Today I want to talk about one troubling thing that I have noticed in the world of homesteading, self-sufficiency and small-scale farming. It is the myth of the need to escape back to the land.
First off, let me preface things by saying that EVERYTHING in this country is motivated by the desire to profit. I learned that a long time ago and I am passing this on to you, right now. It is a true statement that there is always someone in this country making money on someone else. Why does this matter? Because for some reason people who desperately want to homestead or farm on the small scale have this notion that everything written about the hows and the whys of the movement is true and motivated by the need to save Mother Earth. Who would lie, motivated by money, when they are trying to teach us how to save the planet?
The main protagonist this story is the overworked and overtaxed, possibly married middle class man or woman. They may have education debt, they may have a child or two and they are busy paying off the mortgage. Work is stressful, commute is long and slow, there has to be more to life than this! Now on top of everything we are running out of habitat, everything seems to be polluted, dying or being paved over. Climate change is real, we all know it, we can feel it and see it, yet the powers that be are denying it and making everyone else look crazy.
This, ladies and gentlemen is your perfect sucker to lure into the world of homesteading and small scale farming for profit!
Some folks with cooler heads would just get a second job, cut down on all non-essential expenses and try to pay off all the debt early and retire sooner. But no! The potential homesteader wants to live clean and make a difference with their two hands. They want to go back to how grandma and grandpa did it, for some reason everything was great “back then”, right? They may remember going camping with their parents in the Adirondecks or riding horses in the local riding school as children. They are strangely attracted to the idea of growing food and having the freedom to breathe the crispy clean country air.
A person like this may be walking one day down the magazine isle in Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy of Mother Earth News, Grit or Rural Heritage. Big mistake! Next come all the “build your own cob home” or “cordwood home” or “straw bale home” books. Then the organic grower’s encyclopedias, hugelculture, permaculture and other -culture books and magazines. Solar and wind must figure into the equation as well, since if you are going to be living in the country and be self-sufficient, you must start with energy independence, right?
We have not even talked about finding land!
Then this person of ours discovers Youtube and the myriad of self-sufficiency, homesteading and small-scale farming forums and websites online. People offering advice on anything from how to seed a row of carrots to how to run a diversified animal and food production farm on 40 acres. Whef, it is a full time job just to figure out where to live at this point, not to mention what to buy, build and the succession of steps to go about it.
By the time our poor person has read everything there is to read and seen all the videos, they are very unhappy. Why, you ask? Well, who wants to live their current life if there is a much better life to be lived out there?! A life portrayed by the photo of the lady on the front page of Hobby Farms, wearing a beautiful, bright dress, sitting in her lavender field, smiling; she too is an urban escapee who is now her own boss! Or the photo of the young family in Wisconsin who just bought a 40 acre homestead and are busy making artisan cheese (where do two 27 year olds with a baby get the money to buy 40 acres with a home, by the way?). The photos of the person collecting roof water in the desert, living cheaply and happily, waking up to beautiful desert vistas, having coffee on their porch while looking at the sunrise (did you know that they ALL have a roadrunner and a lizard they befriended after moving in - they have names for them and coffee is not a lonesome affair, no Sir!). Who could resist such a temptation?
This, my friends, is what most of the book, magazine and video authors are banking on. See, a lot of middle class people today are stuck in a syndrome of asynchronicity, a situation where people’s actions, opinions and overall “programming” do not fit the time period. They are programmed culturally, by society, their parents and peers to do the “right things” such as have children, get an education, get a job, take on debt, buy a house, a car, so on and so on. They enter this path at an early age and the farther they are on it, the more difficult to leave it. However, at the same time, they are being bombarded with information about people who have broken away and freed themselves from the chains. They are pressured by real things around them as well - the environmental destruction, pollution, the bad and inhumane food system, the stress of everyday living and the constant fight to stay on top, have health insurance, make the payments. On the other hand, people are genetically built to live outside and do things with their hands, understand the basics of how everything works – in one word, a tendency to conquer complexity and have control of their lives.
It is very difficult to control your life when the bank owns the house and your survival depends on the job in town that may soon tomorrow disappear to China or India and when your healthcare is tied to that job as well. In one fell swoop, whole life can “fall off the rails”. This is exposure to risk and downside and it creates constant, disease inducing stress.
As a response some people just chug along, ignoring the obvious. They understand they are too far down the rabbit hole to dig themselves out and they choose to ignore everything. They may just decide to exercise more, take up a hobby, dedicate themselves to their work, maybe start eating smarter. Some get depressed, take to drugs and alcohol, unhealthy diets. Some turn to even darker endeavors. Yet, a few latch on to the dream of the homestead. This article is about them.
The typical person entering the homesteader (and by homesteader I also mean self-sufficiency “nut” and aspiring small-scale farmer) circuit has zero or very few homesteading skills. With the industrial revolution and the mechanization of work, manual skills have steadily been declining for the last one hundred years (back to that asynchronicity of actual vs desired - to live a lifestyle dependent on lost skills!). After world war II, tractors, combines, pesticides and herbicides took over manual labor on the farm. 1950s and onward brought us supermarkets, canned and jarred foods and ready meals available in the stores. Slowly but surely, the migration of labor from rural to urban - destroyed the rural and centralized the power of the urban. Recently globalization took away even more control from the local and introduced demand in remote parts of the world as the primary price driver for locally produced commodities (think demand in China to feed all their new cow herds dictating the price of alfa-alfa hay produced in the arid West of the United States). With all this, life is increasingly dependent on technology and automation, things are readily accessible by the click of a button. It does not matter where things are made so long as they are guaranteed to arrive with free two day shipping. Of course, everything is ephemeral and disposable.
At the same time, opportunities for profit on the small scale are disappearing. Most fields and industries these days have high barriers to entry. One cannot compete with Microsoft or Google on the software field just like one cannot just start a cable internet company or become a competitor to Amazon or Ebay. One cannot even become a doctor or a lawyer easily either - besides the steep costs of tuition, there are state and federal board exams to pass, for example. However, people are still looking for ways to make money (again that asynchronicity carried over from a time like the late 1800s when individualism was rewarded and there were no powerful corporations and government rules to fight) and they are finding them in all sorts of unexpected places. One of these places is the world of the homesteader. We can discuss why this world exactly later, but briefly, it has to do with the fact that the PERCEIVED barrier to entry is low in terms of education or formal requirements - it is truly one of the last bastions of “anyone with some grit can enter”. Oddly enough, this last assumption could not be farther from the truth!
Let’s get back to the typical homesteader entering the field today. By now it should be obvious that this guy or gal is entering the field frustrated, disappointed, probably with not much money in the bank. Most important of all, they have zero skills to make it in a totally foreign field - the field of growing food, fighting with Mother Nature, fixing machinery, tending to animals, building shelters, mowing hay on a tractor or using horses or oxen for work. Also add to this list the fact that due to land being a commodity susceptible to speculation - land prices are only getting higher and higher. By this late in the game, most good land is already owned by someone and commands a high price. The leftovers - unproductive land or land where bringing infrastructure would be prohibitively costly are still available but even then the dirt is not cheap. Side note: how do I know this? We once looked at land in the desert of southwest Texas Big Bend region (beautiful place, by the way!). With 9 inches of rainfall annually, the water table deep at 1000+ feet and soil being rock and dust, the land is still going at $1000/acre or more and climbing and there is not enough housing to go around - the place was “discovered” by bored and rich Austinites, Houstonians and became a popular playground for them.
However, a few “lucky ones” escape the urban game with healthy bank accounts. These are the folks who worked at the higher levels of corporate ladders or owned a nice apartment in Manhattan or San Francisco, Washington DC, Seattle or Dallas - said apartments being sold for millions of dollars to provide funding for their former owner’s next endeavors. There are also a few rural lucky folks in a similar boat, people who inherited land from their parents and often a dairy or a beef herd, some machinery and so on, for example. Some of these latter folks are born into whatever version of farming their parents practiced and they will generally not look outside of what they were taught. But just sometimes, you will get people like Joel Salatin who are eloquent enough and ambitious enough to make much more from their opportunity and write about it in a way that is attractive and palatable.
Back to our homesteader - by now it should be obvious in this story who will be having a good time homesteading and who will not. The wealthy, ex-corporate, ex-urban dweller who wants to retire early in the country and “farm” will be the guy or gal writing the books or magazine articles. The exhausted middle class urbanite trying to escape the city trap will be the person consuming the advice and making a go of what essentially now becomes two jobs - the job in town that pays the bills and the job of maintaining and running a working farm. The former has a big bank account, the best equipment (who do you think writes all the Yanmar vs Kubota reviews for Mother Earth News?) and the best chances of success. The latter is worn out, always on the run, always dealing with a crisis, looks ten years older than his or her comparative age and on top of that seems to be constantly bleeding whatever little money they have on yet another project that they can afford to only get half-done (improvising, they call it) because of lack of time and funds.
Let us go through some major mistakes our poor victim made in the process, preferably in time ordered fashion:
Mistake #1: Buying into the idyllic life of a small farmer, as depicted by all the back to the land books and homesteading magazine articles. Always, and I mean ALWAYS, ask yourself who is writing what you are reading. More importantly, are they disclosing their sources of funding and what the size of their bank account was when starting their endeavor. Unless you are at the same level as them (and chances are you are not) - you are doomed to fail. Did the person have a significant other who had a good job in town, with health insurance to cover everyone? That’s a big deal. Did the person sell stock from their portfolio or a condo in Florida to fund this project? That’s a big deal too. Did the person inherit the land? That’s a biggie as well. Often you read an article in a magazine and all you see is a finished project like a pretty set of solar panels mounted on a home made solar panel mount that was made out of tubular steel with equipment and parts that cost in the thousands of dollars (before even talking about the cost of panels themselves). It is obvious that whoever did it had the time, equipment, money and know-how to do it. Do you have the same yourself? Can you afford it? Do you know what it will take to get to a point where you will be so proficient with a MIG or TIG welder to create a mount that will hold up to the weight of the panels, the wind and snow loads? Will you be able to do all that in concordance with the myriad of other projects going on on a start-up farm? Pictures look good but always ask yourself about the context of that particular piece you just read.
Mistake #2: Forgetting about time and context. A lot of the back to the land books were written in the 70s. Life was much easier then - for example, the cost of health care was much less and things like health insurance were far from being as perverted and profit driven as they are today. Then think of what I said in “Mistake #1” paragraph - who wrote the book? Back then a lot of college educated, “stick it to the man” trust fund babies decided to fight the system by leaving it for the rural homestead. These kids had all the bank accounts to play farmers and take their time to observe problems on the farm and correct them slowly or learn from them. Of course, land was much more abundant and cheaper…
Mistake #3: There is a lot of myth going around a lot of things. It all has to do with ability to fail. Let me explain: two hundred years ago the sod buster had to survive. He depended on his small piece of land and whatever he could grow to feed himself and his family. If the crop failed, well, let’s just say life was harsh. Today, there is a grocery store on every corner. Even in the most rural of areas or in the inner city, there is always something to buy to eat - it may not be healthy but it will feed you. In other words, it is much easier to fail today, compared to, let’s say the 1850s. Always remember - for the people with money, trying their hands at farming is just another hobby. These people measure the benefits of their farm in the amount of fresh air they breathe and the fact that the tomato they grew is organic. Never mind that the tomato may have ended up costing $64 to grow (this is not an accidental reference, by the way!). So, where does myth come in? Well, there are many and at all levels of homesteading and farming. For example, the simplest ones have to do with companion planting; plant marigolds around tomatoes and somehow magically the tomatoes will be protected from pests. Or, mulch, mulch, mulch and everything will grow. Or, your crop is failing because you did not build a balanced ecosystem where parasitic wasps eat tomato hornworms. Or, get guinea fowl to control the tick populations in your backyard. The list goes on and on and on. Why is this so? Well, everything goes back to two things: ignorance and profit. Ignorant people can be sold anything - if you have a tick problem, someone will sell you guinea fowl to solve that problem. Never mind that now you have TWO problems - a tick problem AND a fowl problem. Then there is the following…
Mistake #4: If it is repeated many times, it must be true. This is kind of connected to Mistake #3. Know this - there is a huge amount of disinformation and ignorance going around the homesteading and farming forums, Facebook groups and other places. Many people will repeat things they have no idea about. “Use neem oil and soap mixed in water to control squash bugs”, for example. You run out and buy neem oil and liquid castile soap, $30 or $40 later the squash bugs don’t care, they are still happily eating your squashes, much to your teary-eyed, hair-pulling detriment. Then someone says, “oh yeah, pyrethrin does it”. Except that it often doesn’t. Then someone tells you to get chickens and just release them in your garden. Except that now you have to build or buy a chicken coop and fence it off and make sure it is good enough to protect your birds from predators or you just set yourself up to seeing all the possible, gruesome ways a chicken can be killed by a raccoon or a fox. At the end if you took all that money, you could have probably bought organic squashes somewhere for the next 10 years….
Mistake #5: If you are uneducated about something, you are likely to believe anything just because “it makes sense”. Try this popular story - baking soda raises the Ph of your blood, making it alkaline and cancer cells cannot survive in an alkaline environment, hence - baking soda cures cancer. Makes sense, right? Except that it is total horse manure. There are many, many things we are uneducated about and there are many, many people who want to sell us something that they can package to us into something that makes sense. These people prey on your naivete to make a living.
OK - now let’s move on to practical mistakes people make:
Mistake #6: Not realizing that owning a homestead is a full time job and then some. You buy anything more than an acre and you will have a need to maintain the property. Ten acres will most likely require mechanized equipment, 40 acres will most definitely require it. Animals, grain crops, fences, hay, veggies, fruits, roasting your coffee at home, making your own tofu, cooking everything from scratch, wrenching your tractor, replacing the belt on your mower, these all require time and skill (not to mention money). If you do not have the skill, you will have to acquire it the hard way, by spending days on a task while everything else is waiting and piling up. Let me give you an example - our 32 acre farm has woods, fields etc. We have a half-acre envelope around the house that I mow for now (the plan is to turn this into a flower garden. My mower’s deck belt broke. I went out and bought a new one, no problem. $40 later I discovered that when the belt broke (I hit a rock) the idler pulley arm was twisted. The local dealer did not have it in stock, three days to get it, arm + pulley = $40. In the meantime, the grass is growing and it is growing fast because this summer happened to be cool and it had been raining last week, a lot (these things always happen in pairs or triples, it’s like the mower belt knew about the rainy, cool weather and they conspired to drive me mad!). The parts finally arrive, I put them on and then I discover that somewhere I lost a spring that connects the brake pad arm to the movable idler pulley arm. There is a horrible grinding noise, mower still doesn’t work. I went for a walk on the property and by some dumb luck I find the spring where I was last mowing (how lucky is that?!). I come back but I do not understand where this spring is supposed to connect - see, I did not grow up fixing mowers and Youtube or Google are of no help. Strangely, now you realize there are millions of useless videos and articles about Justin Bieber but not a single one showing a repair job on a John Deere D110! I spend hours agonizing but finally I figure it out. On closer inspection now it looks like the brake pad is worn - quick trip to John Deere dealer and $21 later, I have the break pad arm. I put everything together after a few hours, start the mower, it runs and then the belt snaps! Dang it! This is the new $40 belt! Why did it snap, Google? People say if the belt had slipped a few times (and it did in all my efforts to make this darn thing work), it is as good as useless. Another trip to dealer, another $40 for a belt. In the process I realize that the plastic housing on the deck that covers one of the blade pulleys is broken… Well, you see where that’s going!
Mistake #7: Thinking that everything will go “right” on my farm because I am doing everything by the book. Another personal example - our land was someone’s corn and soy land. The crops were grown conventionally, with herbicides like Round-Up for years. Then we bought it and said “no more spraying”. We planted orchard and fescue grasses in the fields in the spring and 4 months later, the grass stands are starting to look great. However, one day we wake up and see a lot more in the fields - pigweeds, fall panicum grasses and foxtails. The former two are highly toxic to horses (horses are the primary reason we are growing these grasses, by the way - I am sure if we were growing something for the cows, we would end up with something toxic to them) and foxtails cause ulcers in horses’ mouths when eaten. Since we do not use chemicals, the solution is to wait until next year (it is too late this year to do anything since the panicum is already seeding, so is the foxtail). We mow this season and then next season we will take a first cutting of hay in June (if weather cooperates, of course) before fall panicum and pigweeds and foxtails come out and then we will mow, mow, mow for the remainder of the year, thus preventing the weeds and bad grasses from seeding. In essence, we may have to forego a second cutting for a year or two, in order to build a healthy grass stand. Now, two hundred years ago foregoing a cut would have meant no food for cattle or horses, period - as in watching them starve in the winter. These days it means I have to buy hay from my neighbor who sprays his fields, at the added expense that I did not count on. Not only am I foregoing income by skipping hay production, I am also losing money directly by having to make up the difference in feed! These things are common on a farm, by the way, in fact, you can almost count on things not going right and if they do, well, you will be pleasantly surprised!
Mistake #8: Getting animals immediately - this is a big one. A lot of people make this mistake - the first thing they do is load up on goats, chickens, pigs, cattle, guinea fowl, rabbits, you name it. All of these require safe shelter and fencing, feed and water. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the “get goats to get rid of weeds” mantra. No - RENT goats to get rid of weeds, GET them a few years later when you have done all the other stuff and now have time to properly focus on the goats and their needs. The best way to get exhausted on a farm and kill the dream is to get animals - they require your CONSTANT presence and care and they require solid infrastructure, from water to fencing to shelter. Most neighbors are not happy when your pig escapes and ends up in their cabbage patch and most people do not like the fact that they just ruined their truck by hitting your escaped goat (or dog). Finally, having animals means you will not be able to leave your farm for more than a day or two at a time, unless you have friends and family willing to take over the obligations or unless you can afford to hire someone to come by every day and feed and clean and water - it can get pretty expensive and requires that the hired person have expertise dealing with livestock and farm animals. This especially pertains to cows or goats that are milked daily, for example.
Mistake #9: Going off on multiple projects at once. Starting an orchard, starting a market garden farm, planting grain crops, keeping bees, so on and so on. All of these are serious, time and money consuming endeavors and are best done in sequence. For example, planting thirty trees for an orchard is no small job (this is what we did) but consider that you will also need to protect these trees from pests like deer. Now all of a sudden you will need augers, posts, fencing itself etc. If you have never done this sort of a job, there is definitely an art to building fences and you will be learning on the job (see my story above about the lawn mower). Grains usually require equipment such as tractors, disks, seeders etc. Besides the obvious expense of the equipment or its rental, if you have never owned a tractor, it is a whole new world to operate it (safely). Yes, it is a simple machine but there are so many accidents that end up in maiming or death on a tractor that you are well advised to take your time with these things. If you are on a budget, you are likely to buy an old machine (service will be an issue as well, can you turn a wrench on a 5,000 lbs diesel powered machine?) and safety will be too. In my case, I have never been near a tractor and I ended up buying an older Massey Ferguson that needed a ROPS (RollOver Protection Structure) to make it safer. Needless to say, a healthy dose of fear and respect are always necessary when operating this sort of machinery, especially if your land is hilly. Either way, the moral of this story is to start projects one by one and see them through to completion, at least to some measure of satisfactory completion where you are happy with the results in their current form and can always spend some time later on down the road on improvements. By the way, by now I hope you see the whole irony of an article in a magazine like Grit or Mother Earth News about a new Yanmar or Kubota tractor. Compared to my old Massey that cost $4,000, these new tractors are over $20,000. Think about what you need to be growing and for how long (and your profit margins) for a $20,000 machine to pay for itself!
Mistake #10: Not having a (financial) plan and acting on a “feeling”. I think this is the one almost everyone makes. Why? Because in order to make it farming on small acreage (as in make a living and pay the mortgage), these days you have to treat your farm as a business, which it really is. This is where “acting on feelings” is a bad thing - feelings usually get in the way of making rational decisions. For example, why not just start making money on the market veggie garden? That itself is a full time job. But instead someone says, “ooh, I wanted a cuddly little cow and calf”! Or, a different kind of “slavery to feeling” is that you MUST absolutely follow a philosophy. For example, people blindly believe in a particular way to grow food. Let’s say someone decides to mimic a 1820s farm - they will then refuse to use row covers because they are “artificial aids” and do not fit within the realm of going towards “balancing nature” or “doing things the way they were done”. This kind of blind adherence to dogma will quickly destroy your profit margins. What really is the solution here is deciding on a set of broad principles and working within them, with the understanding that it may take years, nay, decades to reach the goal of a balanced, natural farm. Heck, you may NEVER get there. If you are the emotional kind, you can console yourself that every year your property will be more balanced and that the pleasure is in the journey. Seriously, having a plan is a must. This plan (is a subject of a separate article and) must include what happens when and definite goals. For example, years 1-2 - start a market garden, build all the infrastructure for it, and at end of year 2 turn a small profit. I will need this for the garden (this = this many hoops, for example or a tiller or…), will grow that (that = carrots, lettuce etc.), in such and such configuration and so on. I will need to know what soil I have, if I need to plow it once, till it once, what will I use for organic supplements to the soil (manure from neighbor, leaves from woodlands, so on and so on). As you can see a market garden can be a full time job itself. Then after the 2nd or 3rd year you can start diversifying - bees don’t require much work, for example, they are pollinators and honey and wax are prized local products that can help you turn a profit. So on and so on, a successful farm is always the one with multiple streams of income. On a personal note - my wife and I once knew a young woman back in Florida who wanted desperately to go back to the land and homestead. She and her husband got a mortgage, loaded up on chickens, rabbits, she became a breeder of both, grew a garden and finally got pregnant. To keep all that going, she had to work a job in town, so did he. When we met her, she looked 10 years older than she was, worn out and tired, black circles under her eyes, animals all over the place, pig(s) escaping to neighbors’ properties, fences falling down etc. etc. Soon they were divorced, bitter and the farm went to hell, it got sold at a loss. I think this story is pretty common.
I hope that the above is enough to help you get started, at least from the point of view of what to avoid. It is based on my own experiences, observations and mistakes. I often say to people that these days in order to be a poor farmer you have to start rich. Land is expensive, restrictive regulation abounds, you are fighting all sorts of forgotten knowledge. Agenda and profit driven, intentionally spread misinformation abounds. There was an article on CNN the other day about the dangers of keeping backyard chickens because of salmonella. Really? Washing one’s hands is what solves that problem but it is not like there are no salmonella outbreaks in the modern, sterile, on-demand grocery store driven food system. But for some reason people will always consider the grocery store lettuce or eggs to be salmonella-proof, as if someone sits somewhere with an instant salmonella test and tests every head of said lettuce. Many of these assumptions are just based on lack of education of how things work - and this is really the core of the issue - knowledge is lost and worse yet, it is replaced with incomplete or bad knowledge rooted in myth and misinformation that is often initiated by someone who has something to gain from it and spread by ignorant people who do not recognize they are being used. Even though people are much more (formally) educated today- they invariably fall for these bad assumptions, news stories and bad information. It is that their college degrees are worthless? Is it just mere convenience to ignore the facts? Do they even consider or know the facts? Or is it a game of chances along the lines of “it will not happen to me” and hence a (college) educated guess?
Rare is the beast that enters the farming world intelligently, with a good plan, a good bank account and an overall good situation set up for success AND the ability to turn a wrench, grow food et cetera, a priori. For most successful survivors of the “going back to the land” migration, it used to be luck or a confluence of lucky events leading to the above realizations post fact. These days it is a bit easier to succeed (ironically) because people who have lived or are living through the challenges write books and make videos and chat online about everything. But beware, for quite a few of them growing a few veggies and fruits is just something to put behind the paid talks, seminars, books and educational videos - after all, if you will spread the word about farming, you better have a farm somewhere, no?