Before homesteading was a lifestyle choice, it was everyday life. Subsistence farming and self-sufficiency were not undertaken by people who were sick of the rat race and in search of a simpler life. It was where people came from.
According to the United States Labor Department, the average age of farmers and ranchers in the US is fifty-eight, a figure that has been increasing for the last thirty years. And not too surprisingly, those old farmers have probably been at it for well over a decade. As it sits right now, about half of all farmers are old enough to draw Social Security.
The Industrial Revolution was largely defined by reduction of the labor necessary to operate a farm and the freed up labor that could move to urban areas where work was available. Depending on the specific industry and which historian you ask, the Industrial Revolution ended somewhere in the middle or toward the end of the nineteenth century.
I maintain the urban migration patterns set in motion by the Industrial Revolution are still occurring.
Both of my parents grew up farming, and they never talked fondly of it. My father joined the Navy in order to escape the small Nebraska town he grew up in. My mother flatly refused to live anything like a country life and regaled my brother and me with stories of the horrors of farm life. My favorite was her job at seven years old.
It would seem the Industrial Revolution didn’t quite make it to 1950’s Azores, Portugal. Threshing grain on Grandpa’s little patch of dirt consisted on laying it on the ground while leading the milk cow around in a circle over top of it. My mom’s job was to follow behind the cow with an old coffee can to catch whatever might come out of the south end of a north-bound cow, so as to not foul the grain.
Use your imagination as to how enjoyable that was to a girl in the first grade. However, if I could get in a time machine to watch the spectacle, I’m certain I would have laughed my ass off.
If you had to be raised by my mother, you would enjoy the preemptive humbling, too.
I’ve written before about the homesteading skills my Grandfather passed to me before he died, and I wish I had started learning earlier, taken notes, and practiced more. By the time I started studying under the old man in earnest, he had probably forgotten more skills and tricks than I will ever know.
Old Miguel wasn’t some wizard who held all husbandry skills in a Homesteading Necronomicon protected by a fire-breathing dragon surrounded by a moat full of mutant alligators.
He was the man to whom I had the easiest and most access, but any of my relatives from that generation were deep wells of knowledge about making a farm work. They embraced those skills and their proficiency in them, instead of rejecting them. My parents always seemed embarrassed by that knowledge. My grandparents were not only proud of what they could do, but eager to impart it to whomever would listen.
Had I paid closer attention, I would have far less to learn, now that I have my own farm. In my defense, I spent my youth with farming as the furthest thing from my mind. I did pay a bit of attention when I was a kid. Early adulthood demanded a passing understanding of some of those skills, especially when driven by lack of money to hire work done around the house.
Shocking yourself while changing out a light switch is the best way in the world to always remember to turn off the breaker.
Here’s a list of what I think are the ten most important skills for homesteaders. Your list might be different, and my selections might be different in a few months. Feel free to comment with additions, replacements, or generally tell me how stupid I am.
Build a fence
Growing up, my parents made part of their living in real estate, flipping houses and renting out other properties. Not a single one of them had a fence that made it out alive, and as a result, I built enough fence to completely seal off the border with Mexico.
Except for the shift from wooden residential fencing to working with wire of various types, it seems my life hasn’t changed that much. Good fences not only make for good neighbors, but also, make for not having to chase your animals all over the Tennessee Valley. I’ve gotten to be pretty handy with a pair of lineman and fencing pliers.
Hay may be grass, but the grass I’m growing now is nothing like a lawn. A bag of Scott’s Turf Builder won’t do a thing for my field. It’s measured in tons. If it weren’t for my County Extension Agent, the local co-op, and knowledgeable neighbors, I’m sure I would burn my crop beyond edibility.
Since I don’t know loam from kitty litter, learning how to take a soil sample becomes vitally important. It’s under ten dollars to have a chemistry nerd in a no-kidding laboratory play with the dirt you send him, and have returned a report stating exactly what to add to your field to maximize your selected crop yield.
It’s absolute magic, but they keep the dirt. I’m not sure what they do with it, and part of me wants it back.
Grafting and propagating roots
My Great-Uncle John taught me a couple of simple grafting techniques when he performed absolute magic by getting our apple tree to throw three different types of apples. He did the same thing with an orange tree next to it. The skill isn’t difficult to learn, and for a subsistence farmer, greater variety from fewer plants sounds like a winning plan to me, especially since I’m one of the cheapest men currently living.
Fully a third of the plants I’ve grown were acquired from someone else as a cutting. That older generation I keep praising is remarkably generous passing out cuttings along with knowledge.
And if you are planting a large space, knowing how to propagate multiple plants from one root ball can reduce your costs significantly. It takes planning to allow for the time necessary to get the roots to the point they will survive life outside, but I’ve never met a homesteader who didn’t like to save money.
Now, that you’ve collected a bumper crop of whatever foodstuffs you grew, you might have a problem. Specifically, “What am I going to do with all this food? My family can’t possibly eat it all.” This is a good problem to have. There are starving, Yadzi slave girls in Syria who would love to have this sort of problem in life.
I probably should have called this section “food preservation” because it’s really about saving today’s excess for some time in the future when you might not have any. Canning, curing, drying, and storing in a cellar all answer the question of what to do with excess and preserve food far longer than with refrigeration. And don’t forget treats like fruit cocktail, jellies and jams, and even pickles are all forms of canning.
Be sure to spell it with a double “n” or it’s a whole different thing you may or may not be interested in.
Some folks have qualms about trapping. Most of it stems from the uninformed perception that foothold traps are designed to either inflict pain on the caught animal or in disregard of the animal’s suffering. I blame Walt Disney for his anthropomorphizing animals in his movies.
I would argue that snares are the least humane of the various trapping methods, but compared to the myriad ways Mother Nature kills animals, strangling to death might be preferable to starvation, mange, or being struck by a car because mostly all of them end with being eaten alive by coyotes, ants, or a bear once too weak to stand.
Standing policy on the Cunha Homestead is “Whatever takes from me dies when I catch it.”
Those who won’t trap to protect what’s theirs are free not to. There are plenty of ways to protect livestock, and I employ many of them, as well. I just find them less effective.
Once you get tired of picking up decapitated chicken corpses, repairing wildlife damage, and wondering what happened to your crop yield, I’ll happily teach you whatever I know. It’s part of being generous with knowledge.
And don’t forget that depending on your state’s regulations, the time of year, and the prevailing market, selling the pelts can put a little cash in your pocket.
Dispatching, dressing, and butchering
Unless you’re one of those vegetarian homesteaders (I guess there is such a thing somewhere), you will have to come to terms with the idea that you are a dealer of death. I don’t particularly revel in that status, but I take quiet pride in my skill at rapidly and humanely ending an animal’s life. We go to a lot of trouble to raise our animals fat, dumb, and happy, so I see no reason to inflict cruelty on them in the last moments of their life.
After months, and sometimes years, of feeding, caring for, and fussing over little creatures that often come perilously close to becoming pets, you then have to remove the inedible parts and reduce it individual servings of protein.
I have a buddy who has homesteaded far longer than I, but neither he nor his wife can bring themselves to butcher their animals. We call their place “the petting zoo.”
My wife hasn’t gotten to the point where she can dispatch our livestock, but she goes to town on the dressing and butchering. She also has zero qualms about hunting, so I think it really has to do with the caretaker role she fills with the animals.
Even though I’m a contender for title of World’s Cheapest Man, I probably won’t win, since I and the sponsors of the award are all too cheap to pay the expenses of attending the ceremony.
I wasn’t always the thousandaire you see before you today. Much of my adult life was spent prioritizing each bill that came in, and occasionally making the choice between electricity and diapers. A speeding ticket had the potential to bring on financial ruin until the next tax return season.
It’s only been a handful of years that I don’t lose my mind whenever food goes bad in the refrigerator…because we should have eaten the leftovers first.
My father taught me how to reload ammunition as soon as I was old enough to wander into the garage to annoy him. Come to think of it, I was reloading before I was shooting. It was time consuming, but it filled evenings and rainy weekends with activities better than sitting in front of the television.
As an adult, I took the parsimony a step further and began casting my own bullets, which is the most expensive component, assuming you don’t have to replace the brass case. It turns out that discarded wheel weights, which up until recently were available at literally any tire shop, make perfectly good bullets once processed.
Chalk up another win for cheap-asses.
Along the same lines as fencing, homesteaders spend an inordinate amount of time building and repairing structures. If a house is a constant stream of repair projects, a barn and a couple of outbuildings becomes a flood. It’s a rare farmer who has the cash available and the time to wait for a real carpenter to come out.
Even if you don’t have fancy power tools, you’d be absolutely amazed how much can be repaired with hammer, saw, and pliers. Oh, and duct tape. Even astronauts rely on duct tape.
For most jobs, short of erecting a building from the foundation up, it’s usually quicker and easier to grab a hand tool instead of going through the trouble of employing the powered version. A sharp, quality saw cuts through a board surprisingly fast with good technique. Besides, electricity isn’t always available.
My wife is the soap maker in our family. I understand the process, but let it be her thing, while I act as cheerleader and helpmate. It’s a good use for all that milk and animal fat you won’t know what to do with once the homestead gets rolling.
At the risk of letting out too many secrets, homemade soap is one of those products non-homesteading women go gaga over. Drop in some herbs to scratch their skin up a little, tie a rustic-looking bow around the bar, and you will have a winning farm product.
Use words like “handmade,” “all natural,” and “free range,” and you’ll sell out at every farmer’s market.
Aside from a county official with a clipboard, there is little in life that is more dangerous than a dull tool. Whether a knife, an ax, or a chisel, any task you put that tool to will be completed fast, safer, and better than were it dull. Even a shovel should have somewhat of an edge, if it will be thrust into the ground.
Shaping an edge with a file or honing it with a stone is probably one of the trickier skills to learn, but useful in life far beyond the farm. I’m frequently flabbergasted at the number of people I encounter performing tasks with dull tools. It’s one of those things that drives me nuts.
Keep it sharp and let the tool do the work.
Even if the only knives you own reside in the kitchen, the same need for a keen edge and the techniques to achieve it apply.
These skills are not just useful on the homestead. Most of them can find use wherever you call home, but I picked them more for their rarity.
I can understand urban dwellers, with their easy access WalMart and Kroger’s, not having a terribly strong knowledge of how to butcher an animal or put up food for long term storage against a shortage in the future. Then again, maybe they should, but that’s another article.
These are lost arts to a large degree. Or, at least, fading rapidly. Arts that deserve wider dissemination than they have. A generation or two ago, an adult without these skills was looked at sideways.
Luckily, there is a flow in the other direction. Interest in these skills is rekindling, and those for whom they have always been a normal part of life are in a position to make sure the practical application of these skills survive. Books and internet are great, but hands-on is the best. There is no teacher like demonstration, and there is no learning like doing.
Be generous with your knowledge.
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