HOMESTEAD BASICS - Backyard Farming: Homesteading: The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency - Kim Pezza

Backyard Farming: Homesteading: The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency - Kim Pezza (2015)


Although many people think of a homestead as the place where they were raised (as in “the family homestead”), a homestead actually refers to a small-scale farm. These days, this can even include the backyard farm or urban farm. The actual definition of a homestead is the main structure and outbuildings of a farm, including the land surrounding it. For our purposes, we will be looking at the homestead in the farming sense of the word.

Today, we typically see the homestead and homesteading in one of a few different ways (we will be touching on all of these types in Chapter 4):

✵ The small farm type homestead, which could be anywhere from a few acres to a few hundred, and which is usually in a rural area.

✵ The suburban homestead, somewhere between the rural and urban farm. Being in the suburbs, acreage will likely be around the 5-10 acre mark, or less.

✵ The urban farm, which can take on multiple forms. When we talk about urban farms, usually we are thinking of small backyards, community gardens in empty lots, window boxes on apartment balconies, and even rooftop gardens, all of which have become quite popular in cities worldwide. (Some rooftop gardens/farms may have a chicken coop, a beehive or two, or even a greenhouse!)

Self-Sufficiency through Backyard Farming

Having a homestead doesn’t mean that you must be totally self-sufficient. In fact, most of today’s homestead owners and backyard farmers are not. Many grow only enough vegetables to use as fresh ingredients while in season, with enough to preserve for later when the season is over. Others, including many urban farmers (due to space concerns) will select just a few things that they really want to have homegrown, and dedicate themselves to that. That said, the sheer variety of vegetables and fruits that rooftop farms can and do produce, due to the incredible space that many of them have, can rival even suburban backyard farms.

However, if it is your intent to have a self-sufficient homestead, you will need to look at everything differently. Instead of merely supplementing your food supply, you will be responsible for most, if not all, of your food needs. This is no simple task, and should never be attempted without first doing your homework. At the same time, it can also be very rewarding to have the satisfaction of knowing where all of your meals come from.

Unfortunately, for reasons that range from time constraints to space limitations, most people cannot afford to be totally self-sufficient. But this doesn’t mean that you have to be kept in the dark about the origins of your food. With farmer’s markets and farm stands popping up all over the country, you can easily supplement what you grow with produce from other local farms and growers.

Back to Basics

Before tackling any type of homesteading project, there are things that you will need to learn. Some things will depend on the size of your farm; nevertheless, you will need to acquire skills you probably never thought of learning. Some of these skills will be learned slowly, beforehand; others, you’ll need to learn on the fly. For example: when the goats get out at 1 A.M. because one of them broke through the fence, and now the fence has to be fixed but the stores are closed, and you have no extra fencing on hand …

You can’t plan for the unexpected, and there is always an element of the unpredictable in farming, from the weather to the soil to the crops themselves. At times like these, you’ll discover a bag of tricks you never knew you had, as you learn to make do with what’s at hand. When the cat knocks over the tray of seedlings you had started on the counter, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn to identify seedlings!

And if you are planning on keeping any kind of animal, you will need to put your veterinarian hat on. It never fails; when things go wrong, it will be either after hours, or a holiday weekend, or when the vet is away on business. Get used to it; you will need to know what to do when you get that midnight emergency call.

Running a homestead, be it very large or very small, means that you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty—literally. You can’t have a garden without getting your hands in the dirt, and you can’t have livestock—be it a herd of cows or half a dozen chickens—without getting into the muck every now and again. In short, this isn’t a hobby for those who live for manicures.

And, should you choose to homestead, backyard farm or garden on a larger scale, you will find that preserving your harvest is an important skill to have. With many ways of food preservation to choose from, including canning, freezing, drying/dehydration and smoking/curing, you can either learn the method you like best, the method that works best for you, or the method that you actually have time to use. There is no excuse for not having at least one of these methods under your belt.

Red peppers on a drying rack. Drying and dehydrating can be a great way of preserving your produce, especially vegetables and herbs. Photo by graibeard under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

With gardening, you will also discover that Mother Nature calls the shots in the end; the slightest weather change can affect your garden crop, field crops or harvest, and an unexpected hard rain, dry spell or early frost can take your harvest from bountiful to scant in a matter of hours—or even minutes.

Learn to label; the plants in the garden, the food in the freezer, the canning jars, the seed envelopes that you have prepared, the seedlings in the trays, label it all.

You’ll learn how to handle livestock. While rounding up chickens can be akin to herding cats, calling in the family milk cow isn’t quite as simple as calling in the family dog (although if you can get her into a routine, it won’t be that difficult). While anyone can handle a chicken or a turkey, you’ll have to learn how to second-guess the goat who always seems to find the way out, or the pig that seems to be smarter than you are. It is important to learn the personalities and characteristics of your animals, both for your safety and theirs.

A word to the wise: make the effort to get over any squeamishness you may have. In managing a homestead, regardless of size, you’ll have to do things that you may not want to do. You’ll need to deal with worms in compost; kill destructive insects by hand in the garden; give shots to the animals; help deliver newborns; cull injured livestock; deal with the illness and death of your animals; deal with predators (even with backyard chickens); be covered in mud after working in the garden after a heavy rain; fix equipment and get a nice coat of grease on yourself; work in weather conditions that no one could have paid you to work in before and which you’re now doing for free … it’s all part of the job.

Finally, get the kids involved! A homestead, whether it’s a small urban backyard or a large rural parcel, is something that runs smoother when the whole family is involved, including the kids. Not only does it get them outdoors; it also teaches them that the food they eat doesn’t just come from the grocery store. The best way to get kids to try something new is to make it theirs. In other words, let them select a few new vegetables that they have never tried, let them plant the seeds and tend the plants, and when harvest comes around, not only will they try it—they’ll be excited to try it! Try to let them help to cook it, if possible; chances are that they will like it because they selected it, grew it, harvested it and prepared it.

Community Gardens

Community and neighborhood gardens are popping up everywhere, spearheaded by people wanting fresh foods as well as for economic reasons, not to mention many have already had a passion for gardening.

Community gardens are cared for by the people and families of the neighborhoods that the garden is located in, with all who participate sharing the bounty of the harvest. Due to the fact that a community garden would be much bigger than a backyard city garden, and can offer a larger quantity in harvest than a container garden ever could, this garden type could be a preferable alternative for those gardeners in the city who are looking to grow more than what they themselves may have space for at home.

Along with being a wonderful project that brings people in a neighborhood together, community gardens also seem to renew a sense of pride in a neighborhood, spurring other improvements and cleanups in the area as well.

—From Backyard Farming: Growing Vegetables and Herbs

Of course, there are many other basic things you’ll need to know or figure out as you begin your journey, which we’ll be covering as we go along. And reading won’t be the only way you will learn your craft—trial and error will provide you with a wealth of information, and is probably the way you will learn the most about your garden. That, along with workshops, experienced farmers, trade and farm shows, extension offices, 4-H, farm and feed stores and even some of the better seed catalogs should tell you most everything you need to know. Another wonderful resource is family, friends and relatives who grew up on farms, most of whom will be thrilled to share their knowledge, experiences and stories about farm life.

As a side note, don’t wait for the day that you start farming to start reading and learning. Read about the garden styles available to you, to determine which best fits your needs. If you are getting livestock, familiarize yourself with the animal, their general behaviors, feeding, housing and any other important facts that you should know beforehand. Learn about what you can do with your extra food, including how to use and preserve them before you’re overrun.

Know the regulations of the area that you live in before you start looking into purchasing livestock, selling your excess vegetables out of the front yard, or trying to make extra money with baked goods from your kitchen.

Finally, make sure that you are getting into this for the right reasons. Don’t do it because your friends are doing it, or because you feel it’s the politically correct thing to do. If you don’t genuinely want to commit yourself to making something grow with your own two hands, it won’t be enjoyable. And if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll quickly get sick of it. Do it because you want to.

Simple vegetable stands like this one spring up everywhere during harvest season, and are mainly used for selling off the excess produce that you don’t have room to store. Photo by Joe Mabel under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Ready to dive in and see what’s in store for you on your new backyard farm? Then let’s go!