The evolution of a homestead
Where to even begin…
My husband and I bought our house and the one acre it sits on almost 9 years ago. We knew we wanted a little space to grow a garden, and room for the two dogs to run, but that was all that we had plans for. The previous owners had been running a dog rescue here, which we were blissfully unaware of until we actually moved in and ripped up the carpet and discovered urine stained concrete and scratch marks on all of the doors. It was a mess, and quite a project for a couple of inexperienced newlyweds.
We conquered the floors first, with help from my dad, who is a general contractor. Learning to install tile, something that neither of us had done before, gave us the confidence boost to tackle more projects. Although we soon learned that confidence and skill are two very different things.
After we were done with the inside of the house, we got busy tearing down some old dog kennels outside and used the posts to create 4 rectangular garden beds. We planted tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers that first summer and I was hooked. After that growing season was over, I wanted more. So we gathered up a few more posts that we had lying around and reconfigured the garden to bring the total to 6 beds. Satisfied with the amount of growing space that we had created, the following year we hauled in gravel to fill around the beds and made the garden a lot more permanent. My husband made sure to remind me several times that once the gravel was down, there was no going back. I assured him that I was confident this would be enough space. The year after that we welcomed our son during the first week of summer. It was HOT. I spent the day before he was born spreading gravel in the garden to make it more beautiful. I was all in and I loved it.
When my son was an infant, I’d put him in his stroller and wheel him out to the garden where I’d weed and plant and water. He’d sit there cooing and playing with his toes while I tended to the plants.
The summer after that, when our little boy turned 1, we decided our little acre needed a few chickens. We were buying so many eggs and figured we had lots of space, so why not? We (my husband) got to work building a chicken coop off of the fence to the garden. We started with ten hens, but before they could even lay their first eggs, we had an “incident” with a stray dog that we naively let into our backyard. We were back to square one. Worse actually, because we had this newly constructed chicken coop that was empty. Luckily, a generous friend of mine split her small flock with us. She gave us 5 hens and it seemed like it took forever for them to lay their first eggs. And once they finally did, we’d decided they were the best eggs we’d ever tasted. So we got a few more hens and figured we were done with the ‘expansion’ phase. Boy were we wrong!
When he was a little over a year old, we discovered that our son had a cows milk allergy. We weren’t shocked, as I had the same type of allergy as a kid. I switched him to goats milk and it made all the difference. But it was hard to find at the store consistently. And it was expensive. Can you see where this is going?
So less than a year after getting chickens, and on our 4th wedding anniversary, I bought two goats. Two because goats are like potato chips, you can’t have just one. We were wildly unprepared. Our spacious acre started feeling a lot smaller. The goats had eaten everything we’d planted (one ended up being named Jasmine because she ate, well, all of my Jasmine). We knew nothing about goats other than their milk worked for our son. I had determination on my side, but that was about it.
Obviously in order for goats to produce milk, they have to have babies. And in order for them to have babies, we had to host a billy goat on our property. If the acre was starting to feel small before, it felt teeny tiny once that nasty, smelly beast arrived. But he did his job and left, and then 5 months later we had our first goat kids! Luckily for us, everything with the birth went smoothly. But now the real work began. I had to learn how to milk a goat! Not only was I faced with learning this huge new job, but I was also really struggling with rheumatoid arthritis and was seriously questioning my ability to actually do this. My hands were constantly in pain more days than not. But I just couldn’t admit to my husband that after getting these goats, having that beast of a billy goat stinking up the place, and having babies, that I didn’t think I could do it. So I kept my mouth shut and asked everyone I could think of how to learn to milk a goat. I mentioned to my grandma one day what I was up against, and she very seriously stuck her fists out in front of her and demonstrated how to do it. Apparently, her and my grandpa had driven over 300 miles into the next state when my uncle was a young boy so they could purchase goats so that he could have fresh goat milk! Not only was it incredibly helpful of her to show me how to work my hands in order to milk, but I was starting to understand where I might’ve got my wild hair spirit! I was suddenly feeling more confident and more energized. If my grandma could do it, I believed I could too. Plus I felt some sort of deeper connection to my grandma after finding out we had this in common, especially the part about doing it in order to provide for our sons.
Thankfully, I got the rheumatoid arthritis under control by modifying my diet. I was feeling better and eager to start this new chapter, home dairy! The first few times I milked were… wild. But soon both the goat and I became comfortable. It got easier with time. There was only one problem. The milk was terrible! It was horribly goaty. (I know what you’re thinking.. it’s goat milk, of course its going to be goaty). Fortunately, since we’d been purchasing goat milk from a local dairy, we knew that tasting goaty was not the norm. I say fortunately because this meant we had room for improvement. The problem was, there’s not a whole lot of people that I know personally that could help me troubleshoot this problem. We were feeling like such failures. All this work, time, money, and this is what we end up with? Milk that makes us want to gag? So we read books, looked at blogs, and asked the limited number of people we knew who actually had goats if they had any advice. We tried lots of things, but it wasn’t until months later that we decided to stop feeding hay in favor of alfalfa pellets that we finally noticed a difference. We were thrilled. At last, milk that we could actually enjoy. It was starting to feel like it was worth it.
After the nasty milk saga, I tried my hand at cheese making. Lots of trial and error, and lots of cheese that ended up being fed to the chickens! Luckily, chickens will eat anything. In fact, I highly recommend that if you’re just learning how to cook, get yourself a small flock of chickens for those dinners that just don’t turn out as you planned! You’ll feel a lot less guilty about that burnt casserole if you can feed it to the chickens rather than toss it in the trash!
I finally decided it was time to slow down on learning new skills for the time being. It had been a very busy few years acquiring all these new animals, learning to care for them, and learning to use the food that they produced for us. And then of course the part about adding a human to the mix during all of this!
I look back now and think we were crazy. That’s the only explanation. We had so many things go wrong. So many mishaps and mistakes. And yet we pressed on, because even after all the bad, we still found tremendous value in doing all of these things. They’re not easy. They’re not clean. They’re certainly not ‘normal’, whatever that means. But they’re worth it. Not only did we learn simple things like animal husbandry and cheese making, but we are teaching our son the value of hard work. That life doesn’t revolve around him. That sometimes, when mistakes are made, lives can be lost. But also, that will a little hard work, we can reap so many rewards. My passion for living this lifestyle only got stronger through all of the growing pains. Yes, I think we probably took on too much too quickly. But the excitement and conviction overtook the rationale, and truthfully, I’m glad it worked out the way that it did.
This lifestyle took a whole new meaning over the past year. Suddenly, all of these odd ‘hobbies’ that we had began to be quite valuable. We don’t seek outside validation for the way that we live, but I won’t lie; it felt good when friends and relatives asked us for advice, or at the very least, didn’t think we were just some crazy hippies with nothing better to do than grow some of our food. It is nice to be needed, and this past year we’ve been able to share eggs with numerous friends, give milk to neighbors who couldn’t find any at the market, and trade vegetables with relatives. I’ve also shared my sourdough starter with several friends and relatives this year, which means there’s a few more families out there who are taking the first steps on this journey and baking their own bread. I already knew there was a tremendous amount of value in living this life. But it brings me so much happiness to see others starting to embrace it as well.
Homesteading has brought so much joy to my life. It’s hard work. It’s very messy. There are so many ups and downs. But it’s happy work. It’s worthwhile work. When I have my son out there helping me with the morning chores and I see how proud he is of himself for collecting the eggs, or leading the goat up to the milk barn, or fixing a picket that’s fallen out of line on the fence, I get this feeling that I can’t describe. It’s more than eggs and milk. It’s this work ethic he is learning, this resiliency, this belief that we can learn to do anything that we set our minds to. It is a simple life for sure, but not a simplistic one. And a life that I am so thankful for.