Years ago, we moved to a city in North Carolina called Asheville. If you’ve never been, it’s a city with a reputation of being populated mostly by hippies. People are definitely more in tune with natural health and good, clean, eating. For us, it was a natural first step from our college city and a great place to be a newlywed, completely broke, couple. I think that, for me, Asheville is what first sparked the idea of creating a homestead together.
While we lived there, we bought our first half gallon of raw milk. We got connected to this guy that lived in the city who had a goat farm right in the middle of the neighborhood. It was one of those crazy experiences where you discover places in your own neighborhood that you never knew existed. We had to zig zag through the neighborhood then drive up this long, steep driveway with a complete jungle of a yard at the top of the hill. It had all kinds of edible plants growing and generously mulched paths winding through the yard. After making our way through the maze, we found the door to the house. We knocked and the guy opened the door just enough to look at us and know we were there for the milk. He surveyed the yard and let us in to get our half a gallon of milk for $10. In North Carolina, raw unpasteurized milk is illegal to sell to people to consume and it definitely felt like we were participating in a drug deal. The memory of that transaction will always stick with me. I knew that I wanted to have a little paradise like that someday.
The whole time we lived in Asheville, we continued to explore and find more things we wanted for our own little piece of paradise. It was a hub for good, fresh food and eclectic people, all nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. It is really just a magical place and I’m really glad we got to call it home for a year.
Fast forward about 5 years and we found a steal of a deal on a home that was in foreclosure and far from perfect for farming or really having any animals at all. But, we made it work and are still continuing to make it even better. For me, that is what homesteading is. It’s carving out a place of your own. Some people are lucky enough to have the means to buy a place that already has all the necessary infrastructure, and I have to admit that I used to look down on those people. But quite honestly, if you can swing it, it’s the way to go for sure. No matter where you start, you are going to have to pay your dues. When we first bought the property, we thought we would buy it and make a living farming. It became clear very early on that with food prices the way they are (so low!), and how food is imported and subsidized (a conversation for another time), that farming the way we wanted (organic or better) would not make any money.
Do some farm math with me really quick. To fence in a pasture, you’re looking at $3,000 if you do it yourself, and way more if you pay someone else. Doing it yourself takes a ton of time, buying tools, and figuring out how to do it. Then, you have to find animals that will stay alive. To find those, you will have to pay around $300 a sheep to get decent, healthy ones. I know there are animals on craigslist for $50, but that’s because something is wrong with them. Trust me. Even if you just grow veggies, there are still tons of expenses. You’ll need tools, drip irrigation, row covers, fertilizers, etc… Then, after you invest in all that, crops die, animals die, water pumps die. It’s really rough, but really rewarding, too! I mean, there were a few times I thought about quitting, and we only grow food for ourselves. With farming for a living, you have to deal with all of that, plus figure out a way to make money. You have to sell a ton of sheep to make your money back on the fence or even for the price of the sheep you bought. It does happen sometimes, but it’s tough!
Homesteading is similar, but on a smaller scale. By keeping it small, we are able to control our costs while producing the best food for our family. We did cut down the grocery bill a bit but, ultimately, it’s about eating food from our own land. I don’t care how great a blueberry is at the grocery store, a blueberry grown on your land, that’s fresh off the bush, warmed in the sun, connected to the place where you sleep and live, is just something different. It’s a feeling that cannot be replicated.
Homesteading at its core is a connection to the land, the animals, your food, your life, and their lives. The final piece to homesteading for our family is this connection to life and death. We raise chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, and sheep for meat. I wanted my kids to grow up with a profound connection to their food. I wanted them to see what hard work is, what it means to take care of an animal, and to know the amazing abundance from the land.
When we started homesteading, I honestly wasn’t expecting death to play such a large role in our lives. Two years ago, we got a call from a local sheep farm to let us know that they had a bottle lamb that we could have for free. The baby was caught in a storm and washed of its scent so the mama rejected it. To feed a bottle lamb is very similar to feeding a new baby. You have to get a good formula and mix it up in the right bottle. We used a coke bottle because that’s what our sheep mentor said to use. Then you have to make sure it’s just the right temperature and hold the baby lamb as it drinks and dances all over the place. It’s easy to perceive the lamb’s desire for food as affection, and the girls got pretty caught up in it. The girls were thrilled and took turns going out to the barn to feed this sweet little lamb three to four times a day. After a few months, the lamb followed them everywhere and it was like something out of a nursery rhyme. One day, we went out to feed her and found her lying dead. That’s how it happens some times, there were no warning signs before the cute little thing dropped dead. Most likely, it was from a defect that we didn’t know about but that the mother easily recognized. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier, though. That day, I had to dig a hole for the little lamb with three little girls standing around me sobbing. There had been other deaths, so this wasn’t our first, but it honestly never gets any easier. I know it sounds rough, but it is part of life; a part of life that a lot of people are missing!
The lamb or chicken that we eat, the sheepskins that we use in the winter, and the leather on our shoes all come from an animal that gave its life for us. To ease the guilt and pain, I make sure that the animal has the best life possible. Then, when it comes time to slaughter the animal, I do it myself. I do it to make sure the animal is treated well. I do it so I can say goodbye and so I can truly embrace the responsibility I have in the situation. For most of the animals, I am there when they are born and I am there when they die. Some days, it’s almost more than I want to take on but, to me, it’s the most I can do to protest what’s going on in the modern world of food. Read more here: about the true cost.
Animals and plants alike have been turned into an industrial product. Our connection to our food has been removed and, along with it, our responsibility for the wellbeing of the animals and land our food comes from. This is why I homestead. You can homestead wherever you are. Take the connection back; take the responsibility back. I know what you are thinking,” but, Drew, I don’t have tons of land like you.” Well, if you have a backyard, plant a garden and get some chickens or a beehive. Plant fruiting trees and bushes. Turn your land into a food source. If you don’t have a yard, put some potted plants on your patio and find someone local to buy your meat from. Become part of the process with them. Support them. Ask them if you can come work on the farm one day a month. If you don’t have a patio, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and support the local farms in your area. This is how we will turn around world hunger, crime, animal abuse, and the disconnect between our food and ourselves. Today, research what you can grow where you live and find a farm that sells something you’d like to buy.