Homesteading is more of a mindset than a physical reality. Life circumstances don’t always allow for a fulfillment of the dream. Establishing a full-blown farm is a daunting task that is often tackled in increments with a gradual expanding of numbers and types of animals kept until the suburban home or semi-rural homestead has reached its carrying capacity. Then the search for a new property, or expansion of the current one, is all consuming.
All the while, homesteaders dream of new, more ambitious livestock and scheme of how to turn excess farm production into cash, since there are just some things that can’t be made at home.
Short of importing illegal Chinese labor and putting them up in the barn, I don’t see a way to produce locally sourced laptops.
A smart homesteader does his homework. Countless hours are spent researching the dozens of different breeds contained within each type of animal. God help the homesteader who doesn’t have a short-list of characteristics he wants. A chicken is a chicken, more or less, but even the simplest and most basic of choices between layer, meat, or hybrid will turn your mind to mush.
Rabbits aren’t much better. There are only about a thousand different types to pick from, as opposed to the million choices in the chicken world. Also, there seem to be fewer people raising rabbits, so the fire-hose of information, opinion, and experience isn’t quite as fierce.
I blame the internet for the information overload and paralyzing of the ability to pick.
Whatever your choice of livestock for your homestead, there is seemingly no end to the amount of advice and information floating around. Most of it is decent and borne of personal experience. Although, what works in one area may or may not work in another due to the nature of the property, density of neighbors, climate, or the factor that your particular animal is an asshole. It happens.
Even with the entire world a mouse click away, the best way to lean the how and what of homesteading is to do it.
Experience is the best teacher, but don’t just start picking up animals at the local farmer’s market without a plan or experience. The knowledge gained that way is costly and time consuming. Your best bet is to dust off your personality and make a few friends who already husband the sort of livestock that interest you.
This is where the internet and social media has been the biggest boon to homesteaders since the invention of chicken wire. With Facebook and varying combinations of half a dozen keywords, I’d be willing to bet my brother’s left testicle that there is at least one person within a reasonable distance of you who is already raising your animal of interest.
While looking for a rabbit breeder to supply the start of our herd (I know it’s called a “colony,” but I like to call myself a “part-time rabbit rancher”), we came across a young couple working toward their goal of being full-time homesteaders. When we showed up to select our rabbits, Mrs. Cunha and I discovered this fine young couple was already living a lifestyle similar to our aspirations.
Chickens, rabbits, goats, and ducks abounded. They even had an old mare and a miniature cow who kept each other company in their retirement. We all seemed to hit it off immediately, especially when the husband and I discovered a mutual love for hunting and preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse. Not too surprisingly, the questions flowed, a tour ensued, and invitations to return for work parties were extended.
In the military, work parties are universally loathed, and to the uninitiated, contributing an uncompensated day’s labor to someone else makes about as much sense as enrolling a child in the Jared Fogle ‘Lil Ones Daycare and Sandwich Shop.
In reality, it’s not providing free labor. However, my kids would disagree since I dragged them along with me. Screw what they think. They were building character.
Think of the experience as a day-long apprenticeship. My labor was exchanged for hands-on experience in skills I wanted to learn and the opportunity to pick the brain of someone who has already done the things I am trying to accomplish. The exchange typically includes feeding you, too. So, that’s an added bonus.
Farm life being what it is, it will be a rare person who turns down any help you offer; assuming you don’t put off the serial killer vibe. Even if you want to learn a skill that isn’t used very often such as castrating, disbudding, butchering, or birthing, a little willingness to be flexible with your schedule will get you an experienced hand to guide you through all manner of nasty, but absolutely necessary, homestead projects.
I have yet to meet a homesteader who didn’t relish the opportunity to pass on his skills and knowledge. As a group, we are a remarkably welcoming and informative bunch.
Understanding that one man’s “reasonable” may be another man’s “impossible,” you may not be willing or able to drive an hour to work on someone else’s farm. It just happened that these folks have similar personalities, backgrounds, and life ambitions to Mrs. Cunha and me, so we knowingly bypass at least a score of other homesteaders.
My parents can take the blame for instilling this “labor-for-skills” ethos in me.
They used to have a second house in Northern California where we would spend long weekends and summer vacations. It was all farms and ranch lands at the time. I haven’t been there in twenty years, so I have no clue what the area looks like now, but I suspect the population density is still pretty sparse.
For whatever reasons that I’m sure made perfect sense to my parents, the plan to move the whole family up there never came to fruition, but they certainly laid the groundwork for understanding the nature of farm chores with me and Jake. Much of our vacation time, we would be farmed out to split wood, move hay bales, help shear sheep, shovel shit, or anything else that wasn’t terribly dangerous for kids to do.
And we loved every minute of it…except for the days we shoveled shit. Personally, I could have done fine without learning that particular skill, but I’ve come to learn shoveling shit is a big part of life, even if you don’t live on a farm.
I was fourteen the first time I really thought I was going to die. I don’t mean that in the figurative sense like “I was so embarrassed. I nearly died.” I mean a situation where I genuinely thought a mortal injury was imminent and my time on Earth had run out.
Spanish Pete was an old gravel-voiced, barrel-chested Basque with Vice Grip hands, leathery skin, and a shuffling gait that was the result of multiple limps acquired over a lifetime of ranching. Although he spoke Spanish reasonably well to communicate with his ranch hands, Spanish Pete’s primary language prior to immigrating was French. I still don’t know how he wound up being called “Spanish Pete.” It’s just what everyone in the area called him.
Jake and I called him “Sir,” just to be certain we didn’t get cross-ways of the old man because we had seen him castrate sheep “the way we used to do it in the old country.” There’s an episode of Dirty Jobs that shows the details.
I probably won’t ever know how Pete was turned Spanish, and will have to chalk it up to one of history’s mysteries that are lost to time.
Common wisdom in the area was that old Pete owned half the county and leased another third of it from the Bureau of Land Management. If I wasn’t a product of the public school system, I could tell you how much that was. On the upside, I feel really good about myself for not knowing.
Me and Jake were helping Pete’s ranch hands shoo cows out of a milking barn on a muddy, overcast spring morning. Semi-permanent cattle pen sections created an alley that led from the door of the milking barn and turned right sharply before leading out to a small holding pasture. I’m fairly certain neither the ranch hands nor the cows needed our help with the maneuver, since all parties concerned did this every day.
For lack of anywhere else to put us where we would not be underfoot, Jake and I were positioned in the elbow of the turn and given profanity-laced instructions in Spanglish to direct the cows into the pen.
Like most fourteen-year-olds, I wasn’t terribly bright. It didn’t occur to me that these cows knew the route better than I did.
Jake grew up as a skinny child, and I hated him for that. For a time, we thought he had Tuberculosis, but it turned out he was just a skinny shit.
As for me, let’s say I’m glad skinny jeans were not the fashion of the day. I had to spend most of my youth shopping in the “husky” section along with Danny DeVito. The upside is that, unlike my brother, I have never been lifted off the ground by a large kite in a heavy wind. So, I’ve got that going for me.
Jake and I stood in the center of this turn waiting for the cows to appear like a bad Laurel and Hardy impersonation team. Due to Jake’s waif-like construction, he only sank into the mud up to his ankles. The turd nearly floated atop the homogenous mixture of clay mud and cow shit.
Daily Spring rains and frequent hosing out of the milking barn had turned the paddock into a mud field. For anyone interested, I’d put the mixture about 90% mud and 10% cow shit. However, it smelled like the opposite.
On the other hand, I was sunk to the tops of my rubber boots. Every attempt to free one foot from the mud sent the other deeper into the mire until I decided I would be able to direct cow traffic right where I was. The last thing I wanted to deal with was that mixture oozing down my bootleg and between my toes. It’s a special kind of nastiness when dried.
As the cows came trotting out of the milking barn, something occurred to me.
There must be something special about the design of a cow’s hoof because they weight a lot more than I did, but had no trouble hauling ass across the bog straight toward us.
Grinning and laughing like idiots, Jake and I swung our arms about wildly to coax the cattle down the only path available to them. We waved and shouted like a couple of retards at a clown parade. The lead cow looked at us as if to say, “Who brought the Special Olympics children out here?”
The cow didn’t have long to think because she was being pushed forward by the cows behind her. A mass of bovine flesh thundered through the mud toward us and cut right, splattering us with muck. It only made us laugh harder.
The reason for the hurry became clear when I spotted Pete’s Australian Blue Heeler, Maria, chasing the last cow and biting her heels whenever she lagged.
The last cow slid through the corner past me and Jake with Maria nipping at its teats. Jake and I were splattered with mud from the cow rush hour we had just witnessed. Dammit, this made is cowhands.
My feet must be defective because I was the only one having trouble moving through the muck.
After the stampede passed, Jake went bounding after the herd, or more likely, the dog to congratulate it on a job well done. I tried to follow, but mud suction kept my boots planted. Brute force only resulted in stripping my foot out of the boot.
As I was figuring out how to keep my feet inside my boots and move around at the same time, a straggler appeared in the barn doorway. Maria had missed one. I made a mental note to take that up with her supervisor at a later time.
The cow looked at her friends in the field, looked at me, and back at her friends. I don’t know if being sunk in mud up my knees make me look like a four-foot-tall salt lick or if cattle have a sense of humor. Either way, this bossy bitch started trotting toward me, putting her head down, like Melissa McCarthy going to the fried Twinkie booth at the state fair.
One of the few things I remember from Physics class my senior year (In the Cunha family, that’s generally the eighth grade) is that force is a function of both velocity and mass. For example, a ping pong ball at one hundred miles an hour probably won’t hurt you. A car traveling at ten miles an hour will definitely hurt you, and just might kill you.
A cow is a lot closer in size to a car than a ping pong ball.
On any given day, given a flat, dry surface, even as the old man I am now, I can dodge a trotting cow. With my lower extremities encased in mud, my options become limited very quickly.
As the cow drew closer, I debated whether I had a better chance of survival by bending back and risk getting my nuts stomped versus leaning forward and risk breaking my spine when Ol’ Betsy trampled over me. The closer the cow got to me, the less survivable the situation seemed, so it became an exercise of what type of pain I’d prefer to endure while the cow did a Mexican Hat Dance on my fat ass.
In a moment of clarity, the phrase “Stomped into a mud hole” made perfect sense.
I’d like to say I managed to free myself by executing a perfectly times somersault over the cow’s head while slapping her on the ass for good measure as I stuck the landing.
I was saved from being trampled to death by this milk cow when one of the ranch hands came running up from behind me waving his hands and cursing in Spanish. That’s all it took to make her cut right and join her friends. I wish it was a more spectacular ending, but it’s not.
However, I did learn a couple of things that day.
Firstly, don’t be too proud to shovel someone else’s shit. Especially, if you can get some experience out of it.
Secondly, despite all the knowledge in books and wisdom from the internet, there are some things you just have to learn by watching someone else do in front of you.
And finally, cows aren’t afraid of husky Portagee kids, but they sure seem scared of one-hundred-twenty pound, cursing Mexicans.