I am relatively new to homesteading, and I know that it will take years of feeling everything out before we can move in an instinctive way. I read books and consult forums and all of it, but it just doesn’t replace living it. I *have* been doing this long enough to know that much. Oftentimes, I’ll read or hear advice that I know is faulty or under-lived, or I’ll find out later that it wasn’t sound after implementing it. The internet/larger culture is just so full of folks who present expertise where it hasn’t been earned.
Anyway, I have been thinking a lot about the lost heritage of homesteading/homemaking. I frequently come into a situation and I will feel a tangible gap in knowledge, and I’ll just have to roll up my sleeves and remember that even my elder homesteaders had to just engage and figure it out. Google didn’t save them. This year, I feel like I’m just on the ground, building the relationship. I’m not conquering anything, not squeezing out a particular yield or vision (although I do anticipate lots of good coming out of this place this year). I am still visioning, but lately I’m finding that keeps me in too theoretical a place. I realized that, for me, it can be a kind of indulgence. If what I really want is the design of a homestead that lives and works and serves the creatures in it well, then don’t I have to spend most of my time really in it, asking it real questions, touching it, finding out what it all needs? I don’t know, this seems obvious, but it’s been a meditation I need to come back to regularly.
One of the ways I’m working on this meditation is by intentionally doing less research and more hands-on creative problem solving. It’s a little more stressful in the moment (not reaching for the book or the internet), but I feel like it delivers better process, and I’m guessing better results, too. My memory of my own lived solution is always easier to access, and it’s been building my self-confidence in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I think it’s also increasing my flexibility, because I’m less focused on a plan and more open to reality, with all the gifts and limitations right in front of me. How many generations of humans before us had to just creatively engage with a wild world? How many had to learn to gracefully fail more than succeed, and find a way to carry on in spite of it? Did they even think about “getting results” in the same way as we do now? It’s another one of those subtle shifts in perspective that I think changes our collective story in a big way… how much has a consumerist and subjugating view of the world shaped our role within it?
Anyway, here’s the late-spring-hello-summer update. So much happened!
Our first broody duck hatched out 6 perfect little ducklings! We sent her and the babies and a drake to live at a friend’s farm, since we have too many males as it is. It was difficult to get very good pictures of them because she’s such an excellent mama, and she gathers them up behind her and hisses at us (Muscovy ducks kind of hiss instead of quack!). Right after we sent that little family off, the next clutch hatched, this time with 8 babies! We’ve got 2 more clutches to go! I’m not letting any more sit on eggs at this point. We will have far too many!
We have a high drake to hen ratio at the moment, and so I wanted to provide the new babies and mamas a nice safe space during the first few weeks. We were running behind, distracted by many other projects, when we noticed the first clutch had hatched. So, we threw together a quick coop using my favorite around-the-farm ingredients: cattle panel, hardware cloth and chicken wire, pallets, zip ties, tarp.
The second mama who had 8 ducklings? She decided to start her nest right by a door I have to go in to gather eggs. So every time I walked past her she would hiss and snap at my calves. It wasn’t too bad if I was wearing pants/boots, but it was always startling! I started taking a metal trash can lid with me as a buffer and she’d poke at it bravely. I love her wild protective energy, and I am trying to keep that in my perspective, even if she’s snapping at me while I’m feeding her. She’s being a good mother! And let’s face it, while I am her caretaker, I’m not exactly a safe bet long term…
And then there are the co-parenting ducks. They started their nests at opposite sides of the coop, and one slowly pushed her nest over to be next to the other’s. I’m pretty sure it’s just one consolidated nest at this point, but I can’t say for sure. They are snuggled up together every time I go in. They make me so curious! If they hatch out at the same time, I’ll try to keep them together.
I didn’t plan to get rabbits so early in the season. We are still trying to fine tune our other systems and get the garden going well. But Jeff (being the habitual checker of the Craigslist farm and free sections) found a deal on some rabbits and a hutch, and we just went for it. So now we are enjoying the softest little bunnies, and caring for them is a chore the kids both willingly do. I’ll share more about the system I’m building for them when the time comes. For now Jeff built a temporary hutch to house all of them, and they are an exciting addition to the farm. They’ll be raised for meat and fur, and possibly to sell as pets.
So far the rabbits seem very easy to care for and we enjoy them a bunch. But, speaking of that whole “learning as I go” thing? Well, I *maaaaay* have accidentally facilitated the impregnation of several females… we’ll find out! Basically, we got some “proven” males, some “proven” females, and then a young brother and sister pair that were housed together. The folks who sold them to us told us we’d have to separate them soon, since they’d be reaching maturity quickly. We didn’t think it’d be so quick, though! I think it was about a week after I’d gotten them, and one of the young ones had mounted the other. I lifted it out, checked underneath, and felt fairly certain that I saw some furry balls right there. So, I thought, “That was easy! I guess he’s the boy. I hope he didn’t just impregnate his sister!“. I placed him back in, lifted the other out and put her in with all the other females. Except I was wrong. A few minutes later I saw that the one I’d assumed was female was happily mating several of the females, and upon lifting him out of the cage I saw veritable proof of his manhood. So, I plopped him back into the old section, grabbed his sister out, and spent some time laughing at myself for assuming I could sex them so easily.
But see what I mean? I will likely never forget that experience!
The day after we got the rabbits, we drove to pick up our pigs (another craigslist find). We are raising them with our neighbors who have done it before, and we felt less intimidated teaming up on it for the first year. So far, they are the easiest thing on the farm. So fun, too! We are not breeding any just yet, just raising them to butcher for our two families, plus Milton and his family. They are a cross between two heritage breeds- one very very large (“Large Black Hog”) and one very small (American Guinea Hog). When we went to the farm to pick them up and got a look at the alleged parents, we cocked our heads to the side wondering about the mechanics of such a union. The farmer laughed and told us he had video to prove it! We are all curious about what the size of these piggies will be when it’s harvest time, but we are guessing it’ll be a happy medium.
Folks have surprisingly encouraged me to do the harvest myself, but this is another one of those situations where I wonder if people are living in a more cerebral/theoretical place than the one I’m inclined to inhabit these days. I definitely think we could do it, and I don’t doubt we will someday, but having dedicated hours and hours of my life to processing smaller animals, I really don’t feel equipped just yet. Plus, how cool is it that we can support a local butcher with a sure hand, all the necessary tools, and a very large fridge? These are not small details, and I’m okay with that for this year.
It’s not legal to feed pigs “slop” if you plan to sell the meat, but since we are raising them for ourselves, there isn’t an issue. It’s really maddening to me sometimes, though, how many of these farm rules get crafted because of the complications that are created through *large scale and industrial food systems*, which are basically just unsafe and gross without the regulations. On my scale, with my care, many of these rules shouldn’t apply and they can create barriers to our success as food producers. I might like to sell a few pigs in the future, but rather than cleverly reduce my costs by utilizing the same methods that homesteaders have used forever, I would have to give them nothing but grain feed produced elsewhere? Meh. For now, it’s feeling like the right move. We are enjoying them, they happily snort and run towards us when we approach with various treats, and they’ve well cleared the area they are living in, so we’ll likely expand it soon- but it’s getting me to think about the clever rotation of animals throughout a property to clear and till as needed. They are great.
I was very much “on time” with everything this year… that is until we had to reckon with the very healthy critter population in these woods. I tried to apply a “liquid fence” around everything I had planted, but I’m pretty sure they must’ve laughed at my attempt to dissuade them, probably during a casual midnight buffet. All my brassicas were mowed down to the ground, all my greens, and even some of my onions were nibbled! All planting was put on hold until we could manage a fence. We had some serious work to do before we could put in a fence, though, since all the brush from clearing the site was neatly lining the north side of the garden. There were also a few trees still to cut down (which would be harder once the fencing went up), and we had work to do in the “bowl”*- working on moving large logs to create the terracing I want in there. Thankfully we share a tractor with our friends, and it’s basically Jeff’s happy-place to spend hours working on that thing.
*I tried to get good pictures of the process- the crazy wall of brush, the crater in the middle that we call the “bowl”, etc. but it’s such a strange space to communicate through photos. I can try, but basically it’s this sloped upper area that creates most of the annual beds, and then the “bowl” is going to be all terraced and interplanted with annuals and perennials.
Once all the brush and trees were removed, we hand-graded around the perimeter, set the posts, and attached 6 ft chicken wire- enough for a good fence, and then a couple of feet on the ground making a “skirt” that we can bury to prevent critters from digging in. Phew! We still have to bury the skirt and finish it for deer, which I’ll post about later, but right now they don’t seem to be putting much pressure on the garden, which could have something to do with the fact that I’ve been encouraging the boys to pee around the perimeter (Flynn included). I did catch a groundhog slithering under it the other day, though, so priority levels just shifted around a bit. Jeff is amazing, and he so willingly worked day after day until we got it all in. He even sometime looked up at me and said (totally sincerely) “Thanks for always giving me a project, honey.” *Swoon*
Now I’m planting up a storm- almost done with the summer crops, and although I won’t get an early harvest, I’ll have plenty of food. It’s taking shape quickly now. Vegetable-wise, I’ve got these growing: potatoes, bunching onions, parsnips, lettuce, mustards, artichoke, cardoon, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, rutabaga, salad turnips, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, celeriac, amaranth, green beans, lettuces, kale. This coming weekend I’m planting all my squash (both winter and summer as well as gourds), flowers, cucumber and melons, beets and carrots and radishes, basil, another round of greens, black beans, and sweet potatoes. I wonder if my squash will suffer going in so late, but I figure even if it’s immature come frost, I can prep and freeze it all rather than root cellar it. Flexible, see?
I’m really digging how my perennials are taking shape and filling in all around my house. I am developing more of an affinity for less annual toil, more foraging, wildcrafting, perennial + animal systems. I have so many strawberries, and we just planted the patch last year! We have given away bowls of them, made and gifted strawberry rhubarb sauce, stored several jars of jam, and dried a whole bunch. Plus, I realized that one of my very favorite desserts is a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with strawberry rhubarb goodness. Bliss! There’s much more to come- I’ve planted lots of shrubs and herbaceous perennials, and we are going to turn our attention to trees this fall and coming spring. Those will take years to yield us any food, but it is the way I want to go.
Anyway, that’s a pretty solid peek at what’s happening, farm-wise (although community life has been equally eventful- but that’s for another time). As always, I’d love to do smaller and more frequent posts. But, as you can probably see, there’s a lot to fit into the design of our days, and not having the internet in the calm of the evening is both refreshing and an obstacle in terms of my relationship with this medium. I’m giving it more time, and if something more regular can fit in, it’ll find a way. In the meantime, I’m grateful to still be here.
“I began to see, however dimly, that one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here….” (Wendell Berry)