Homesteading is more than just moving out of the city, leaving the rat race, and planting a garden. There are skills to learn. There are mistakes to make – lots of them. While you can begin to learn these essential homestead skills from a well-stocked homestead library, there is no substitution for experience and learning from your own mistakes.
There are 5 essential steps that you can take before you go shopping for your dream acreage – that will make you a better homesteader. Practising these steps now will help you build your skills and your self-reliance before you quit the rat race. In this 3 part series I offer you the 5 steps that you can begin right now. Gain confidence in these 5 steps and you will save money, save time, and have fun while you build your homestead skill-set. Master these 5 steps and you’ll have a firm foundation to build your homestead when your dreams and reality converge.
Here’s part 2 in this 3 part series.
Step 2: Learn to preserve your food for winter, build your food storage for winter, and learn herbal medicine and first aid
While at first glance this seems to be 3 separate steps – preserving food, storing food, and using herbs and herbal medicine, these steps are intertwined. Buying food and herbs in season, while they are freshest, follows at the feet of cooking from scratch. But it goes beyond this. Buying produce, herbs, and meat in bulk, direct from the farmer will save you money, but only if you learn to preserve it so that none goes to waste.
You’ll need to gather equipment for the judicious use of food preservation methods like canning, dehydrating, fermenting, and root cellaring. You’ll need instruction books – that homestead library will become very useful to you. You’ll need to make a few mistakes – the winter squash will get fuzzy, the potatoes will sprout, before you get it down pat. You’ll find, as I did, that your family has specific preferences that the canning book didn’t mention. When you walk this path before you make the big move – it’s a lot less costly.
As a newlywed, I was gifted with a 40 lb. box of pears from my inlaws. When you first buy pears in bulk they are hard and green. If pears are allowed to ripen on the tree the inside of the pear, near the core is mush, before the outside is yellow and sweet. So pears are picked green, just as the apple green colour begins to pale, and the pear is blushed by the sun. It takes a week or more for them to turn from their unripe state to juicy, sweet perfection. But once they do ripen, they ripen instantly – 40 lbs. all juicy sweet at once.
I was clueless. No way could two people eat 160 pears in a week. I didn’t own a few dozen quart jars to beautifully preserve the pears in thin syrup. And dear, sweet MIL left the box of pears and travelled home, assuming I’d know what to do. I didn’t. I searched my scant personal library to find a way to preserve this bounty before they all went mouldy. I found a recipe for pear butter – like pear jam. Never having made even apple butter before, I peeled and sliced the pears and cooked them according to the recipe. I poured the mash into jars and water bath canned them. And then put them on my preserve shelf. When we moved to our first modest acreage a year later, the pear butter moved with us.
This year add one technique to your food preservation mastery. That might be dehydrating fruits and vegetables, making jams and jellies, making pickles, fermenting sauerkraut, canning fruits, pressure canning vegetables or meat, or even root cellaring vegetables. These are things you can easily do before the move. Buy food in season from your local farmers, and preserving the bounty. When I buy fresh blueberries direct from the farm in August, I pay $1 a lb. In January those same blueberries are $5 per lb from the freezer section of my local grocery store. I save $4 a lb, just by putting the berries in the freezer bags myself. Plus the ones from the farmer don’t have the coating of chemicals that keeps the berries from sticking in the bag, like the grocery store freezer blueberries.
I’m not sure that we ever opened a jar to eat it. I had never made jam before. We didn’t use much jam. And I had cooked it so long that it was more like fruit leather in a jar than jam. In 2003, 20 years later, we opened the jars, fed the pear butter to our chickens and ducks, washed the jars, and packed them up for our move to the Kootenays. But in that 20 years I had mastered making jam, making pickles, canning fruit, pressure canning vegetables, dehydrating fruits and vegetables, making wine, freezing, and cold storage techniques. Today when faced with 40 lbs. of ripening pears, I dry them, cored but unpeeled. We love “pear candy.”
We found we didn’t really care for canned fruit. Your family will have their own preferences. Better to find out in the city that your family prefers dried pears but canned peaches, wants all their apple sauce as fruit leather, and doesn’t like preserved cantaloupe in any form. This way, you can plan your preserving and get the most bang for your buck, in your first season on your homestead.
Herbal medicine and first aid
I put herbal medicine and herbal first aid in with this second step because it is a skill that takes years to master. But it’s a skill that you can add to every single season, preserving herbs by drying for tea, or preserving in oil for balms and massage oils or alcohol for tinctures. Adding a few essential oils to your repertoire will help you stay healthy and sane, and help you avoid costly trips to the ER and your GP.
My very first experience with herbal remedies was the day I was robbed. I was 18 and working at the Bank of Montreal in Malliardville (BC, Canada). It was Friday — payday. It was the second time in less than a year that a robber had come to my teller’s wicket with a gun and a brown paper bag with a note scrawled on it in blue ink. The note read, “Give me all your money. I’ve got a gun.” Time seemed to stand still. The young man – older than me – had a bulge in his right sweat pants pocket and he held his hand there, moving something to emphasize the instructions in the note. Nothing in his appearance would have alarmed anyone. He was dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants – average height, average build, Caucasian, clean shaven, and cleanly cut hair. He never spoke.
There were no simulated robber practice drills to teach you the body memory to stay alive, in that situation. In Canada, in 1977, there were no armed guards in the banks and no one carried guns – except the robber. The tellers’ wickets were at the farthest end of the bank away from the entrance door. The bank manager, loans officer, and clerks were all on the side counter closest to the door. My fellow teller’s were at lunch and I was alone at my wicket. Since I was robbed a few months earlier, while working for the Royal Bank in downtown Vancouver, and had even been to court to identify my robber, I sort of knew the best practices for the situation.
In those days tellers actually had a cash drawer full of bills and coins, and under the 20s was a stack of 10 marked bills that you were supposed to remove the paperclip from, secretly, and stuff in the robber’s bag, without being noticed. My hands were shaking. I glanced up at his face. Relieved I saw that he was looking over his shoulder, and not at me. I discreetly slipped the paper clip off the marked bills, and slid the wad into his bag. I continued gathering up each stack of bills – one denomination at a time, and put them in the bag. My hands were sweating. My mouth was dry. I hesitated as I decided whether or not to lift the coin tray and add to the stack the fifties and hundreds that were under my coin tray and the American bills. I decided against it, and hastily, still shaking, pushed the bag under my teller’s wicket toward the robber.
There was a button with a silent alarm that I wasn’t supposed to press until the robber was clearly out of the branch. Pressing it prematurely could force the robber back into the branch where he may take hostages and injure the bank’s customers. I watched, as the robber walked quickly down the long aisle to the front doors, as the next person in line came up to my wicket. That’s when I first noticed that the line at my wicket had grown to 7 people.
As soon as the glass door closed behind him, I put the closed sign over my wicket cage and pressed the silent alarm – to the frustration of the waiting customers. I took out a piece of paper and a pen, and wrote down a description of the robber with my shaking hands – rehearsing the description in my head so I wouldn’t forget.
The bank’s loans officer answered the phone. She looked at me with questioning eyes. I silently nodded and she came immediately over to my wicket. Another teller magically appeared to take over the bank’s customers for the rest of the day. I was excused from my position and taken to the cafe next door and given a generously strong cup of chamomile tea with honey, and then another. I remember shaking. I remember crying. And after giving my testimony to first my own supervisor, then the loans officer, and then a constable they ordered a taxi at bank expense, and I was escorted home where I slept for hours.
On Monday I returned to work, and it was as if nothing was untoward. Business went on as usual. The bank customers never heard of the robbery. I never had a chance to testify because within 2 months I had left for Oklahoma and my first year of university. I had learned to use herbs for stress and made judicious use of chamomile tea, mint tea, and coffee several times over the next 6 years, while I earned my degree.
You’ve probably already been using natural medicine in your daily life — coffee, chocolate, mint, ginger, or chamomile tea are entry level herbal remedies. Get a few good reference books — Kindle books can be read on your phone — and continue the life long journey of learning about natural healing and herbs. You’ll improve your health. You empower yourself with the knowledge necessary to treat most ailments. And you’ll learn to listen to your body.
Here’s some herbs that grow wild in a meadow near you, to get you started.
Step 3: Raise some of your own food
When I was a young mom, we moved out to our first acreage, near the city. We double-dug garden beds, in the slug infested meadows of Mission, B.C. We planted cabbage, corn, kale, and beans. We grew them organically, when organic was “normal” gardening, and we harvested our food at the end of every season. Much of it we ate fresh in salads. We froze the surplus. We pressure canned the rest. We stored them in a cold room, in the damp basement. And then I bought frozen peas and corn at the grocery store because I wasn’t sure how to cook what I’d grown and preserved. (You have permission to laugh.)
After 5 or 6 years, I ended up dumping the food from the jars, washing them up, and repeating the process. Before the days of the internet, there were no mentors to tell me how to incorporate the beautiful, healthy food that I’d grown, into my weekly menu planning. I improved over the years, studying cookbooks that I borrowed from the library, and testing various dishes on my family, till we found some favourites. Today I teach online scratch cooking courses through my blog. My expertise in both the garden and the kitchen, grew through trial and error over decades. Start your education this season and you’ll be ready for the move when the time comes.
Bonus: When you empower yourself by raising the food you eat, you’ll save money. That will help you get out of debt and help you save up for your homestead — getting you closer to your dreams.
This is a 3 part series.