforms can be, the simple fact is that relying on them puts you at the mercy of ice-covered branches and power lines. A power outage could kill your whole flock while you are too snowed-in to get back-up heat sources.

#3- Mice love hiding in hay. Mice are the enemy. Putting this hay down creates the perfect home for mice living in our forest. Waiting until the last minute is one way to discourage the mice. If we get a warm break of 40 degree weather I will move the hay bales to the other side of the chicken yard to make them find a new home. The reason the plastic sheeting is a better windbreak in the fall and spring is because it doesn’t provide housing for mice and sheds moisture faster while still doing the job.

The steep hill makes adding more bales to the back of the coop very hard. The bale will just roll off into the electric fence, or a post will have to be driven through the bales to hold them in place.

In the photo above note that the roof area over the roosts shows snow melt while the roof in the foreground still has a pristine blanket of snow. This photo shows that there is enough warmth in the roosting area to melt snow…a good sign that the hay, deep litter and hens body heat is keeping them warm.

The snow fall was lovely, but very heavy. It stuck to the ice and put a strain on the fence and the hawk netting. Luckily there are a few tears in the netting that allowed me to put my arm in and shake the netting to release some of the snow weight.

The greenhouse frame had begun to bend under the weight downhill from the snow. Shaking just some of the snow off seemed to be sufficient to take that stress off the frame.

Throwing some hay under the snack holder gave the hens a place to stand without sliding back down the hill. Although it is cold outside, they seem warm enough to run around and have fun playing chicken football. If you are expecting bitter cold, visit my article for more extreme preparation titled: How Cold Is Too Cold For Chickens With No Electricity? 12 Tips.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

How To Collect Okra Seeds For Planting Next Year

Like many vegetables, the germination rate (percentage of seeds that actually sprout) and the vigor (how strong each seedling grows to be) of an okra seed is improved if it is allowed to fully mature on the ‘vine’. Okra is best left on the stalk/vine until the seed pods dry out so much that they begin to split on their own and spill out.

Most importantly, you must purchase Heirloom seeds from the beginning if you want to be able to collect viable seeds for the next year. Heirloom seeds will say so on the packet, and sometimes are more expensive, but certainly worth it. This year we planted some Hill Country Red Okra which is an Heirloom out of South Texas. If the packet doesn’t say “Heirloom” on it somewhere then you should assume it is a much cheaper hybrid which will grow fine for you the first year, but it’s seeds will not reproduce like the original. It’s fine to grow hybrids, but there really is a thrill to saving your seeds and planting them the next year. A gardener’s version of being a grandparent!

The kids randomly planted seeds around the construction site having no idea what might actually grow. One of the Okra got a foot-hold in the clay and even though it was planted in heavy shade too late in the summer, it was able to bring one seed pod on. I didn’t discover it until I got really good at using my hands free crutch. One seed pod isn’t enough to bother cooking, plus it was far too mature to eat. This is actually a blessing after all, we now have an Okra that survived zone 5!

One month later in early November it had dried out and all the leaves had fallen off. Perhaps I should have let this seed pod remain on the plant for a few more weeks to allow it begin to crack open on it’s own. The plant was in the area I was planning to move the coop too though, so I had to pick it. 44 seeds came out of this one pod. Only 1 was clearly not viable, you can tell from the shriveled shape of the small seed on the closest edge of the paperweight. The rest appear to be fine until….

Opening the original seed packet reveals that the commercial seeds all have a dark slate coloring. In comparison my 2020 Zone 5 Okra seeds look brown and immature. This could be a cosmetic preference of the seed seller, a slight variation my plant created to survive the cooler weather, or maybe they are not fully mature. I won’t know until next year when they start coming up out of the ground. Can’t wait to compare my 2020 Zone 5 to the original South Texas Heirloom!

Okra is a Southern Side dish I don’t see often now that I’ve moved North. If you get a helping of it up here, it was likely raised in India and shipped over. If you want to do a deep dive on the subject, there is an entire book on Okra! There are lots of reasons to grow it as a new gardener, the biggest being that deer and other wildlife won’t mess with it. The stalks and leaves are so prickly that my mom would wear long sleeves and gloves….but she was harvesting a full row at a time. For the absolute best taste, harvest only the best immature okra to make up for supper that
night. If you see mature seed pods let them go and harvest them for seed later. The flavor goes downhill rapidly after the first day they’ve been picked, so only harvest a bunch at one time if you plan to prep and freeze them by bedtime.

A second good reason to start out with Okra is because it doesn’t require irrigation and likes well-drained soil. I like it as a “border crop” to create an unpleasant barrier for foraging animals. You can also use it to expand your garden planting area by using a part of the garden that the sprinkler won’t reach or in an area that you are just beginning to improve the soil.

Brass Egg™ participates in affiliate marketing programs, and may receive compensation when you click and purchase from links to retailers. Brass Egg™ of Russell Holdings Group, LLC 2021. All content ©2021 Russell Illinois Holdings, LLC. All Rights Reserved.