Making the decision to live off the land, become self-sufficient, get off the grid, or simply live a little bit better is monumental in the lives of those who do it and there seems to be a typical rhythm to how we all go about doing it.
From the first moment our brains start formulating the affinity for raising chickens or growing veggies in the backyard, we're locked in, and the following years end up changing everything we do and the very way we think, act, and carry ourselves. I think we can easily sum it all up into a few stages, which I call the stages of a homesteader.
This one never really goes away. But in those beginning months and years, the typical homesteader will invest time and money into books, magazines, websites, and any other information they can find all in hopes of learning more and more. Usually, the aim is to learn "how to live" on a homestead. We search for magical advice and wisdom that will change us and make the transition easier and easier. Most of us can spout off more advice about homesteading than we have ever actually practiced in our lives, and rarely do we realize how often our own knowledge conflicts with itself. Take snake bites, for example. Remember that point when you identified all of the venomous snakes in your area? And then you researched how to take care of the bite and what to do to get rid of the snakes (turns out there's no getting rid of them). The first bit of advice was, "Suck the venom out with your mouth." and you memorized that. A year or two later that new edition of your favorite homesteading book said, "DO NOT suck the venom out with your mouth!" and you had to make that adjustment, update that bit of your personal knowledge base.
Eventually, you realized that all of the books and websites had the same basic information, and you slowed down on buying so many of them. You learned that gardening truly is planting seeds in the dirt and applying some water when there isn't enough rain. You learned not to visit those poultry forums too often because it was a den of worry about every moment of a chicken's life being the possible end. Lots of disease and death were the only thing people seemed to talk about when you asked, "What's wrong with my chicken?" only to realize it was a hurt leg from jumping off a high perch.
There are countless forums we all get started in, but after some time we fade out and away from them because they truly are places for beginners, which is great, but after awhile you start to learn with real world experience. This is because you've more than likely started to implement your homesteading lifestyle which brings us to the next stage.
Now that we're armed with a never-ending amount of information, we start to actually do things. Usually, this means getting our first chickens, starting that first really big garden, and possibly buying some land upon which to do it all.
There are things that all of us experience during this stage, one of which is the first dead bird. It's heartbreaking, and we toil over how to handle it. "Should we bury it? Throw it into the burn pile? Cook it?"
It's tough but it happens again ... and again ... and eventually it's nothing to sweat about anymore. We aren't so hung up on emoting and lamenting the death. This makes us feel resilient and strong. We've probably already had our interactions with hidden snakes in the garden, scorpions under rocks or lumber, and maybe even that one fire that spread a little faster than we had planned. All in all, we're doing OK, and we're getting the hang of things.
This is also when we make some of our worst decisions. It turns out that we probably didn't need to spend $3,000 on a riding lawn mower or $500 on decorations for a chicken coop. We learn that laziness truly does have consequences, as we've seen when we thought the garden could wait a few more days "when we had the time and energy," but the animals beat us to it, giving us little bounty at harvest and costing us more to grow than it was worth. These are all just lessons, though, and we learn from them and move on.
I believe this is probably the worst stage for everyone else even though, at the time, it's the best thing ever for us while we're experiencing it.
This is when we share with the world everything about homesteading, as if we've discovered a new way of life that has truly never been thought of before by human beings. We take photographs of plants, chickens, trees, you name it. We post them on the Internet, and we seek out others doing the same so we can comment upon their achievements, spout off with some sort of unique advice we picked up from a new book (it's been a few years since we bought one of those!). Everything is precious to us. That's my point. And we want everyone to feel the same way.
This stage can last a long time because it's like the peak of your homesteading knowledge and passion culminating into a fine wine. You're getting better at things, more confident, and you can even tell that you're blending in with the local farmers or ranchers in conversation. No more feeling awkward with real country folk!
I found that this stage was obnoxious for everyone around me who wasn't going through it at the same time. I couldn't understand why family and friends weren't interested in the 700 photographs I had of one chicken, or of "this really great organic, heirloom, eco-friendly, green-certified, etc." tomato seed package with old-time lettering on it, or of the many examples of other homesteaders who made me jealous. "Look at this! Only five acres, and they have all of this stuff! Why don't I have that yet?"
Over time it dies down and you prattle less and less. You become more proud and silent than your previous "loud with braggadocio."
4. Smooth and Fluid
It's been several years, and now things have taken a different turn. You don't realize it so much anymore because you don't pay attention to things that don't matter. But it turns out that you are now a picture-perfect replica of the exact kind of person you wanted to be. You are a homesteader! You wear the ugliest boots and overalls outside to tend to the chickens, and you don't notice anymore that their coop is just a basic necessity of design. No longer do you go out and put silly decorations on the doors or decorative stones on the ground. You go feed them in the morning and gather eggs once a day. You don't mind the poop on the shells, and you don't care that they've been sitting in the nesting box for a day or two already. You'll still cook them and eat them after you kick off your muddy boots. The garden looks a little messy, but that's only because you've stopped spending so much time trying to make it look like a golf course or computer program.
This is the time when you truly are in harmony with your little piece of paradise. You don't realize it, but now, when people drive by, they talk about how they want to live like you, "that homesteader right there with the really cool house and property." You have become the very thing you looked up to years earlier.
The books and magazines sit on your bookshelf because you don't need them anymore. The over-priced tools from the local farm store or the big-city super-center have been retired and replaced with things that actually work, typically made from leftover pieces of whatever was lying around at the time. In short, you've made it work for your personal needs. No more of that overkill that you used to think possible. Now it's all functional, purposeful.
5. Renewed Interest
Once you've found your rhythm and become used to your new way of life, you will find that you stick to it. There's no need to bother changing things if they're working. But there's a point we reach – maybe when we pick up one of those old books and see a great idea we never thought we could have pulled off in the past, or maybe it's during a conversation with someone when you find out that you could have been raising goats all along, and maybe it's one day when you drive by a farm and realize the fence of your dreams can be built that very same day, out of materials you had all along – and at this point, for whatever reason, we gain renewed interest in our homesteading lifestyle, and we venture into new territory and discover many things that increase the yield of our experience and our years.
It's during this stage when we are likely to decide to raise a larger animal. We might graduate from chickens to rabbits, or even goats or cattle. By this time we've learned that chickens don't need much help living and can get by on their own pretty easily. So we're not as scared about the new, bigger, smarter livestock we intend to raise.
We might notice every so often that our bones and muscles don't ache as quickly and easily as they used to. We can spend a solid few hours in the garden with a hoe and be fine, whereas a couple of years ago 10 minutes of that kind of work would have warranted a half-hour break. Our hands are calloused and our toes aren't as dainty as they used to be. Our alarm clocks are set for 4 a.m. now for some odd reason, if we even use them. And we tend to go to bed before the sunlight has truly left the sky.
By this point, we've even had people start to ask us questions that we used to have to ask other people with more experience. People will point at one of your animals and call it by some awful name while they ask what breed it is, and you will know exactly what breed plus a few tips that you've learned from raising them. You've probably had several animals you didn't care for, maybe even hated, like that rooster that insists on crowing at you the entire time you're outside. The one you frequently have screaming contests with that only end when you give up, frustrated, and go inside the barn.
With all of this comfort and knowledge accumulated your renewed interest allows you to pursue so many things you wouldn't, or couldn't, before. This is when your homestead transforms, goes up a few notches, and produces more than ever before. You've put up that big fence, let all the animals have free range of the place, and you've got the skill and the means to do whatever needs to be done in order to start that next project.
For me, it was goats. I wanted to raise them from the first moment we found our little homestead, but the idea was too much, too big, full of requirements that I could not meet. It wasn't until I reached this stage of experience and renewed my interest in goats that I just went for it. Getting them took a little bit of time, but everything else was easy enough. "Build a fence. Give them feed and water. Check on them when you check on the chickens." That was pretty much it. I didn't have that gut-wrenching fear of them all dying like I did when we got our first flock of chickens. I didn't worry about how I would dispose of a dead goat. I simply opened up our land to them and let them decide what to do next. And it worked out fine.
6. Stability (might as well call it Confidence while you're at it)
Most of these stages will repeat themselves at some point, but even that repetition will be a form of stability in itself over time. We will get into a slump where the homestead is doing its job, providing for the family, and maybe even a little boring, but then we will perk up one morning and decide that today will be the day we go for it and turn that pasture into a new barn area or a field of alfalfa. The fence might need some repairs in a spot, but we'll realize that we've got plenty of old pipe we can use and end up having a taller, stronger, longer-lasting fence. Our chickens have raised their own chicks, and they've raised their own chicks, so that we have some truly beautiful specimens to be proud of. The sound of all the animals is no longer as loud to us as we've grown used to it, but rather it's the sound of security and home life. Without that sound we'd feel truly lost on our homestead.
Over the years our homestead will change its appearance and its function; people will come and go as the family changes in various way; the animals will cycle in and out, change varieties and breeds, but we will always be a part of it, shaping it through time in our own little ways.
This is the stability that we will appreciate as a result of our hard work, which was the result of our interest in homesteading all those years ago. It's the big payoff.
After enough time passes, we don't even think of homesteading the same way that we used to. Instead, we're living proof of it. The idea no longer carries that odd fascination that made us so eager to get up and buy stuff in the early years. Everything we need is outside of the kitchen door and a short walk away. No need for vacations or fancy trappings because we have plenty and it is exactly what we've wanted. It's simple and quaint, familiar and ours.
When we run into new homesteaders, or people just beginning to form the idea of that kind of life for themselves, we have a bit of nostalgia because we know just what kind of road lies ahead of them and it's going to be a great ride.