I was talking with my neighbour today about her experiences growing up on a farm. She remarked on the huge amount of labour involved. She’s in her fifties now and not interested in extending self-sufficiency to such things as growing hay or planting acre fields of crops and veggies. Later, as I reflected on this discussion I realized that traditional farming is associated in our collective consciousness with long hours of back-breaking work and a level of commitment that doesn’t lend itself well to vacationing or lazy days at home, never mind early retirement.
I contrasted this with what I’ve been learning about permaculture, and realized that in planning our farm we were – consciously or not – endeavouring to create a homestead that did not meet the traditional model of hard work. It started with the wise maxim of taking things one step at a time. As Jenna of Cold Antler Farm recently wrote:
…running a farm, even a backyard homestead, is something you work up to. You don’t start with 6.5 acres, a flock of pregnant sheep, 50+ chickens, dogs, bees, geese, ducks, rabbits, an old barn, and a giant garden. You start with a 5×5 raised bed and a trio of hens.
When we bought this land the only things on it were an old mobile home and a newer garage. The previous owner had done nothing with the land, so we were starting off with a zero-labour homestead. We took our projects slowly, one step at a time, not taking on more than we thought we could handle, and not adding more until we felt comfortable with where we were. And somewhere along the way we stumbled upon a way of homesteading that wouldn’t compromise the freedoms we enjoyed.
We enjoy our lazy days at home, like to go camping on a whim when the opportunity arises, relish sleeping-in (which really means just getting up when our bodies tell us we’re ready, and not being dragged out of bed for some other task) and aren’t interested in committing to daily chores that can’t be worked around somewhat to accommodate life off the property. When we first announced to our family our plans to move to a small acreage and provide a semblance of self-sustainability we were met with dire predictions that we’d never be able to get away from home, and that we were perhaps too used to a sedentary lifestyle to appreciate the amount of hard work such an endeavour would require.
But we’re learning that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Over the winter we reflected back on our first experience with raising pigs. It was not only fun, and resulted in a freezer full of delicious home-grown pork, but frankly it was pretty darn easy too. They were only here for 5 – 6 months and they required little more than being fed twice a day and watered once or twice, and that only because we did not have a proper setup that could have reduced these inputs to once a week or so. When we went on vacation, we hired a local homeschooling teen to come and feed the pigs and the cat. And just when the weather was getting cold and nasty, and the chore of ensuring ice-free watering troughs was looking rather unappealing, off they went to the processor.
We’d originally planned to get chickens, but we didn’t get it together in time for last year. After the winter-without-pigs it occurred to us that having laying chickens would not only be a daily commitment, but would be so 365 days per year. When considering that we have no less than 3 farms on our street that sell their own farm-fresh eggs, via an honour system setup that means I can get a dozen eggs pretty much any time of day, and for a very good price, it kind of seemed silly to take on a year-round commitment for something that would end up costing us not much less than what we currently pay for the same product.
On the other hand, the appeal of raising meat birds couldn’t be higher for folks already used to the idea of “seasonal livestock”. Meat birds reach maturity within a few short weeks, and are raised during the warm months of late spring and summer. We love farm-fresh chicken and having a good supply of our own birds in the freezer would be a real treat. Based on the price of local farm-fresh chickens we could do it for much less, too. There are no eggs to collect when you are raising meat birds: a simple moveable paddock or “chicken tractor” system is all you need. Feed and water them, and move them around as their foraging requires. Our local farm-sitting teen could easily handle feeding and watering the chickens should we decide on a holiday, so they wouldn’t impinge on our summer wanderlust either.
We’d been toying with the idea of getting goats. At first it was to clear the land, but then I wondered what we’d do with them when there was no more to clear. And then we changed our plans and didn’t need any more clearing than pigs could handle, which left me wondering why we would have goats (other than the fact that they are super cute!). I briefly considered justifying their keep by having a couple of dairy goats but really, as much as I enjoy chevre cheese the amount we eat is so small as to really not make it worth our while (and finding ways to use a resource that isn’t currently missed didn’t seem like a good enough reason to take on such a big responsibility).
Since pork and chicken are our main (and preferred) meats, sticking to these two endeavours would be enough for us in terms of protein. But what about plants? Well, thanks to our discovering permaculture, we’ve learned that we can obtain high yields of food with relatively little maintenance. The appeal to us was not just being able to harvest food while at the same time actually enhancing the health of our soil, but that we could do so without the massive commitments of time and labour that are required on a regular basis with conventional farming practices.
I’m not ruling out the possibility of adding to the farm some more. We’d like to have ducks and geese (the former for slug control and the occasional roast duck, the latter because my husband wants to try his hand at ethical foie gras). And who knows, maybe one day we’ll fall in love with a couple of pygmy goats and just add them to the dog and cat as family pets. But so far we are convinced that it’s possible to maintain a productive homestead without the heavy labour, year-round commitment, and lack of “get-away” time that is traditionally associated with such endeavours.