February 2014

Where we’re coming from…an overview of our homestead

We expect that a common theme on our site will be the things going on around our homestead.  Before jumping into our day-day happenings, our future plans, and what we are working on improving, we thought that it might help to give you a broader feel for our property as it is today, and what things we have already put in place here.

Goals: The three primary goals for our homestead are for it to 1) produce more than it consumes (ideally both financially and in terms of yield), 2) provide for >50% of our food needs, and 3) to achieve this in a way that is as organically and sustainably as possible.

Property:  At 1.6 acres, our property is fairly small compared with what one would normally envision when thinking about a  homestead.  The land is heavily wooded, sloping slightly to the southwest.  Most of the southern sun exposure is blocked by a large stand of hardwoods, with only a very small portion of our land cleared out/available for planting (maybe 0.3 acres?).  Geographically, we are in a USDA Zone 6a/6b, but at an elevation of nearly 900 feet, it can be closer to a zone 5 climate in some years.  The soil is mostly clay and rock, with a relatively low pH.  Overall, this land profile has presented us with numerous challenges, but it also has some unique opportunities that we will discuss in later posts.

Annual gardens: Over the last 3 years, we put in 15 raised beds.  Most are ~4′ x 8′ with walls made from fallen timbers found around the property.  And all are built with a wood core to promote moisture retention and build fungal activity in the soil.  2 beds are planted in perennials (asparagus, rhubarb), with the rest dedicated to annual plantings.  We also put in a small greenhouse (8′ x 12′) in 2013 that we plan to use for seed starting and overwintering some greens, but haven’t quite perfected its use yet so it is currently sitting idle.  In the area of gardening, we are still on a steep learning curve with only limited success in most of our crops, but we have had a few successes and continue to hone our skills every year.

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Garden beds in bloom

Perennial plants:  One thing that we are really excited about is expanding our plantings outside of the “garden”.  This has allowed us to take advantage of the “edges” of our property with lower maintenance plants that will provide for us year after year.  These include raspberries and blackberries (mostly native and already growing here), strawberries (planted in 2012), blueberries, gooseberries, currants and goji berries (all planted in 2013).  The plants that we put in this year have not really started producing yet, but most have taken hold and seem to be showing healthy growth going into the 2014 growing season.

Small livestock: These animals are the heart of our system, effectively processing most of our kitchen scraps and garden waste into a great protein yield and free organic manure.  We have  a flock of 12 laying hens (Rhode Island Reds, 8 from 2012, 4 from 2013) that provide between 6-12 eggs a day depending on the season.  We also added 4 rabbits in 2013 (California Giant/New Zealand crosses, 2 male, 2 female) that we plan to breed this spring for a meat yield.  In the meantime, they are pumping out piles and piles of some great organic manure that are helping to fertilize our gardens and plants.

Free ranging the kids and the birds

Free ranging the birds…and the kids!

The Forest: Not actively managed on our part, but also not to be discounted, is the hardwood forest that we live in.  The forest is fairly mature (some trees estimated at 60-90 yrs old), consisting mostly of red oak, maple, cherry, sassafras and silver beech.  Harvested sustainably, these woods will provide for us over our lifetime with firewood that we use to heat the home (2-3 cord/year), leaves that we use for mulch and compost, logs that we can use to inoculate for mushroom growth, and sticks/twigs that we use for mulch and for the cores for our garden beds.  Also, with some strategic harvesting and the “help” of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we are opening up some more pockets of land/sun for us to expand our food production in the coming years.

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Beautiful morning in the woods

Water: Being in a semi-rural area, most houses in our neighborhood (including ours) are on well water.  This is a blessing in some ways (don’t have to worry about chemical additives in city water), but can be a curse in others.  Specifically, power outages pose some interesting problems that we have addressed with the addition of a hand-pump and a generator.  The water is quite “hard” (high in mineral content) and has some sediment coming directly from the well that requires a clarifying filter prior to use.  We also supplement our limited irrigation water needs with two 50-60 gallon rain barrels which we use for drip irrigation and greenhouse “plumbing”.

The boys showing Uncle Marc how to pump the Bison

The boys showing Uncle Marc how to pump the Bison

When we moved onto this property, we had no intentions of taking up a homesteading lifestyle.  We just enjoyed the isolation of being back in the woods and closer to nature.  After our lives brought us further down our path and we decided that homesteading is something that we wanted to do, we were convinced that this property was not right for it.  Painfully, we had resigned to needing to move if we were to do this properly.  However, after much research (including a lot of inspiring examples in the urban gardening movement) and a little bit of creativity, we have found that this place might just have what we need to produce a thriving homestead.  We now find ourselves blessed to be in a place with so many natural resources.  This was a good lesson for us, and is consistent with our philosophy of “making do with what we have”.  We hope that you are also encouraged by this…instead of pining for the perfect property that you may or may not ever obtain, take small steps forward on the property that you do have.  You might be surprised by how much you can do!

1000 Extra Hours a Year; Our life without cable TV

A little more than a year ago, I sat down on the couch ready to watch a Penn State football game; a luxury that I had not yet enjoyed yet that fall.  I grabbed a beer and plopped down, only to get the “fuzzy snow” when I turned on the set…qwshhhhhhhhhh.  I immediately blamed that darn cable company, as we frequently have disruptions in our internet service due to poor connections, etc…

Joe: “Maria, the cable is out again!”

Maria “I know, I canceled it”.

Joe: “WHAT?!?!  When did you do that??”

Maria: “About 3 months ago”

Hmmm…well, I guess I couldn’t argue with that.  Really, we had often lamented on the poor value proposition that our cable subscription offered.  When we were first married, our cable bill was something like $120, including the full digital HD package, 300+ channels, FiOS connections, etc, etc….  That all sounded great, but there was “never anything on”, and when there was, it was always on the same 3-4 channels.  Was that really worth $1,500 a year?  Eventually, we downgraded to a smaller package with less channels as a way to save money.  As a result, we spent a little less time watching TV, as some of the channels we liked to watch were no longer available.  We were still spending exhorbanant amounts of time in front of the tube though, especially during the days of “Lost” and “CSI: Special Victims Unit”.  I can remember many days when we burned 3 hours or more in front of the TV.  To think back on that now is an unthinkable waste of time, but I guess we “didn’t have anything better to do” (despite feeling “really busy”…turns out we had no idea what that meant yet).

As we moved “out into the country”, started having kids, and began dabbling in homesteading, we watched less and less TV, simply because we had less spare time to do so.  Finally during a monthly budget review, we were looking at ways to save a little money, saw our TV bill and thought…”Huh…I can’t remember the last time I watched TV.  Why are we paying for that again?”  The seed was planted, and eventually, Maria pulled the trigger and began our life without cable TV.

With the boys getting older and more independent, we are again finding ourselves with more time on our hands.  Not having cable has given us the opportunity to use our time differently, and more productively.  So, what have we done with that time?

  • Read a book – whether you choose a relaxing fiction, an enlightening non-fiction, or an informative how-to book, we have found reading as being our most frequent use of late evening time that was most often used as TV time in the past.  Rather than ingesting hours of mindless blather, this has allowed us to continue our education, become better communicators, and expand our perspectives outside of what we might be otherwise exposed to.
  • Learn a new skill – with our extra spare time (especially those Saturday afternoons that used to be allocated to watching college football), we have been able to spend our time learning new things…everything from homesteading skills like building small structures, firewood preparation, gardening, and caring from animals; simple home repair like painting, wiring, and plumbing; food preservation skills like canning, fermenting, and dehydration; and other general skills like knife sharpening, chainsaw repair and marksmanship.  All of these things we learned in the time that otherwise would have been spent watching TV.
  • Get in shape – Even just a few minutes a day can go a long way toward improving your physiscal conditioning, extend your life, and help you stay healthy.  Whether this takes the form of running (one of Maria’s favorites) or chopping wood (one of my favorites), personal well-being is an important part of our lives.
  • Spend more time with our family and our community – arguably one of our favorite things to do with our spare time is to spend time with people.  Yup.  Good old fashioned, flesh and blood people.  We share every meal at the dining room table as a family and talk about our day.  We spend our mornings and nights playing on the floor with our boys.  On a Saturday night, we play board games with each other, or with our neighbors.  On Sundays, we will share a meal with my parents or my brother.  In the summer, we’ll spend afternoons having a barbecue with friends in our community.  Sure, we don’t always know what the score was in the big game, but we now have deeper, richer relationships with the people that we love most.
  • Improve our food quality – Whether it is using your time to plant a fruit tree, maintain a garden, cook a meal with sfood from the local farm market, or put up some canned fruits and vegetables, there are few places where your time is better spent than to improve the quality of food that you and your family eat.  This is probably the area where Maria spends the majority of her previous “TV time”.
  • Write a blog – what time do we use to write our blogs?  You guessed it…weeknight evenings.  The very same time that we had wasted on TV only a few years ago.

We often get asked how we find the time to do all of the things that we do around our homestead.  The answer is simple…we stopped watching TV.  Yeah, it was kindof a pain to work with the cable company to drop the service, and yeah, there are times that there are shows we would like to watch that we can’t, and we can’t always participate in the discussions on Monday morning about the score of the game or the last episode of “Breaking Bad”.  We even get some pretty strange looks when we tell people that we don’t have cable.  But in retrospect, the decision seems simple.  Would you rather…

  • Pay $1,500 a year for the privilege to spend 2-3 hours a day, 700-1000 hours a year, sitting on a sofa and watching programs that, at the end of the year, will have added little or no value to your life other than providing fodder for meaningless discussions with other people about what you watched.

OR

  • Save that money, improve your education, learn skills that will enable you to be more accountable for your self and your family, save even more money doing the things that you would have hired other people for in the past, enrich your relationships with the people that you love, build a stronger community around you, get in shape, enhance your food quality, and maybe even start a business?

Every moment is a decision about how we will live our lives.  So, the choice is yours…what will you do with your extra 1,000 hours a year?