The Truth About Farmsteading
By Rhonda Crank
Among new or wannabe farmsteaders (or homesteaders), there is often a sense of romanticism. They begin their journey to a simpler, self-sufficient lifestyle and are quickly overwhelmed by what seems to be contradictions in the lifestyle. The idea of “living off the land,” being more in tune with nature, and enjoying the many benefits of a simpler lifestyle are what attract many people to the farming life. At the same time, the reality of having to put down a sick or injured animal, butchering time, and other everyday, difficult decisions facing homesteaders are too much for the inexperienced.
When people begin this journey with a romantic view, the reality can be very disappointing. There is a bittersweet mix to the realities and joys of our way of life. Although I am a romantic by nature, having been born and raised as a farm girl I knew the realities and am not disillusioned by them. They’re in balance for us and that makes all the difference.
What most people envision when they begin dreaming about homesteading: rolling green pastures with cattle and sheep grazing; ideal chicken coops and yards; chickens free-ranging; goats and hogs neatly behind their secure fences; beautiful clean barns; the nice white farmhouse with the picket fence and at least two dogs in the yard. If a farmer does manage to obtain this ideal, it is only after years of sacrifice, planning and countless hours of hard work, tears, sweat and yes, even blood. The truth is, most of us don’t achieve that and really, we don’t all want that.
If you’re like me, the reality of farm life is this: waking up before dawn, turning on the coffee pot, getting dressed and preparing to do chores.
It’s raining? It’s snowing? It’s storming? Deep sigh. It doesn’t matter, the animals have to be cared for. You have a cold, the flu, or just feel like sleeping in? Too bad, you still have the chores to do. Sick animals often have to be tended all night. Birthing season? Sleep becomes a rare commodity. The one thing you can count on every day is the unexpected: a fence gets broken; a piece of equipment goes down; a skunk shows up at the hen house; late night awakenings to deal with predators…on and on the list goes.
So why would anyone desire and dream of this life? The realities and the joys of it. Yes, they go hand in hand. Discouraged? Don’t be. The truth is that the farming life is often difficult, challenging, even exhausting, but this is also what makes up the joy, surprise and blessings of it.
Planting seeds, watching them break through the ground and do exactly what God designed them to do thousands of years ago is exhilarating. The pure joy that comes from watching and caring for your hen as she sets eggs and after 21 days seeing her excitement as they begin to hatch, just can’t be explained in words. The excitement, fear and anticipation that comes when your goat or cow is giving birth and she wants you right there with her. So you’re there to comfort her and help her as she gives birth to the next generation of your farm animals; only a farmer can understand this rush of emotions. There are beautiful sunsets; long walks around the property checking fences; a nice cup of coffee or a glass of wine on the back porch looking out over the fields or the woods; watching the wildlife move around the property—all these bring overwhelming feelings of satisfaction, well-being, and gratitude to fill my heart. These are the essence of farming.
The hardest days, for me, are butchering days. I’ve never gotten used to those days, and I hope I never do. Death on the farm, whether by butchering, culling, illness, accident or predator, is probably what most farmers would say is the hardest part of the life. But the reality of self-sufficiency is that something dies for you to put food on the table. It’s really no different for those who buy their meat at the store. Somewhere, somebody kills the animal that makes a steak, chicken breasts, a roast, bacon, or even a fish. It’s all part of the circle of life, you just don’t have to be a part of it. For us, being a part of it is one of the main reasons we are farmsteaders. For us, the knowledge of where the food that we’re putting on the table comes from, how it was grown, how it was handled and processed, what it was fed, and how it was treated cannot have a monetary value. As a farmer, we are always in the circle of life.
I wanted to offer some words of encouragement and tips to help you on your way:
1) Deal with and face the realities of farming. Know that there are good days and bad days, just as in any other walk of life. You will make good decisions and bad decisions, you just face them and deal with the choices you make.
2) Set your priorities and be realistic with them. Make a list of what you want to accomplish, setting it in order of priority, then work toward those goals. Start with something small, like chickens for instance, and build from there. If you don’t have a lot of experience gardening, start with a small garden. Get with a local farmer and spend time with them, help them work their gardens, maybe even for shares while you learn from them. Most of us are happy to help others learn and grow. Don’t undertake too much, that’s part of prioritizing.
3) Expect the unexpected. You have to be flexible. I start every day with a list of things that I would like to accomplish that day and every day something gets added unexpectedly, without fail. So you make adjustments. Be willing to change your plan, reprioritize, be flexible—now that’s a necessary trait for a farmer!
4) Don’t be afraid of failure. Even though I was born and raised on a farm, I still fail (shocker, huh)! We have to see failure as an opportunity to learn. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control. Maybe you simply didn’t know, or you took a shortcut that didn’t work, or tried something new. Failure is only the opportunity to grow in skill, experience and knowledge.
5) Don’t be afraid ask questions. When I was a little girl I asked a lot of questions. Someone in my family was trying to discourage me from this and my grandfather helped me to feel better. He said, “Rhonda Lynn (he always used my first and middle name), the only stupid question is a question that you already know the answer to.” He was right. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask questions. I still ask questions. Experience is the best teacher. No farmer ever gets to the place where they know it all, never. There are always things that can be done better, more efficiently; areas you want to enlarge that require different techniques; things you want to add to your life, or farm that bring the need to learn about another animal, plant, etc. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to unlearn the way you have been doing things. Often I find that I am unlearning something and remembering the way my grandparents taught me to do it.
6) Don’t worry about what other people expect or think. You and your family know the reasons why you’re farming, the things you want to accomplish, and what really matters to you. While seeking the advice of others is important, you cannot let their expectations and the things they do or say cause you to feel inadequate, stressed, or like your way isn’t worthwhile. We strive to live by something my grandfather always said, “There’s as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’s farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even it’s just to see what not to do.”
7) Above all else, you have to have a sense of humor. My grandmother always said, “It’s better to laugh than cry.” The older I get, the more I realize she is so right! Getting frustrated or upset in any given situation can only cause things to escalate. You have to learn to laugh at yourself, at your mistakes, and even laugh with others who are sometimes laughing at you.
When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, take a break—move around your place; remind yourself of your goals; your reasons for this lifestyle; and take a few focused, deep breaths. As you and your place grow, you can take on more and more, but little bites are easier to swallow than a mouthful.
No matter how much we read, we really only learn by doing, making mistakes and adjusting to them, so give yourself and your family a learning curve. Most importantly, remember to enjoy this way of life. It’s as rewarding as it is challenging. Your journey is just that, your journey.
I hope that your time spent with me on these pages has allowed you to find some encouragement; some freedom, and that you are now able to take a deep breath and embrace the realities and joys of the farming life. This lifestyle is so wonderful, so energizing, complex, and yes, often times exhausting, but worth it? Oh most definitely!
Reach Rhonda Crank at firstname.lastname@example.org, or read her
blog at www.thefarmerslamp.com.