10 Things I've Learned After Homesteading For One Year
Happy Friday, friends! I feel like I have not shared a recent photo of myself around here lately, just old ones from over the summer, because I really have not been doing much of anything except working on the computer - in terms of work that is! I suppose I am trying to prepare our website for the slight neglect it will receive in the spring and summer while I am doing most of the action outdoors and not from my chair. I am excited for that! So here is a photo of me holding a pile of wood about a week and half ago, before it snowed again, when we were burning all of the brush down in the woody area of the farm. Our family definitely errs on the side of cleanliness for all things, and none of us can go for very long before we feel the itch to start cleaning something. There's a huge wall of pine trees and willow oaks that surround the farmhouse, hugging us with warmth and protecting from the wind. The only thing that stink about willow oaks (now we have learned) is that they drop their branches quite often because they grow so fast. We are not sure the last time it was cleaned up and burned down to allow new growth, so that's what we focused on. Anyway, holding some timber and burning things. Fun, right?! Part of me cannot believe we are here still, a year later after deciding that we wanted to grow a real garden, one that would feed our family. A year later after learning more about sustainability and living with less waste and eating a cleaner, more wholesome diet. There is still so much to learn, and while I didn't think we couldn't do it, I am surprised and empowered with seeing all that we did do. I am not going to lie, there were many who said we couldn't, implied their negative feelings, or told us good luck with zero positivity - it stings in the moment, but it's always an indicator for me to forge forward and prove them wrong. I know that this year, on a real farm, it will be the same. We might fail, and that's okay. We are going to try!
I wanted to share with you some of the lessons that I learned over the past year that I spent improving my skills and trying new ones. From the early months of 2017 to now I grew an entire 1300 square foot vegetable, herb, and flower garden (that fed our family for real!), raised backyard chickens, became a Master Gardener, won a gardening award, preserved our own food, bought a 5 acre farm, and started a CSA program. This is not a "humble brag," but just a way of saying that all you think is impossible is not if you believe in your passions and dig in deep to your work. I love that local farming and sustainable living is becoming something many others are interested in; it's a way to connect. I hope that if there was ever another young, single mother or simply a young woman who didn't want to feel stuck in a corporate world could feel uplifted in knowing that this type of job can work! You know? I see you, ladies!
1. How to Memorize Recipes + Create My Own
This is something that I never thought I would be able to do, at least not without some proper training! In truth, all it took to figure out how to create my own recipes was to make a lot of my own food. I started working on every little thing, trying my hardest to make all of our meals from scratch. After testing cookbook after cookbook, you start to notice that a lot of the recipes have similar ingredients, but different measurements. Or some of them have the same base ingredients but little special spices or vegetables thrown in. Soon, I was tossing my own twists in or simply making something up as I went. It really just stems from experimentation, and you can't go wrong by creating your own stir fries or skillet dishes! Ha! Plus, after practicing so many different recipes over and over again, you start to memorize what is in them. I love being able to make a loaf of bread without having to pull down the heavy books from the shelves. Short answer: make your own food! Most of it and often!
2. Don't Be Afraid to Raise Livestock Animals
One of the things about homesteading that so many of our friends and family warned us against was raising livestock. I am so glad that we did not listen to them! Raising our first flock of chickens was one of my absolute favorite experiences of 2017. I would not change having them for anything. Especially now that we no longer have them and will be waiting to get a new flock in the spring - my chicks will be arriving in April - eeek! I miss having fresh eggs, and while I still have access to them from other farms in the area, you can't beat eating an egg that was laid mere minutes ago from your own hens.
There are a lot of people out there who are absolutely terrified of chickens. Here's an embarrassing story: I hardly ever use Facebook, but I noticed that the town I grew up in in Illinois was updating their city ordinances to allow residents to own backyard chickens. Amazing! A majority of the comments? Negative! Many of them were talking about the risk of a salmonella outbreak, an increase in coyote population, and the stench of chicken poop everywhere. What blew my mind was that so many people had little knowledge on just how wonderful keeping a few small chickens on their property could be. And I quickly realized that I had, at one time, felt the same and had known very little about the birds - I had been playing the role of hypocrite. The truth was that happy, healthy chickens are kept by happy owners who feed them well, allow them to free range, and clean up after them properly. Don't be afraid to keep livestock. They can be such a gift!
3. Grandma's Gardening Advice Isn't Always Right
This isn't necessarily geared towards grandmothers specifically, but I can tell you that I had a lot of opinions about my garden that I had to take in one ear and let out of the other. Visitors, neighbors, acquaintances that want to add their own two cents and give advice on your new journey can be great at times and overwhelming at others. They want to tell you how unsuccessful this plant will be, or good luck growing that, or they didn't very much like that variety. This is not a rant to say that I am not appreciative of them. I am! But if I followed everyone's advice my garden would be a pile of weeds or dead! Everyone has different opinions about when to grow certain plants, the best way to keep pests away, or the best way to prune and harvest. Not all of them are correct. Instead of starting an entire family feud, I highly suggest that you look into your county's extension office. That's part of the reason why I wanted to become a Master Gardener! You get all of the research and fact based knowledge about horticulture that new gardeners so desperately need. Your county extension office or horticulture line is a perfect place to find the information you need about growing in your specific area. Plus, it's always good to just follow your gut and experiment... those learning experiences are always worth it.
4. A Successful Week Stems From a Clean Home
Okay, this is totally based upon your own comfortability, so don't take my advice that your house has to be clean to have a productive week! For myself, I find that when my kitchen is piled high with dishes and last night's supper, I just don't want to get started on my canning or weekly bread baking. One of the main reasons that we are so diligently keeping up with our goal of having less and minimizing is that it takes us under a half hour to clean our entire home. It's pretty awesome, honestly! Well, it did when our house was less than 1,000 square feet. Now we have a two story home again, and it's a bit different! I always seem to have a more productive day and week when the house is freshly cleaned. It helps me get in the mood to tackle my to-do list!
5. Only Plant As Much As You Can Eat
This is such a big lesson! We waaaaay over planted this past year. We threw out most of it... into the compost bin. I remember there were days where we had such an overabundance of tomatoes, that we were constantly finding ones that had either split or fallen off the vine. We just could not keep up. Don't worry; we gave away plenty of vegetables last year. In fact, we must have given away too much because our friends and family eventually told us that they didn't want anymore. It would have been nice to have had our CSA going then! I also didn't realize that the food banks here in Iowa will take fresh food. When we lived in Illinois, our local food bank only took dry foods. I am glad to know there is a good place to send our extra veggies!
If you don't plan to gift a lot of vegetables to others outside of your immediate family, make sure you look into how much each vegetable, fruit, and herb will produce within a season. It can be hard to tell, especially when you consider that a plant could fail. My line of thinking is always to plant an extra, just in case. There are so many amazing vegetables that continue to produce for you all growing season! Kale, chard, eggplant, beans, peas, broccoli, tomatoes, squash, and herbs are just a few that can be cut over and over. If you don't want to do the work of looking into that, I do have a blog post with a chart on how many plants to plant for your family!
6. Keeping Track of Your Dates, Practices, and Yields is Key
I wish I had kept better records. I wrote several times about keeping a garden journal. While I did do this, I wrote more on the end of what I did every day rather than how much I harvested or spent. There are many notes on which days I spent weeding, but I have zero idea how many tomatoes I ended up gathering up over the weeks! Duh! Take notes about your yields. They will help you in following years to plan around how many plants you'll want, if plants didn't produce enough for you, and how much you can afford to spend on them. I have been keeping very thorough records this year, and it is already helping SO much!
7. Involve Your Kids in Tasks, But Make Them Fun
Now that we no longer have the chickens around, at least not until spring, I have been noticing how much of an influence they had over Tad. Just when you think your baby isn't really noticing the things happening around them, little hints begin to pop out. We have been stuck in the house quite a bit this winter; the other night as I was putting Tad to bed he said, "I miss the chickens and the chicken house and the greenhouse." Don't worry about me, my heart is just breaking! Oi. Those chickens. He spent a lot of time outdoors with me last year in the garden and caring for the chickens. He was only two, so I didn't want to make him feel like he had to help, but I also didn't want to make him feel like he was a burden either. I learned quickly on that we experienced the best mood and behavior when Tad felt like his job was super important. If I needed him to collect eggs (pretty much all he could handle at the time!) or feed the chickens treats, it was a very important task that needed to be done and was awarded high praise afterwards. It made him want to help with chores each day! Jill was always great about that when I was kid, making me feel like I had a role in our business. At a young age it made me feel paid attention to and worthy of the work!
8. Kids Will Eat Vegetables They Can Pick And You Will Too
Last spring I was a little nervous starting the garden... we ate vegetables but not super often. It wasn't like we were in our house eating raw kale and kohlrabi fries. We were newbies to living plant based. But we wanted to be better. It's been a whole year of cutting out processed food (still failing but not as badly!), cooking from scratch, eating out less (this one we have completely cut out, which is surprising!), eating less meat and more plants. It's been a year. The worst parts of it all were traveling. We are learning more and more every time we travel that it's worth our time, energy, and money to just bring our own food with. We are done trying to weave our way around eating out - like trying to stop a McDonald's and order a salad instead. It's not worth it at all. You still feel terrible. Actually, my biggest tip for eating a whole foods diet while living on the go is this: instead of stopping at a fast food restaurant, stop at the grocery store and buy yourself a banana. Yup. How easy is that? We have been doing this so often, especially for Tad, and he loves it! We get some fruit, nuts, cheese, etc. So nice!
Okay - getting off topic. My point is that because we were growing our own food, it forced us to eat more plants. Because I am the cook in the family and the one who makes all of our meals 95% of the time, I was the one influencing what our family ate. I cooked with all of our veggies, and we ate them, and in turn ate less of everything else. Are we vegetarians? No, but no longer eat meat that isn't sourced locally. It's changed us. At least once a week, one of us states how happy we are that we are done with eating junk. It's changed our lives! As for Tad? He loves to eat out of the garden! If he can pick it, he will eat it, and it just proves that we are naturally drawn to the beauty of a vegetable straight from the ground.
9. November is Really Depressing
And so is January and February! Let's just be honest! I did think that these early winter months would be the hardest on me. In all reality, it was November that had me feeling blue. I watched as all of my plants quickly breathed their last breaths and died. While the weather was still beautiful, nature decided to take a nap, and I had nothing left to work with. I tried really hard to embrace the new season approaching, I did! It was just a bit of a shock at how much it got me down that the garden season was over. As for the winter months? I have been dealing with it by occupying my mind with garden planning, ordering seeds, and preparing for the year ahead. It has helped!
10. Every Single Day Is Better Than the Last
Cheesy, right? But it's true! I am not sure why it is such a big deal to consistently mention that a blogger's real life is different from what is portrayed online. While our daily life is not always rosy, meaning that we have days where we get frustrated with each other or don't wash the dishes, we are SO happy. We are. This life is so incredible, and each day is filled with a new lesson. Being able to sustain plants and animals makes it that much more awe-inspiring. On the days where I feel like nothing is working and my mind is clouded, I have to remember that soon there will be plants and more room to breathe. I get giddy with the thought of fresh veggies, chicks in spring, honeybees, flowers, and baking bread. It's the choice to be happy that makes it happen. I truly cannot imagine going back from this! Thank you for being here, for growing with me on this journey, and supporting our business. It's an honor to write and create a job from this space that allows me to live! (:
Hugs! xoxo Kayla