Saturday, April 24, 2010

Let's Talk Homesteading

I thought I would report in on my findings on homesteading, this being my 5th growing season on the farm. (Those of you interested only in energy or politics can tune out... )

There is no such thing as "self sufficient". That's not what homesteading is about. Homesteading is a part time job for someone that has a family business or a very flexible work schedule. Have a 9 to 5 job that you MUST be at? Homesteading is not for you. That probably means that Homesteading really is not for folks in debt. If you are sweating a big mortgage, I don't see how you cut it Homesteading. This is not a way to get rich, this is a way to become more self-reliant. I think any mortgage at all makes it untenable. That means save a lot of money and/or buy a homestead with modest improvements.

In order to grow most of your own food you will need at least 5 productive acres, a small barn - large enough to hold a winter's worth of hay and hold your animals for working, whatever that may be - a full acre garden as a minimum and maybe up to all 5 acres in cultivation if you want a reasonable cash crop, but lets talk about what you will need to produce to provide most of your own food and grow or raise enough stuff to trade for feed or seed or what have you.

You do not need breeding animals necessarily. Raising one, or perhaps a couple of weanling pigs (you can buy them for $35 to $50 each when they are about 20 lbs) takes about 6 or 7 months until they reach slaughter weight and will supply all of the pork your family could ever eat in a year (about 180 lbs of dressed meat from each 250 lbs hog; a family of 5 with 3 teenagers would need to raise 2 hogs, and roughly half of their feed will come from kitchen refuse - hogs are the ultimate in recycling). Lard as a cooking oil is an option if you raise pigs (I didn't say you HAD to do that, or that I do, only that you have the option).

A herd of 6 goat does and 2 bucks (just in case one dies) will give you all of the milk, cheese, and goat meat you can stand (and you won't have to weed or cut the lawn if you move them around right by picketing them, especially if they have been bottle raised... but, be careful not to let goats get loose - they will HAPPILY kill every fruit tree, garden plant, and decorative bush you have in the blink of an eye. Each goat will only consume $60 per year in feed IF you have an acre of pasture (for the 8 goats) and decent rainfall. Droughts change the picture somewhat. We spend ZERO on vet bills for goats - we vaccinate and worm them ourselves, and do our best if one gets sick but we do not spend money for healthcare for goats. You shouldn't lose many goats if your slaughter rotation is correct (livestock lifecycle management is a science as well as an art. Which animals you choose from a herd, and when you choose them, for slaughter affects the future production of the herd. It is REALLY, REALLY dumb to lose (that is, died) an animal that you have fed and cared for rather than slaughter it to feed your family). If the herd becomes outsized, dairy does can always command a decent price in the market place, meat goats less so... perhaps $1 per pound on the hoof, which would barely cover your gas money in delivering them.

Milking is WORK. You have to do it everyday at roughly the same time. I don't like to milk twice per day... so I leave the kids on the nannies and only milk in the evening. We get less milk per nannie, but far more than we can use. Another thing... most nanny goats will go dry for 2 to 4 months per year, usually at the same time, so you won't have fresh milk all year round with goats. Either get a cow, or freeze the goat milk, or go to the store.

Goats are FANTASTIC for improving pastures in an organic environment. Their hooves do no damage, and they eat broad leaf weeds, which cows, horses and even sheep will not eat. This takes competitive pressure off of the grasses in your pasture, and their manure does not kill a couple square feet of pasture with each "flop" as is the case with cows - in fact their manure is evenly distributed and fertilizes the pasture nicely.

Raising "Bottle Calves", unwanted bull calves from dairy farms and such, can be purchased for about $100. If you have enough grass, that with $50 of calf milk replacer will get you a 1,000 lbs steer in about a year which will yield 600 to 650 lbs of meat. Usually that is too much for a family (unless you have a bunch of teenage sons...), but it is not hard to find another family to sell a side of organic, grass raised beef to go in with you on the steer.

Chickens are a must. 50 dual purpose chickens and 5 roosters left to free range - you will still have to provide some feed, and of course water - will supply all of the eggs and poultry meat a family of 5 can consume, provided you have an incubator that can handle at least 50 eggs. I let our birds free range all year except spring and early summer (at which time I use chick tractors) because at that time of year they are a danger to my garden and I want to collect all of their eggs (free ranging saves on feed but you won't find all of their eggs... but you will find most of them once you know where their favorite nesting places are) to go into our incubator (I have a 280 egg commercial incubator and I will hatch out 500 to 600 chicks per year). I use them to trade and as gifts and keep about 150 each year. 50 meat roosters, 50 chickens for next year, and the balance for loss and predation.

Dual purpose birds like the Rhode Island Red will lay 5 to 6 eggs per week in June, but only 1 or 2 per week in December. You will have too many eggs during spring and summer, even if you have a big incubator, and that's ok... the hogs are only too happy to consume the excess eggs, and your neighbors will never be offended to find a box of fresh eggs at their doorstep.

Feed and hay are inexpensive if your slaughter rotation is managed properly, and that means keeping few animals over the winter... so you don't have to grow all of your feed. If you live in the country like we, it won't be hard to find a farmer to trade pork for corn...

The Garden.

There are kitchen gardens... and then there is the homesteader's garden. Kitchen gardens grow a couple of tasty tomatoes... I grow 400 lbs of potatoes and sweet potatoes per year, and a similar, if smaller by weight, volume of sweet corn, field corn (for corn meal and flower), beans, and peas. I will grow 50 broccoli heads (they freeze well), 25 to 35 heads of cabbage (think slaw), 50 to 100 roma tomato plants (for canning), onions, garlic, spinach, turnips (for root and greens), cucumbers for salads and pickling, peppers (hot and sweet), carrots, lettuce, squash, zucchini, artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, watermelon, cantaloupe, blueberries, strawberries. Any thing that goes bad, is infested, or we have too much of goes to the hogs. Some folks play golf; I like gardening.

I have peach, pear, plum and apple tress from which we get barely enough fruit for the family... I should have planted more trees. It takes 3 years to get any production out of these tress, and then only if you buy yearling or 2 year old trees (I like the dwarf varieties). 6 trees of each is the bear minimum.

I don't grow wheat, I buy it. I am not a "locavore". I love bananas with my breakfast, citrus all day long, cook with olive oil and use it like most folks use butter. I LOVE coffee in the morning.

Most of your food calories will be in the form of grains, meat, dairy, eggs, and potatoes/beans... vegetarians and vegans would simply not be able to get enough calories out of their diet to do the kind of work that goes on at a homestead IMHO (this is when I get the "farmers in India don't eat meat" routine... usually from somebody who couldn't find India on a map). Also, organic farming/gardening requires manure - LOTS of manure - and manure comes from animals, and if you don't eat the excess (males) animals they will eat everything - including your garden.

Back to manure... We literally have TONS of the stuff accumulate under and around the hay rings during the winter, and pay a neighbor to use a front end loader to scoop it up and dump it in the garden. A better approach for the small holder might be to fence the animals in the area you intend to cultivate or garden during the winter. One of my neighbors plants his corn where ever the cows were wintered.

You can expect to spend $7k to $15k to outfit your place with all of the tools, materials, fencing, and livestock you need to get started. Yes, a piglet only costs $50... but you need a pig pen and that might run you $150 (they last decades), and feed ($75 - $100 per hog till slaughter), and a "coffin freezer" ($500) to keep your meat. Laying hens are $10 each - and you need 50 (alternatively, you can buy day old chicks for $2.50, feed them and wait 5 months for them to start to lay eggs...), and they need a coop. Raised beds don't just show up in your garden - you need blocks, or pavers, or garden timbers, as well as shovels, picks, tines, hoses, etc.... and the dirt doesn't jump into those beds, either, and the weeds don't jump out on command - expect to do some work. You will need to maintain barns and sheds if you have them, and build them if you do not. You will need a chop saw, a table saw, and a bunch of hand tools...

On the other hand... we NEVER have to "run to the store" to buy milk, eggs, and bread. In fact, we go days without moving a vehicle. The savings on gasoline and food purchases make the initial investment an excellent bet. The amount of time one spends driving around doing "errands" (and harming the environment, killing animals crossing our roads, risking your life and the lives of others) begins to pile up in earnest. Some people respond well, taking up hobbies and intellectual pursuits. Others without this capacity might say they are going stir crazy. That's up to you.

I have not, as yet, installed a green house. That is next. I do collect and save seeds, and seed potatoes and sweet potatoes. Its probably cheaper to just by the started plants... but I like to do it from scratch just for practice and fun.

A quick summary: 1 or 2 meat piglets purchased each spring and slaughtered in late fall. 1 bottle calf to be slaughtered at 12 to 18 months (there is always a risk that an animal dies, and if you have only one....), 8 goats (6 female, 2 male), 50 hens and 5 roosters, one mother of a garden, and 6 fruit trees of each sort (at a minimum). This will provide 100% of the meat, milk, and eggs, and over 50% of the fruit and vegetables for a family of 5. This will require a burst of effort and time each spring and fall (preserving is bigger than harvesting), but it will not be a full time job by any stretch - unless you want it to be. Of course, you can expand your efforts and leverage your time by raising more of one or all and marketing your production.

Oh, and time... 3 or 4 growing seasons before you start to put it all together, make your contacts and establish relationships, repair the damage the previous guy did to pastures or lack of maintenance on out-buildings, make mistakes, learn skills like food preservation, animal husbandry and care, and provision all of your hardware, tools, and equipment. It is doable, just not by reading books like "Gardening When It Counts". You have to actually do it, and its a lot more than gardening.


terraflexhoses said...
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Unrepentantcowboy said...

Enjoyed this. Nice to know that I'm not the only one.

Anonymous said...

Sustainable is the key word. We have more food for less money now, just focusing on gardening and fruit tree's and are closer to sustainable then when we had animals.

Although, there are some benefits certainly from having certain animals, they require external inputs--in feed, fencing, etc etc. that sometimes can be quite costly (especially here where predators are quite adept at killing the chickens).

We try to grow about 2 months worth of food from our gardens, and on a good year we get tons of fruit which really helps out. But last year multiple late frosts toasted much of our fruit production, and hurt some of our early crops. So although on a good year, we could probably produce a lot more food, weather dependency alone makes 'sustainability' year in and year out a crap-shoot.

Even the Amish around here who homestead, farm etc. need to help each other out, and buy some things from grocery stores.

Maybe hunter gathering permaculture tribes back in the day were sustainable, but its nearly impossible to do so now. Honestly, if I didn't like growing food, given the time I put into it--it would be MUCH cheaper for me to spend that time working more, and just buy a ton of food instead!


Greg T. Jeffers said...

Never said you wouldn't be going to the gorcery store. In fact, I opened with the point that it is IMPOSSIBLE to be self-sufficient, only more self-reliant.

For instance, I don't like goat milk for drinking. I use it in coffee, cooking, and cheese. I like to drink cows milk - so we buy that when our cow is not in milk.

Also, if you lack resources to acquire land, animals are not in the picture for you.

Those with resources will always do better than those who do not. Those who live in better climes, better rain fall areas, etc... will do better than those that do not. Tennessee does not have the frost risk of say, Vermont. So you will have to take the natural environment into account.

we raise 100% of our meats, milk and eggs, and I'd guess 50% of the veggies (100% of the beans, potatoes, and corn). We simply do not buy pork, steak, or poultry at the store. Of course, I have enough land, and its in a state that has not made silly promises that results in taxing people off their land. The inputs cost MUCH less than the grocery store and gasoline - not even close. IN fact, we routinely overproduce much of what we raise... But we are in an area conducive to this - plenty of rain and a long growing season.

We have all heard that it takes money to make money.... well, it takes money to increase one's self-reliancy - unless being a hunter/gatherer/garbage picker appeals to you.

We have a problem with dogs more than the coyotes, although that problem has greatly diminished since I have taken a "take no prisoners" approach to canine predation.

There is a BIG difference between a couple doing this and feeding a passel of kids. How many kids do you have?

Anonymous said...

Was not trying to say you mean that homesteading was sustainable, you made the clear point that it isn't.

We have one child currently. I think many of the 'self-reliant' particularly survivalist types dramatically fantasize about what it really takes, just to produce a decent amount of food for a small number of people. We produce a fair amount of healthy food, but most veggies don't provide much in the way of calories.

Potatoes are great for calories, and Amaranth is a great gluten free protein supplement for those not able to have lots of animals, or don't want them. We have enough property for goats and chickens and maybe a few cows, but don't bother--although the neighbors have all these and we can buy milk/meat etc from them if we don't want to go to a store.

I see a lot of people gardening now, with the economy bad, but most don't seem to bother researching/learning about food growing, most don't even plant from seed but rather buy their plants mostly grown--that doesn't teach you much.

Our big issue with sustainability is composting, without animal inputs or the mushroom compost/horse manure that we buy every few years--we can't compost near enough to come close to rebuilding our soil--since we have about 2,000sq ft give or take of gardening area. We rotate, and every year I learn more and more, amazing how much nuance there is to growing different foods. We've overproduced every year--and try and learn what we actually will eat in abundance and what we can give away. We used to produce WAY too much Kale for example, and far too many tomatoes--since although we do can fruits, and store squash and potatoes, we don't have the time/energy to do that much canning in the fall--given that we both work, and don't particularly like canning--no matter how much crappy 80's music we try to use to motivate us!


PioneerPreppy said...


I seem to remember you saying you took your pig to a processor, if I am correct what was the cost and or travel distance?

My biggest issue with livestock has been the processing as there is a severe lack of local processors anymore and a huge wait time with an almost 50 mile one way drive.

With my 48+ hour a week job I can still manage to handle the planting and such but processing my own livestock is certainly out. I typically get about a 3 month Summer vacation although that is looking iffy this year.

Also last Summer I managed to go almost the entire 3 months without going to the grocery store by trading at the local farmers market.

We differ a bit in that I am working towards having my small holding to fall back on or become more important if/when the energy/economy requires it rather than making it sustainable (or as close to it) currently. I have the land and am growing the knowledge to ramp up the production if or when it is needed.

I am only working on my third year of reclaiming, fixing etc but I am lucky in that I have an almost unlimited supply of horse fertilizer to add to my garden areas.

My opinion is small local agriculture is going to be the needed wave of the future.

Dan said...

Just last Tuesday a friend was telling me how vegetables went nuts in Anchorage, AK. There was a short growing season but… during the growing season there was sunlight 20+ hrs a day. Everywhere has its pluses and minuses; the trick is to go with what works and not try to force your idea of how it should work on the reality around you. In other words go native and do as the locals.

Didn’t see any mention of ducks. They have much, much richer eggs than chickens. You just have to make sure you keep your ducklings separated from your chicks or the ducklings will get the chicks wet and they’ll die. I don’t know how they will do with free ranging, we kept em in the chicken coop; but lots of places have duck ponds that seem to do well.

Dan said...

How did the pig-o-tiller work out? It sure looked like a slick ideal.

Anonymous said...

You are awesome dude. Keep up the good work! You are a beacon to us mere mortals. I just have an acre and most of the food I grow goes to the birds or just rots on the ground. I am really screwed I think.

Chuck H.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


I slaughter all of the goats and chickens... the pig was just too big as I let it live through the winter to till my garden. In the future, I will handle pig processing, too, by setting up a heavy duty windless and cut drum scalder. It ain't not thing.

The steers I will send out to be processed. They charge 40 cents per pound, wrapped and frozen. The processor is very local - maybe a 5 mile drive.
If need be, I will handle the steers, too, with the same windless I will use for the pigs.


When I started this project, I told folks that a homestead was not for folks that were going to sweat a mortgage. Remember "Farm Aid"? Didn't do much for the farmers, even though it might have helped some of the musicians... the problem was the farm economics of small farms... they were bad then, and they have not gotten any better.

For better or worse, small farm economics WILL change. Food production will gain as a percentage of GDP until these folks can make a living... this will not be welcomed by food consumers... not even a little bit.

If you are working a 9 to 5 job, 12 months of the year, I don't think you are really "homesteading". You might own a potential homestead, or be an avid hobby gardener... and if you have to work to pay the mortgage on the homestead... well, I would not do it. I'd live in an apartment near work. But that's just me.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


The hog did a great job cleaning up my weed choked garden.

Dan said...

I’ve had Holstein when my grandpa dressed out his dairy cow. It had a very off-putting sweet taste as though it had been infused with sugar. Don’t know if it a problem with all dairy cows or just unike to that old nag. Still I would be leery of dairy cows for beef.

Anonymous said...

We lived in apartments near work, until I was able to get work that allowed me to spend part of it at home (the paperwork/phone calls). This freed up some time to expand our gardening. I don't call us Homesteaders per say, but not trying for some sort of label here. We just try and live life the best we can, and for us staying in the city for another decade was not worth it--when opportunity arose. We make it a goal to produce more food each year, in part b/c we eat much healthier when the gardens are actively producing--since we don't like to waste.

Compared to our friends and family--we are "farmers". I spend a significant amount of time working on the gardens, and pruning fruit trees etc in the late spring and then work hard again August-September. But it's possible to do so and work, you just give up other things--but we like being outside.

We still have a small mortgage, but I don't know why that would prevent us from 'homesteading'. Life is a journey, not a destination after all--and we enjoy our country home, rather than having to live in the city for another ten years to save up the full price of the home. IF people waited to have no mortgage, then not only wouldn't we have homesteaders, but we wouldn't have farmers--nearly all of them in debt constantly. Hell, even the Amish around here have some debt--since many use tractors, even though they don't drive cars :)


Greg T. Jeffers said...


Of course, you are correct that there is no definition of "homesteading". My apologies for being so presumptive!

Further, what the hell do I know about much of this? You likely know more than I, as that really would not take much... I have 4 years of part time experience, nothing more. I was just trying to report on my observations, not that I am sure that these observations are correct...

I think a better platform to discuss would be "small farm economics", as that might actually be defined.

Small farm economics do not work for the small farmer terribly well, and the proof is in the pudding - there are damn few small farmers left. I think that this will change, but that change will not be welcomed by the rest of the population.

Anonymous said...

The small farmers around here have about 1,000 acres or less, and I talk to them often--they don't make much money at all. They spend massive amounts on fertizers, diesel, pesticides, and always have to deal with mother nature.

I don't claim to be an expert, we grew up gardening as a family, and learn all the time, i've only done about 7 seasons worth, and just feel like I'm getting the hang of things to be honest.

The only thing the organic famers/gardeners I know make any money off of are basically peppers/tomatoes--the rest is basically a wash. As I mentioned before, if I did this merely for money savings--it would be pretty stupid. I probably only grow 2-3months of groceries, so maybe 900-1000$ worth of food roughly, but I spend a couple hundred on misc. garden stuff, and of course buying 7 yards of compost/manure every few years--since I can't begin to compost enough stuff to do all my garden beds. If I wanted to be economically smart, I would just work a couple side jobs, make a few thousand dollars and save myself a lot of time--but its my main "man chore" but also a family hobby as well.

You clearly have more than a passing interest in homesteading, and I wish you the best in the process and enjoying some old school work/pleasure.


Joseph said...

Great post Greg, sounds like we share a lot of things in common.