Learning to Homestead, pt 1 - The New Food Supply Chain
Updated: Jan 16
Homesteading is increasing in popularity these days as more and more people make the decision to become self-sustaining in a world that feels unstable. Last year, my husband and I purchased 36 acres of land, with the intent to homestead. But, though our homestead is new, I’m no stranger to this way of life.
Growing up, all of our food was grown in a massive garden and I spent most of my days, climbing fruit trees, and eating food directly from the ground. We bartered with extended family members for milk, eggs, and meat. Each Fall the entire family was involved in hunting and processing meat. Each spring we foraged for mushrooms and wild berries and each Summer we spent the weekends fishing.Some of my earliest memories involve butchering game and livestock, canning and preserving food, baking bread, making butter, and all of the other chores it takes to make a homestead run.
Though I don’t think my grandparents would have considered themselves homesteaders, it’s certainly how we lived. I don’t remember much food from the grocery store. I remember food canned in jars, sides of meat hung in the downstairs makeshift butchering room, fresh-baked bread, and fruit straight from the trees.
Now, as an adult preparing to homestead I’m leaning heavily on those skills once learned as a child, do you think there’s any chance canning is like riding a bike?? Here’s hoping. In the meantime, I’ve been taking the time to hunt down my grandmother's old recipes and making it a point to learn and relearn the things my mother, and uncles know and still do today out of habit.
Today I’m sitting here with a house filled with seed starts that I carefully tend every day while I look out to the mountains with a hopeful eye. I know that my grandfather's first rule of gardening was “never put anything in the ground until the snow melts off of the LaPlata’s. But while I wait for the ground to thaw, and the picturesque snow to give way to spring, I’ve immersed myself in the processes of learning and relearning all of the skills I’ll need when the time comes and we move full-time onto our homestead.
However, as I began writing the outline for this, I realized that it was too much information for a single post, so I’m going to break it up into sections. This week we’re starting at the top, with everything you’ll need to know to keep your family fed and reduce your reliance on outside food sources.
The New Food Supply Chain
The first step in making a homestead is securing food for the family. Depending on your situation, your location, and your family this can mean different things, but these are the basics that every homesteader should know.
Learn to Garden
One of the most essential skills a homesteader can have is the knowledge of how to grow food. However, not every homestead will have acres of fertile land. Some homesteads will have lots of land with poor soil or limited water sources. Others will have limited space with little more than a backyard, or patio. But no matter the size, your water situation, or your soil quality, you can still grow your own food.
Small Space Solutions
If space is limited, one of the best options available is vertical gardening, and just like it sounds, it means growing up instead of out. You can make it as simple or complex as you like. I’ve seen gardens made from hanging shoe organizers and baskets or in stacked pallets. You can find a great list of ideas over at heatherednest.com. On a personal note, I would shy away from the shoe pocket garden and be careful what fertilizers you use. My roommate and I once tried it on a second-story apartment balcony. Long story short, we used manure to fill the pockets, and every time we watered it sh*t rained down on the tenants below. Suffice it to say we were no one's favorite neighbors that year!
Another great option for small space gardening is container gardening. There is a plethora of food that will grow perfectly well in containers placed on a back deck or patio. Over at slickgarden.com, you can find a great list of the 30 best vegetables to grow in buckets. The best part is container or bucket gardening is much less likely to get your downstairs neighbors covered in… fertilizer… Additionally, if your crops are in buckets or other containers you can easily move them indoors in the case of sudden cold snaps or freezes.
If you have the space for more traditional gardening, the first step will be to determine if the soil that exists in your available growing space will support a garden. The best way to do this is to test your existing soil. But, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be an expensive process. Check out our article on DIY ways to test your garden soil to get you started.
Poor Soil Quality Options
If, after testing your soil you find that the quality is poor, don’t despair, rule number one of homesteading is to learn to be flexible!
This is a simple though sometimes costly option if your soil is poor. You can build raised beds from pallet wood if cost is an issue, or you can buy ready-made raised beds at your local garden center. Once you have your raised beds, you will have to face the cost of buying enough soil and fertilizer to fill them.
Straw or Hay Bale Gardens
This is a more cost-effective route you can take. Straw can usually be bought cheaply at your local feed store and the process is genius! You simply loosen your hay or straw bail open a hole, fill it with some soil and fertilizer and place your plants in. The straw will decompose throughout the season giving vital nutrients to your plants and it retains moisture reducing your need for water. Another big bonus here is that weeds can’t grow through the straw so you can greatly reduce your garden labor with this technique. Over on sympathink.com, you can find a great guide to strawbale planting.
Pronounced Hoo-gul-culture, this is a form of gardening started in Germany and simply translated means hill culture or mound culture. Hugelkulturs are no-dig raised beds that hold moisture, build fertility, and maximize surface volume. Hugelkutur beds are created by layering decomposing wood, soil, and other organic matter to create an elevated mound that can not only hold but sustain your plants with very little extra care. They too require less weeding and watering. Permaculture Magazine has a great article to get you started.
Learn Seed Collection and Storage
You could of course buy new seeds every year from all those luscious seed catalogs that come each year. But, that is an unnecessary cost when each plant provides what you need to keep a garden going indefinitely. After a season or two, you should have a pretty good idea of what things your family finds the most useful in the garden. Once you know exactly what you will be planting year after year, select a few of the best specimens for seed collection and you can begin to produce your very own heirloom collection that could last your family for generations. To get you started, here is a great article from gardentherapy.com. I find one of the best ways to store seeds is by using repurposed prescription bottles, or by upcycling small glass jars.
Learn to Compost
One of the key principles of homesteading is learning to reduce waste. A big part of that is composting. From composting the waste created by chickens and livestock to composting the scraps from your kitchen, composting goes a long way towards turning what would otherwise be waste you have to remove into a valuable commodity and resource. You can find a great guide to getting started with composting over at ourinspiredroots.com. Once you have the hang of it, your garden with thank you. On a side note, if you live in an area with bears, be absolutely certain any composting indoors or out is safe and protected. The last thing you want to do is draw bears in close to your family with an improperly set up compost area, this includes the kitchen! A bear will not hesitate to gain access to your kitchen if your indoor compost setup is not well managed. As someone who’s had a bear try to come in the house before, this is NOT a thing you want.
Vermicomposting is a method of using worms to do your composting work for you. It’s simple to set up, and easy to maintain. Historically, I’ve set up a vermicomposting bin early each spring and let the worms do their thing for a few months before transferring the wiggly little garden kings into my beds to stay. But as we prepare to homestead, instead of just gardening, this year my worm set up will stay put and if needed I will transfer some of the worms out but keep enough for the colony to continue.
Learn to Forage
Outside of growing your own food, there is a whole buffet sitting in the wilds for anyone who knows how to look for it. For instance, did you know that every single part of the pine tree is edible? But, this is definitely a skill you will want to learn and learn well. Eating unknown plants can be dangerous at best and deadly at worst. Under no circumstances should you ever eat a wild plant that you are not 100% certain of. When starting out you’ll need a credible field guide for your region, but even then it’s best to find yourself a guide for your first few times out. Another thing to consider when foraging is this key principle, and I cannot stress this enough, NEVER decimate an area or even a single plant. Take only what you need, and always leave enough for the plant to continue its cycle of going to seed and regenerating each year. Failing to do this is how plants and animals become extinct. Be a better human and keep the circle of life going.
In any given area there are dozens if not hundreds of edible plants. Even if all you have is a tiny patch of grass to call a front yard, chances are there is edible food there. For instance, the humble dandelion. Many call her a weed, but this little flower can be used to make jellies, syrups, salads, teas, capers, and more. If there is water or a pond by your home, nearly every part of the cattail plant can be used. If you know where and how to look foraging can be a great addition to the homestead diet.
Along with learning to identify edible plants, you’ll want to take the time to educate yourself on medicinal plants. Long before the modern-day pharmacy came around our ancestors used a wide variety of plants native to their regions to treat everything from colds to stomach aches, cuts to rashes. Again, you’ll need to use caution, and take the time to learn every possible thing you can before attempting to administer self-made ‘cures’ to your family. And, just like with foraging for food it’s best to get an actual teacher. The good news is that oftentimes local groups will offer this type of hands-on training so always keep an eye out for it. I hope to set up and teach some foraging classes this Spring so if you are in the 4 Corners Region be sure to follow our social media, and sign up for our mailing list if you want to join me!
Learn to Raise Livestock
Another homesteading essential for food supply is the raising of livestock. Don’t get squeamish if the thought of butcher animals makes you uneasy. There are plenty of animals that will provide you with food without the need for butchering. You won’t truly learn the art of animal husbandry without some hands-on practice, but it is a good skill to get yourself as well versed in as possible before your animals arrive
Chickens, Ducks, and Other Birds
These are a great option if butchering an animal is a hard pass for you, chickens, ducks and other birds can supply you with an endless supply of eggs and can even be kept in a space as small as a backyard provided you choose the right breeds. However, if you are willing to eat them, you can select birds bred for meat or dual-purpose breeds that will give you both.
Goats are another great example of an animal that will provide for you without calling the butcher. Goat milk is nutritionally dense and great for making cheese and other dairy items that cow milk could be used for. The nice thing here is they take less space, and cost a little less to feed as well.
Sheep, Cows, Pigs, and Other Livestock
Many of these animals can be found on homesteads of varying sizes, but they will take more space and more money to raise. They will also require you to either get familiar with the art of butchering or pay to have them butchered. However, if you have the space and the knowledge they can be a great addition to your homestead cash flow by selling them off to market.
Learn to Butcher
As I’ve said above, this is not a skill for everyone. But the important thing to keep in mind is that this is the circle of life. And, you can save yourself a lot of money by learning to do it yourself. It is another one of those homesteading skills that you are not likely to learn without practical hands-on knowledge, but if you plan on raising livestock you should at very least get yourself prepared by having a full understanding of the process. There may very well come a time when taking an animal to the butcher shop is unfeasible and you’ll be faced with losing the meat or doing it yourself.
Learn to Fish
If there is a river or lake nearby, fishing is a wonderful way to provide extra meat and protein for your family while also creating diversity in your meals. Many local fishing and tackle shops offer classes as well as guided trips if fishing isn’t something you’ve done before. If you’re local to the Durango Colorado area, one of my favorite places to take a class is at Duranglers. I’ve spent my life fishing but last year we wanted to learn fly fishing, something I’ve never done before. They offered a free class that gave us everything we needed to get out on the river with confidence. Once you get the hang of fishing, it’s a relatively inexpensive pass time and who doesn’t love an excuse to spend the day at the lake?
Learn to Hunt
I know, I know. Hunting isn’t for everyone, but hear me out on this. First, if you have livestock on your property, you also have a dozen other things that have plans on eating them. At a bare minimum, you need to have enough skill with a firearm to make sure that doesn’t happen. On our homestead, our shotguns are loaded with ammo that increases by degrees. First is a salt shot, followed by birdshot, followed by buckshot, so I will never have to kill anything without due cause. Our property is set up in such a way that if I have to face a bear, lion, or coyote, I won’t be out in the open, so this is practical for us. I wouldn’t try it if your livestock pens require you to take an unprotected shot.
But, here’s the thing, if you can’t stand the thought of butchering one of your animals, I guarantee you can’t handle the bloody, brutal aftermath of one of these large predators getting one or all of your furred or feathered friends . It is your job to protect the creatures in your care. You may not want to spend the day hunting a deer, but if a bear or lion is hunting your livestock or worse your family it will take the exact same skills to keep them safe.
Firearm and Hunter Safety
If you’re not familiar with how to use a gun the very first thing I suggest you do is to find your local gun shop and take some safety lessons. Never, ever handle a firearm of any kind without proper training. Once you feel confident in your general safety knowledge, you will need to take a hunter safety course before you will be allowed to get a hunting license. And, yes, even if hunting on your own land, you will need a license. Hunting without a license even on your own land is considered poaching. Poaching is not only illegal, but unethical. Again, be a better human.
Perhaps you will never need this skill, and if you aren’t a fan of hunting, I hope you never do. But, if you live in an area with predators, spoiler alert, if you have livestock, you do, you should be trained to handle any situation.
This section is for those of you who do plan to hunt as a way of supplementing protein on your homestead. Wild game must be field dressed and partially processed in the field before being transported to a butcher or your homestead for further processing and packing. This is yet another skill that will take time to acquire, but the more you know, you know. If you live in an area where hunting is prevalent you should be able to find a course at the very least in field dressing game.
Cooking Wild Game
What no one tells you upfront, is that the wild turkey you just brought home is not the same animal you buy in the freezer section at Thanksgiving. There is an art to cooking with wild game. Wild animals are leaner, they have less fat and will often need additional fat added to improve both flavor and texture. Before you start the hunt, hunt down some wild game recipes from a trusted source.
Learn to Cook and Bake from Scratch
Along with the art of cooking wild game if you don’t already possess the skill, you're going to want to learn the basics of cooking and baking from scratch. Homesteading is a life of self-reliance and that can fall a little flat if you have to go to the store to buy a mix for every meal. This does not mean that you can’t grab a good old box of easy to have on hand when you’re just too damn tired (because trust me, some days you will be) but you should also know how to whip up a killer dinner from scratch using all those fresh veggies and ingredients from your homestead.
Food Storage & Preservation
Along with cooking and baking, it’s time to gain some of the old-world skills our grandparents and great-grandparents lived by. If you get your homestead garden to produce enough food to feed your family for a year, you better know how to preserve it for those long winter months.
This one is essential to be sure. Not only for fruits and vegetables but for meats, soups and stews, sauces, pickles, and even water. Fun fact, bottled water has a shelf life, but properly canned water does not. Canning is hands down one of the best ways to preserve foods and give them a stable shelf life. Not only that, if you make a large pot of homemade soup or stew and can it when you have one of those too tired to cook days, you won’t have to find a store to sell you an easy meal. Just go to the pantry and grab one.
One might think that freezing is a no-brainer. Put it in the freezer. But, with fresh fruits and vegetables, there is often more to it than that. Certain vegetables such as broccoli, leafy greens, string beans, okra, and asparagus require blanching before freezing. Fruits store best if you freeze them flat and well-spaced on a cookie sheet before bagging or packing.
Picking & Fermenting
These are both great ways to add both flavor and variety into the homesteading diet. There is nothing better than homemade pickles in my opinion and if you’ve grown way too many cucumbers it’s the best way to get them packed and preserved.
This one is great because you don’t have to have a fancy piece of equipment, a DYI smoker like this one from thistledownfarms.com will do, or a quick search on Pinterest will reveal dozens of affordable plans. Before refrigeration was available drying or smoking meat were the preferred methods of preservation. This is a great skill to have if you’re a fan of hunting, fishing, bacon, or meat in general.
Dehydrating or Freeze Drying
This is one of my favorites. From dehydrating wild mushrooms to use in soups all year to making fruit roll-ups or drying herbs and spices, knowing how to handle a dehydrator is key to food preservation. Should your family hunt, or raise animals for meat it's also a great tool for making jerky. Freeze-dryers are a more modern alternative. It's on the top of my list to have before the Fall harvest comes in this year, but they are pricey, and take up quite a bit of counter space. However, a freeze dryer can be used to process fruits, veggies, eggs, and even fully cooked meals. Think back to the last freeze-dried food pack you took camping. Yup, it does that! Talk about being able to create your own insta-meals. For me, it’s on the list of essential homesteading supplies.
Until Next Week
So, there you have it, the first part of our Learning to Homestead series. Check back next week for part 2, Putting the Home in Homestead where we’ll cover topics like sewing, candle making, and making household cleaners. What are the essential skills you’ve needed in your homesteading journey? Tell us all about them in the comments below! As usual, until next time,