Homesteading food today is about using less energy, eating wholesome local food, involving your family in the life of the community and making wiser choices that will improve the quality of life for you, your community and the environment.
From growing your own organic herbs and vegetables– to small plot farming with pigs, chickens and goats– there’s a way for each of us to take part.
I sit, watching the sky darken. I’ve finished my basic daily chores. In my head I revisit the list. Quail, geese and chickens—fed, watered, eggs collected. Rabbit hutch—cleaned. Now the doe has some space to run from her growing 4-week old litter.
I still have the onerous task of mucking out our sow’s stall. I’ll need to dispose of the straw she’s kept so warm for her litter this winter. The lice have not died off despite recent bone-chilling weather. Inside the house, I pile the eggs in a basket, keeping quail and chicken eggs separate. Goose eggs normally go to the garage for incubating, but today I pack a half dozen to send to a friend in Louisiana.
They’ll hatch under one of his broody Cotton Patch geese. Just as I close the package for shipping, I hear a commotion from the geese. I glance out the window expecting them to be in the pond mating. I can barely see the tops of their heads pointed down and straight out chasing and yelling at something.
Slipping back into my boots I run down the hill to chase away whatever predator might be there—only to discover one of my ganders tearing into a hen. He simply hates chickens anytime, but during nesting season his fervent antipathy only grows. I rescue the hen, take her to the barn and make a nest for her near the quiet rabbits and quail so she can rest and recover.
And then the rain comes.
I don’t feel like mucking a pigpen in the rain. I decide to procrastinate and do the office work piling up on my desk instead.
That’s a typical day on the farm.
When we moved to Blue Ridge full-time six years ago, my husband Danny and I expected that there would be a wealth of farmers ready to quench the unending appetite of our restaurant for fresh products. That wasn’t the case. So I feverishly began to look for some space to plant heirloom produce and specialty herbs. We happened upon a small 1.5-acre parcel in town that we were able to turn into a sustainable homestead project to illustrate what anyone can do in their own backyard. The Cook’s Farm, as we named it, is proof that you don’t need 40 acres and a mule, or even 10 fields and a tractor, to have a homestead. Lots as small as an acre can provide abundantly for a family.
My concept of homesteading is committing to self-sufficiency on whatever level you are comfortable. For us, it encompasses growing and preserving food, specifically growing and saving heirloom seeds.
I focus on raising animals on the American Livestock Conservancy List–breeding for meat while preserving heirloom bloodlines. Ultimately we’d like to generate our own electricity with solar or wind power. I will probably never make my own fabric or clothing, but some homesteaders take self-sufficiency to that length as well. Ours is a more measured approach, one that fits within our lifestyle and abilities. That is one of the most critical parts of homesteading, I believe. Diving in without testing the waters is a recipe for disappointment if not disaster.
The Cook’s Farm has the small footprint of a typical urban/suburban farm, but produces enough product on its half-acre garden to supply specialty items to the restaurant, feed kids during our two weeks of Farm-to-Fork camps in the summer, and have some extra to spare. Our chickens keep the classes, several customers, and our family supplied with farm fresh eggs.
Raising backyard chickens is a great place to test your skill set and desire. It’s where I began, researching how to build a coop, learning chicken attributes– layers versus meat chickens– and finding out practical ways to care for chickens. I was immediately hooked. Be sure to check your local zoning laws to make sure it’s legal, and then determine whether you have the patience for baby chicks or want to start off with pullets or hens. Honeybees are another great project for a small farm. Other than the investment in equipment and seasonal tasks, poultry and apiaries are very self-sufficient.
A Christmas gift led directly to a change to larger scale production. We were given a Duroc pig for the holidays in 2013. As little Noel grew into a 200-pound gilt, we knew it was time to find a bigger space. And we definitely needed to find one outside the city limits– it’s never a good thing to get a call from the neighbors saying, “Your pig is heading down toward Main Street!”
Now we have a 28-acre parcel. We are slowly making the transition from our original space downtown. Here, we make our own cheese, can our produce, gather our own honey, save our own seeds, and preserve our own meats. I have learned how to give an injection; hatch out chicken, duck and goose eggs. I know how to break ground and plow; how to make a cold frame; how to install an electric fence; and how to deliver and nurse piglets. We make our own sausage and cure our own hams, gather our eggs, and grow our own produce and herbs.
There are still plenty of things on my ‘learn to-do list’ that I need to know with the new farm. First on my list is to train a guard dog for our poultry and geese. We lost two of our Cotton Patch Geese the first month–a blow to my spring breeding program with this American Livestock Conservancy rare breed.
One thing that is not on my list is learning how to butcher small livestock like rabbits or chickens. Luckily that side of the equation is addressed by my husband Danny—or I can trade services with friends. One thing that homesteading has taught me is how to swap, barter and network with like-minded individuals. It’s always great to meet someone with a boar to mate with your sow; or someone who wants to raise the same rabbits so we can track and trade breeding stock.
Homesteading has truly given me the mental and spiritual skills to deal realistically with life, death and failure. No other career or relationship has taught me those so completely.
I would like to learn the differences between trees and the unique properties of various types of wood, something my husband can readily do. We’d both like to learn how to witch for water with a forked branch or a bent metal hanger (not really at the top of the list but a cool skill nonetheless). I’d also really like to learn how to read an almanac and to milk a goat.
I really need to learn how to set an ear tag or tattoo for animal identification. I have the tools just not the heart for it yet.
Items I treasure– aside from my family and animals? I would have to say, my very own tool set– including my own drill– which was my favorite Christmas gift this year.
Now, I really need to learn how to properly use the rest of the tools in our basement.
Well, that can wait until the rain passes.
Michelle Moran and her husband Danny Mellman own and operate Harvest on Main, Blue Ridge Grocery, and Masseria Kitchen + Bar. Moran worked for The Nielsen Company as Executive Editor for Gourmet Retailer and Progressive Grocer, as well as Editorial Director of Gourmet Business before a chicken named Betty pulled her into the world of homesteading.
For registration and more information about the Farm-to-Table Camp for Kid-Chefs at the Cook’s Farm in Blue Ridge, GA, contact Michelle by email at email@example.com
Photos by Hannah Queen