September 5, 2013

Taking Stock

This is the time of year I find myself evaluating our progress, particularly on one important reason we decided to homestead - growing and raising our own food. The garden is mature and my days are (or should be) busy harvesting and preserving. Some years things thrive and produce well; other years they simply don't.

Homegrown meal: barbecue goat ribs, corn on the cob, and salad of
tomato, radish, cucumber, carrot, and a volunteer lettuce. The only
purchased items were the salad dressing, barbecue sauce, and salt.

When we first bought our homestead, I envisioned a garden full of the vegetables we love, an orchard producing our favorite fruits, bins of homegrown grains, jars of honey and homemade vinegar, a greenhouse for fresh, winter vegetables, and a pantry stocked with everything we love to eat. The fact of the matter is that some things don't grow well in our part of the world, not everything grows equally well every year, and some things are very time consuming and labor intensive to keep on hand. On top of that, this year's summer weather has made gardening a real challenge. I'm guessing most of you will agree. If you haven't had endless sunless days and rain like we have, then you've likely had horrific heat and drought. Neither extreme makes for good gardening.

All of this points to the often unspoken uncertainties of working toward a self-sustaining food supply. There simply are no guarantees, which is probably why folks were so willing to leave the farm when the industrial revolution swept through. Yet here we are and, if you're still reading, you likely have the same yearning to return to a closer relationship with the land, to know where your food comes from, and to be involved in the process of taking care of yourself.

As difficult as it has been to learn to kill our animals for meat, grains are the
thing that remain elusive in terms of success. Hand processing homegrown
wheat for one loaf of bread is labor intensive but doable. Threshing, winnowing
& grinding a quarter acre of wheat by hand is daunting. Corn is much easier.

I have come to realize that, for this endeavor to be successful, there are some things that I need to rethink. I need to relearn concepts I have about food and eating if I'm going to consider our lifestyle a success. I come from a grocery store background, where variety and picture-perfect produce are the norms. The time of year doesn't matter; everything is always available and always beautiful.

I've had to rethink our diet. While it is certainly possible to grow everything we like to eat, it isn't realistic. Perhaps if all we had was the garden I could do it, but our life is more than just the garden. It makes more sense to simplify our diet. This is the nitty-gritty of local and seasonal eating. We eat what we have and we preserve or store the extra. This means learning to live with less variety  ("What? Eggs again?") as well as many non-traditional meals ("Vegetable soup for breakfast?)

This year was our first real apple harvest. We sprayed last winter: dormant
oil for insects and sulfur for diseases, but the almost daily rains washed much
of that off. Even though every apple is blemished, they are ours. Our first apple
pie was fantastic! The worst ones became applesauce, the rest I'll process later.

I've had to rethink quality. It's interesting to read books such as Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle , or Growing a Farmer by Kurt Timmermeister. Both of these books point out that grocery store standards are not the norm in the natural world. In the real world foods taste different (usually better) and look different (usually worse). I've had to discard my standard of perfection. Nothing is thrown away simply because of a bad spot or a few bird pecks. Just cut that off and feed it to somebody else; chickens and goats are only too happy to fight over such tidbits.

I've had to rethink my expectations. I can't "count on" anything. Last year, breeding season was a failure and none of our does had kids. That meant no milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, kefir. This year, our blueberries and figs have produced bumper crops, but the garden has not. Some things were a no-show such as peppers and egg plants. Other things have produced, but not in huge quantities: cucumbers, tomatoes, and okra. Even my 9 laying hens are only giving me 2 or 3 eggs per day. I can say it is likely due to too much rain and too little sun, but my plans of bulging my pantry shelves with pizza sauce and pickled okra have dissolved into wondering how we'll make it without pizza every Friday night.

This year's carrot crop. I planted a bed but got just one, which I only
found when I was clearing the bed to plant fall beets and lettuce!

I've had to rethink food habits. This is actually a tough one because we get used to preparing and eating certain foods. Sometimes it's the convenience of grabbing a box out of the cupboard and simply adding water. Sometimes it's because these foods comfort us, our personal "soul" foods, the foods we grew up with (like macaroni and cheese made with velveeta.) These are the foods we tend to crave.

The biggest challenge is learning to be content with my life, just as it is right now. Learning not to be dissatisfied with what we have, learning not to fret when abundance isn't there, learning not to worry about what the future will be. The late Larry Burkett likened worry to paying interest on a debt one didn't owe.

Zed and Buster Brown, anxious for their bottles. Ziggy's triplets turned 3
months old on Aug. 27. The boys have been neutered and now live with the
bucks. They still get bottles of milk, increasingly diluted with water. 

Most things in the self-sufficient lifestyle, even when I'm doing my best, are beyond my control: weather, germination rate, animal death. Ultimately, it makes no sense to worry about them. Yet human nature likes things predictable and wants a guarantee on every outcome. God's natural world isn't that way; the point being, I think, so that we learn not rely too much on ourselves. True contentment implies trust.

Dissatisfaction, often disguised as ambition, is what keeps us unhappy. We assume contentment means complacency, but we humans want to make our mark upon the world! That may be a virtue in worldly society, but for the homesteader it is a liability. Yes, we need to be realistic about our goals and how we plan to achieve them, but we need to balance that with thankfulness for what we've already accomplished.

I wish I could say I've mastered all this, but I can't. I can say that these are things I am working on learning, new habits I am cultivating. I see them as being key in our quest for self-sufficiency, and truly, for all of life.

Taking Stock © September 2013 


daisy g said...

Thanks for the refreshing jolt of reality. You are still doing more for yourselves than most folks. Continued success!

DebbieB said...

This year was our first real foray into trying to grow some of our food supply. We planted beans, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, and onions. The only thing that yielded any sort of harvest was the beans. We got a few anemic tomatoes and a handful of lettuce leaves, enough for a few salads. The 3 cucumber vines yielded one small cuke. The corn gave us a few shriveled tough ears. The zucchini and squash plants were destroyed by squash vine borers, and the onions and peppers failed to grow.

We would clearly starve to death if left to our own devices. :) At this point, we're grateful for the local grocery store. I'm not giving up, though - while we'll never be self-sufficient, anything we get from the garden will be a bonus to our health, so I'll continue to try.

God's continued blessings on your homestead, Leigh - like you said, when the blessing isn't abundance, it's the growth of trust.

Leigh said...

Daisy, it's an ongoing endeavor. I don't know if we'll ever reach our goal, but I've loved what we've been able to do so far.

Debbie, no, not everyone is going to have a goal of food self-sufficiency. But it does seem to make sense in these economic times. to at least have a garden. Every little bit helps. And good for you for not giving up. :)

Benita said...

I think this is one of the wisest posts I have ever read - and the hardest to learn. The fact you are willing to put in the work, experiment with what works and give up on what doesn't to have room for what does is a lesson for all of us. Thank you.

Kaat said...

Thank you for this wonderful post summing it all up. "Dissatisfaction, often disguised as ambition": isn't it just so! I'm learning that the attitude of gratitude is the antidote.
On another note, we are thinking of adding pygmy goats to our menagerie. I've found that the chickens were so much less work than I though: much easier and a lot more yielding than the garden (which is finally, after four years, becoming productive). Does the same go for goats? It seems like quite a step up from hens. We're looking for milk and cheese. Any isnights (or a link to a previous post) will be helpful!

Mamawizzy said...

I love your blog. We are in the process of trying to get a little more self sufficient. We just purchased an acre of land and plan to build a house, but it will be about 2 years before it's complete. So in the meantime, I will try to get prepared for the day when I can have my chickens and gardens and possibly a couple goats!

Thanks for the education!

PonyRyd said...

I completely agree to not worry about things out of your control (weather, germination rate, animal death), but instead focus on what you can control (what you plant, when, what animals you chose and how you care for them), learn, and adapt as needed.
Great Site!

Ed said...

A very refreshing post with lots of honesty. Everything in life is a balance and I try to find that right balance for me which might not be the right balance for you or anyone else. You seem to be perfectly balanced!

One thing I didn't see mentioned in your post but is important I think is time. If we had forever, we all could do everything we dreamed. However, sometimes we have to forego making our own bread from grain to spend more time doing something else we love. Again, it all comes back to finding that perfect balance.

This was the best post I've read in quite awhile.

Renee Nefe said...

Looking at your dinner and thinking that you could have made the BBQ sauce and salad dressing...but the would require more store bought ingredients. Does look yummy though.

I found two squash on my all male plants! YAY no idea where they came from but I had been ignoring them. Maybe I can still get some more.

a gal at church brought in cucumbers so I have some of those and I noticed that somehow I have a carrot growing in with the herbs. :p

I think your homestead is going great. I sometimes wish we could do that, but I know that doing something like that here would be even harder. I read a lot of books about failed CO pioneers.

Ellen and Adrian said...

When friends and family look at our small, suburban garden, young fruit trees, 3 chickens and handful of meat rabbits, and comment that we must be self-sufficient, I realize how little people actually think about what goes in to providing enough food for a household (even of 2) for a year!

Leigh said...

Kaat, so good to hear from you! Very exciting that you're considering getting goats. If I may suggest, consider Nigerian Dwarfs. Pygmies are actually a meat breed, although they are thought of mostly as pets. They can be milked, but their legs are very short, making it difficult to get a bucket under them. Nigerian Dwarfs are also a mini-breed, but a dairy breed. They have wonderful personalities. Being aseasonal breeders, they can be bred almost any time of year. That means if you have two, it's possible to breed them in opposite seasons and have year round milk between the two.

Mamawizzy, thank you! Congratulations on your land. I'm just reading Joel Salatin's Folks, This Ain't Normal and he tells of numerous small farms that are wildly successful. Very inspiring!

PonyRyd, thank you! I agree, so much better to focus on the task at hand.

Ed, very good point about time. It's on my mind constantly, as we try to balance out doing what needs to be done now versus the rhythm of seasonal living that is the basis for self-sustaining living. Yes, you're right, it's all about balance.

Renee, it's true! I could have made both BBQ sauce and salad dressing. :) I actually never buy the BBQ sauce because Dan ordinarily doesn't care for it; these ribs were a little goaty though (Elvis) and needed a strong flavor. I should consider making sauce next time I have an abundance of tomatoes.

Ellen and Adrian, interesting. I think you're right that most folks really have no clue, but then, why should they? I think every little bit helps and even if we never become truly food self-sufficient, we at least will have full bellies. :)

Bill said...

This is a great post! You are so right and there are lots of important lessons in what you're describing. We've been through the same process, coming to understand that nothing is going to come out exactly as we planned it and we just have to adjust and play the hand we're dealt. Almost everything we eat comes off this farm and I love that feeling. But it is a drag when something happens like the entire tomato crop failing (as it did this year) and we go through the summer with no tomatoes. But things like that are just part of this lifestyle and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Once again, this is a great post Leigh! I like knowing we're not alone in our struggles.

Sue said...

Great post Leigh! While I like to think of myself as fairly self-sufficient, the reality is that I am only so compared to most of my family and friends. I have to buy feed for the animals, and I spend too much at the store for myself as well. I try to buy local as much as possible, but I would have to move to a more temperate climate to grow enough food for even just me. I am happy to have what I have, to "know" my food sources as much as possible, and to put up what I am able even if I didn't grow it.

Kaat said...

Thank you, Leigh, for the recommendations. I also reread Sharon Astyk's "lazy goat keeper" blogpost: and am thinking this might be doable. I think the main thing will be to time it all out. Then, get the permit, of course...

maria said...

Oh is so refreshing to read your words. We are in the process of simplifying our entire, lifestyle, everything! and it is so encouraging to read your words and know that it is OK to do this. I come from South America, where we did throw anything out. It was until I came to this country that I realized that people actually kept food in their fridge for long periods of time. It is not something we do where I was raised.

Thank you so much for sharing Leigh. m.

Jody said...

I can't begin to tell you how much this resonates with me and what we're experiencing on our mini-homestead. BTW, we didn't get peppers or eggplant this year too. Hmm? After 3 years of dedicated working toward raising and eating our own/local food, we're having the same experience. Work hard, take what you get, make it work be thankful. One example is that our butternut squashes were a bust this year, but we grew 50 pounds of pumpkins, so you can guess what will be in our "butternut" squash soup this winter.

Ngo Family Farm said...

This is really so wise and beautiful! I've had to re-think and let go of some things this year, too - and mostly learn that I can't do all the things I want to, and certainly can't do them in a vacuum, if that makes any sense. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, which really resonate with me this season.

Jeanna said...

I am not sure exactly where you are located but I live in Franklin NC and the rain has sure been a hamper this summer. I do have to say that we were lucky and our garden done really well. We don't try to grow carrots because they require a much sandier soil than we have. I always think of the saying "If you want to hear God laugh tell him your plans." I love your blog, you really have a lot of information on it or a link to it.


Cat Eye Cottage said...

Oh, but when you have a bounty of something, isn't it so rewarding? It definitely balances out the disappointments. The ebb and flow of gardening is fabulous; otherwise, it would be boring.

Susan said...

So well put, Leigh. It's important to re-sync ourselves to what's important. And I really don't find the change to seasonal eating all that bad. How I would LOVE to have eggs every day! Unfortunately, the chickens are molting...

oldjove said...

Very good post. Thank you. I have also begun to start my homestead and although I grew huge pumpkins, I only got 4. My carrots didn't look as good as yours, hehehe. It's a learning curve, I think, to accept what nature gives us.

Leigh said...

I thought I remembered answering more of these comments than I have. I did in my mind at least!

Bill, thank you so much. You're right, it is a process. Like you, I appreciate knowing that others are experiencing the same thing!

Thank you Sue! You sound like you are taking the right steps toward your goal. I know those steps sometimes seem small, but at least we're heading in the right direction.

Kaat, I hope things go well with that permit. Of course, I remember when you were uncertain about chickens. :)

Maria, thanks! You bring up a good point. How we're raised is how we define normal. It's sometimes eyeopening to learn new ways, isn't it?

Jody, we home growers learn how to be versatile, don't we!?

Jaime, a new baby has a way of doing that, doesn't it? :)

Jeanna, thank you for your kind words and I am so glad to hear your garden did well. Even being sogged out I think the rain is better than drought.

Candace, it keeps eating interesting. :)

Susan, thanks. I have to agree that seasonal eating isn't bad at all. Even with eggs!

Beverly, thank you! Congratulations on your pumpkins! That's something I haven't had good success with. But, as you say, we're learning to live with what we get!

inaka brett said...

I've just found your blog and am reading through some posts. This one here is an excellent piece of writing and really resonates with my own experiences.
This lifestyle takes a tremendous amount of effort and a few crop failures or other problems can really get me down. It's a constant struggle, both outside on the land and inside my head. Experience brings comfort but the unknown always seems to be just around the corner!
I'll be following your adventures from now. Thanks for sharing!!

Leigh said...

Inaka Brett, thank you so much for you encouraging comment. I so agree that the struggles are both outside and in!

I wanted to do a return blog visit, but you don't have your blogger profile linked to a blog or website.

Unknown said...

I just got your book as a Christmas gift today....Love it! We bought land 2 years ago but have not yet moved on it. I am gutting the house to the studs and re-wiring, We'll put in new windows and insulation and sheet rock before we move in.

Anyhow, I got to your discussion on threshing wheat and how discouraging it is. I was growing wheat in our back yard in town and hit upon an easier way to thresh it. I put down a heavy cloth canvas (6' by 8') on the driveway and in the center of that, I put down a curved piece of 1/2" hardware mesh about 4' by 4' that comes in 25 or 50 foot rolls at the local hardware store. The mesh will have a curve in it from being on the roll. Place the screen so it forms an arch over the canvas. Now, throw the wheat on the screen and with your CLEAN work shoes, shuffle across the wheat heads. The screen will float on the threshed wheat and provide a continually renewing rough surface against which you can rub the wheat out of the heads with your shoes. You'll get the hang of it in about a minute once you try it.

Leigh said...

Unknown, hello and welcome! I'm delighted you are enjoying my book. Thank you so much for that. Your wheat threshing idea is quite clever and definitely something I'll have to try. Thank you for that too! Very glad to hear about your 2 acres. That's exciting. I hope you get the house basics finished soon and are able to move in.