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Sherri Lynn
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Location: Piedmont, NC
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So I am looking for a permaculture homesteading diary to read, laid out by season, of how someone is currently "making it" in a sustainable fashion on their own land.  It would be even better if there were more examples, and if the land happens to be somewhere around North Carolina.

We have been working on our homestead over the last six years on almost 13 acres.  We are debt free, have built a barn, calf barn, finished a house, deck and porch, tractor shed, photovoltaic system, and have tried to build up soil in the growing areas.  Our trees are planted (fruit and nut), we have blackberries, blueberries and raspberries in place.  I guess you know what we have been giving each other for birthdays and Christmas.  As a matter of fact, for one birthday, I got a pond which we have stocked with fish (best birthday ever).  We have done all this with both my husband and myself working and doing it ourselves in our spare time.  I am getting ready to take the leap to homesteading full time, but would like to see us get financially viable (some income coming in from the farm).  We have a large fenced in pasture with two mature black angus steer (the first one has an appointment at the packing plant on December 26th) and 4 brown swiss calves that we raised from bottles.  Also we have a chicken coop and ten free range chickens for eggs.  We are still half on the electric grid, have not put in the wood stove yet, haven't found a substitute for our cooking stove yet, or washing machine, and our clothesline has to be put up yet.  Our goal is an off-grid, self-sustaining homestead that will net us some extra money (to pay for such things as property taxes, supplies, and salt).  We have been blogging our journey on http://www.powellacres.com ;

Does anyone know of such a how to book so we can follow someone else to make sure we get financially viable?  I think trying to market is the scariest part for us, as we have been working on our diy skills our whole lives.  Additionally having a plan on when to start the seeds for which season (we built a greenhouse from bending chain link fence rails).  We still hope to build a rocket mass heater in the greenhouse for the colder nights.  Homesteading chores laid out by season (including when and where to market) is what I am looking for.  "How to be a Successful Homesteader with no Outside Employment" would be a great title.
 
Travis Johnson
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I am working on it!

I could not find a book on the subject either so after a little thought, I realized in a lot of ways my wife and I were perfect for writing a book on taking a farm to the next stage. I have a long way to go on it, but last week I had a chance to be the keynote speaker at a dinner with the Maine Department of Agriculture where I got to describe my families long history (1746 to today...10 generations), and summed it up this way, we are still farming, still struggling...but still farming.

We made the plunge to full time farming officially on May 27th 2016 and could not be happier. It can be stressful, I just learned today that a load of wood destined to go to market won't be trucked until Monday (it is Thursday) meaning another week with no money...at Christmas Season. But we have learned to make due, to get used to poor cash flow, and change habits.

Of late, I feel guilty that I cannot give my 4 daughters more for Christmas, but deep down I know materially things do not matter. They have their mother and I in their lives everyday, and at ages 3, 9,10, and 11...those are precious years.

I guess the biggest surprises for us have been breakdowns. In my sheer stupidity I had never calculated in what would happen when I took equipment that operated on an occasional basis,and put it to full-time use. A lot of it was when I worked full-time at the shipyard, I just had no time to really fix stuff, so I cobbled it together just to get by. Now part of the issue is those short term fixes caught up with me, and part of it is, I have the time to fix it right. Between the two a lot of things have broken, but are being fixed properly.

The lack of cash flow is the next area of surprise, we have adapted, and since I keep meticulous financial records (its my form of diary), I can see where we have really changed our spending habits. You literally can see it on the charts where the personal expenses of life instantly swapped over to the farm side of life, and with it the decisions that must be made. It is frustrating to go to a bank for what I know would be a money-making venture, only to have to try and quantify it with numbers drawn from research. I am a farmer, I don't have time to do a SWAT Analysis on what competition would be on a custom saw-milling business. A year ago I could have walked in, signed a paper and bought a new sawmill on the spot because we are debt-free, have good credit, and had a lucrative job. Bankers can understand that aspect, but take away the lucrative job with a paycheck every week and they get nervous. I understand that, but dislike it when they say, "well the average family has average household expenses of...". Well that is fine, but we are sheep farmers, we have learned to take our biggest expenses and figured out ways to reduce them.

But if you are looking for a magic farm formula, as harsh as this advice might sound, it is to realize that the formula is knowing there is no formula. No matter what books have been written, or how many you have read, they are based on those peoples farms and even if followed exactly, success is not guaranteed...nor likely...because of individual farm traits. You really have to match the output to the farm.

My suggestion is to make a matrix, just a list of all the types of things you are interested in and all the things that are required to make a farm work. For instance, in my case I would love to grow broccoli commercially. Now we have the soil for it, the climate, and topography, but because we lacked equipment, storage facilities, etc, it was not an ideal fit. What actually fit the best was sheep because of our numerous pastures, cool climate, competition, etc. We did not chose sheep because they are cute and wooly, no they fit the farm perfectly. Yet if my neighbor was to try and replicate what we are doing here, he would fail. So I would lay out an exhaustive matrix, list everything you can think of, then really think about it as you fill it out, Take your time, you are essentially making a farm plan.

My farm plan...people laughed, but it took 9 months to complete, BUT every time I have deviated from that plan, bad things happen and things go awry. But when I stick with the plan, and the goals I set back in 2008 when I took over this farm (part-time from 2008-2016 when we went full-time), things have progressed smoothly. yes it took 9 months, but it has been 8 years of reasonable success...and yes going full-time dovetailed nicely into the time frame I had intended on the farm plan.

 
Sherri Lynn
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Location: Piedmont, NC
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Thanks.  I actually started a farm diary today that I hope will someday turn into a handbook for other small diversified family farms in North Carolina, or even just a handbook that I can use myself year after year.  We are hoping to actually start making some money as a farm next year if we can figure out what the marketing will have to be for our location.  I'm sure it will come in the form of selling cows.  We were planning to sell one this year before the bottom dropped out of the prices.

I can't wait to read yours!
 
Travis Johnson
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I was always told that you should pick three things to market and focus on, and I agree with that. What I often see happening is homesteaders getting bogged down with a variety of stuff...so much that it drains their energy.

For my farm it is:
Sheep
Logging
Rental

The general concept is, if one market collapses (as the logging market has here), the other two will keep the cash flow coming in. It might even happen to two markets, but the statistical probability of them happening to all three is pretty low.

While having more than 3 markets sounds better, it is actually draining if the tasks involved are not similar. What I mean is, feeding goats and sheep are not that different, you are on the tractor anyway so just grabbing a few more bales for the goats along with the sheep, is not going to be much of a time-suck, but trying to market five acres of potatoes would be another matter entirely. It has its own set of issues that must be addressed daily.

If your three main things were: Sheep/Goats Potatoes it would be one thing, but Sheep/Blacksmithing/Potatoes/Logging would probably be too much. It is four unlike things and just tough to do all of them well. I know just trying to keep up with all the sheep industry stuff is daunting, much less with aspects of forestry and renting out our other houses.

I guess what I am just saying is; limit it to three and do those three things really well.
 
Sherri Lynn
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Location: Piedmont, NC
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For my long term plan, we have three things (maybe a fourth), rental, produce, meat.  The possible fourth thing is children's summer programs.  The rental is space for weddings and an apartment over the barn we are finishing up.  For the produce end, we have been busy adding soil fertility and have built a small produce stand, and for the meat, we have fenced the main pasture and built a calf barn, but still have some work to do for rotational grazing, as well as increasing our diversity with pigs. We had our first wedding this year and checked out the setup with my youngest daughter's wedding (a Lord of the Rings theme).  If you go to our website below and view the tab "One Wedding to Rule them all", there is a link at the bottom of the page to the wedding pictures.
 
Anne Miller
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I have read a lot of books on Homesteading but can't say that I have seen one based on seasons or on North Carolina.  Since this sounds like a great idea, you should write one!  The best or the books I like best were written by Janet Chadwick.  I especially liked her recipes as they all turned out great.  I hate finding a good sounding recipe that doesn't please my family or me.  "How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty by Janet Chadwick" was probably the one I read but she also wrote "The Beginner's Guide to Preserving Food at Home" and "The Busy Person's Guide to Preserving Food"
 
Sherri Lynn
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Thanks.  I too love the first book by Janet Chadwick.  This is one of the many on my shelf.  I think I have the preserving food down.  I am sure I can do more, but I definitely have the basics.  I want to get better at root cellaring though. as there is less work, less lids to buy, etc.  I certainly like anything that provides greater efficiency (one of the many reasons I love permaculture).  I have started a one year diary that may eventually turn into a book.  I was hoping to read one from someone who had made it over the setup hump and into making their farm pay for itself, as well as provide a living for its owners.  I hope we will eventually get there and be able to include that. . .
 
Travis Johnson
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Personally I think you are in better shape then you think you are. I would never encourage someone to jump into a lake if they cannot swim, but I wonder if maybe you don't lack confidence? That is a question, not anything judgemental. I know it can be so hard to jump into something you love while letting go of a lifestyle you have always lived (income from an off-farm job). It was hard for us, but we are getting by!

I have run my skimmer a lot about different aspects of being a full-time farmer, but it really sounds like you have a pretty good take on what you have and how to make the most of it. I am REALLY impressed with that, and I think it can go a long way to realizing your goal of staying at home and farming. I am not even sure you are aware of how so many people just assume that they can grow food and sell it at Farmers Markets when the reality is, the farmers markets are not taking any more farmers due to increased competition, and that with so many of them around, they have saturated the market. To hear you have established your own markets, know what they are, and just need to fortify them to full-farm status sounds to me like you are nearly there. I wish I knew you better, knew your farm better so that I could encourage you more, but again I don't want to push someone into doing something that is off on timing, or flattering in words but lacks substance. That would be morally wrong...but on the right track, yes I believe you are closer than you think.

Over the years I have gotten a lot of help from two government agencies; the US Dept of Ag and the Small Business Administration. People often forget a farm is a business and as such you can tap into both sources for help. I am not talking financing here either per se, both will help in long-term planning of farms and were instrumental in me buying my farm. (I am a 10th generational farmer, but my wife and I bought our farm from my parents, it was not inherited like I am sure many assume). Just the business counselor alone was worth a lot, as she gave me tools to plan and I still use them today to plug in numbers and see what the return on investment would be.

One thing I thought of, and I think of the thread a lot, honestly trying to help you the best way that I can so you can realize your dreams...is the importance of filling out a Schedule F form for taxes. EVERYONE asks for that. It proves you are farming for a profit (even if you are part-time) and gives your production history. My Grandfather always tried to fly under the radar and it got him into trouble more than it helped. I said I would not farm that way, and it has helped. It is more of a hassle then I thought it would be, but has enabled me to get a lot of grants and low interest loans that I just would not have gotten otherwise. That advances the farm and has put me where I am today for sure.

Not that everything has been perfect. I tell the good with the bad, and in 2011 I was devastated by bloat that killed 30 of my best breeding stock ewes in one night! I was also going through a divorce at the time and really was having a tough go. As I told this story at that Soil and Water Conservation District Meeting last week, I said, "but if you are waiting for the great come back story...come back next year because it has never materialized, but we are following the plan and have confidence that soon we will be in a better spot." And I believe that. We are building barns, converting more forest into fields, leasing more land and hope to have more sheep here soon.
 
Sherri Lynn
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Location: Piedmont, NC
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Travis:

Thanks so much for the advice.  I am certain you are dead on about the confidence factor.   I do realize that we have come a long way, even more so as I have participated in this discussion and re-read what I have written to both me and my husband.  As I am reading, we keep saying to each other, "We HAVE come a long way."  Sometimes just saying it out loud really helps.

I wish you the best of luck with your sheep.  I know I was in a depression when we lost one calf, as it really woke us up and we have made changes in response (which we hope are for the better.)
 
Travis Johnson
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Oh thank you, I was so fearful that I read between the lines wrong and would offend you in my statement. I understand confidence. I wish we lived closer as we would have you over for supper and just talk. I could talk about farming a lot! It is one of the things I miss. Don't get me wrong, I love my wife and cherish her thoughts and our conversations dearly, but that daily interaction with others who are not related, or are 3, 9,10, and 11!

Every year we go through our records and look back at what our biggest costs were, what caused the most mortality, and make corrections to change it. Little by little we are reducing our mortality rate and becoming more efficient. That is why I am a huge fan of record keeping. Yes I am a numbers guy, but by being one we are slowly managing it for the better. We have a long ways to go, especially in genetics. We are not even close to that yet, needing every lamb produced to make a profit instead of culling for genetic traits. BUT I have the records so when we reach that point, we can make sound decisions.

As for looking back, I do that too. When I look at all the accomplishments I wanted to do, then realize a lot of them have materialized, I am surprised at myself, and motivated. Its just day to day its a slow grind, but looking back so much has been accomplished.

BTW: What really made me make the leap from a lucrative job at a shipyard building US Navy Ships to full-time farming was a friend of mine. He hated it at the shipyard too, and we would talk for hours about full-time farming. He even borrowed my sawmill for awhile. His wife was friends with my wife, and his kids were the same age as my kids. Then he went to a farm dealership to look at tractors, came home, was having supper...and dropped dead of a heart attack. Age 29. I am not sure when a good time to die is, but I am pretty sure 29 is NOT it. I won't call it a mid-life crisis (I am 42), but it was time to stop talking and act.

"Paralysis by analysis", I call it, and while people are well meaning, sometimes dreaming of the perfect arrangement is worse then living out a less than-ideal situation.

As I said, its been a tough Christmas, and while I have a very valuable load of wood ready to truck to the sawmill, I won't get paid until next Friday (6 days from now). I thought about taking back a Christmas gift I bought for my wife, but something interesting happened. A non-profit camp I volunteer for, needs four truck loads of firewood (40 cord), and because their fiscal year ends soon, they need to cut a check by Wednesday. I don't have to deliver the wood by then, just have an invoice to them by Wednesday. So in the end I fret and worry, but at the last minute we are taken care of.

All is well. All will be well...I just have to remember that.
 
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