Having spent my life in the rural areas, making a living farming and homesteading, I have seen many people come to the country with big dreams of living the homesteader’s life. Some people make a go of it and some don’t. I’ve watched enough people fail at it that I thought it might be helpful to share some observations I’ve made. Here is an opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes. These observations are in no particular order.
Unrealistic Expectations for Direct to Consumer Sales
There seems to be no end to the number of books, articles, and blog posts that tout the selling of high end organic meats and produce as a way to make money. What most people fail to take into consideration is that you need a wealthy, urban market to make any money doing this. Most homesteaders can’t afford land near such a market and most took up homesteading, in part, to escape such areas. If you try to do what people like Joel Salatin do without a wealthy market to sell it to, you will fail. No matter how much you talk up your product, no matter what great a case you make for the superiority of your product, no matter how well you explain that when “true costs” are factored that your product isn’t really expensive, as long as your potential customer can’t afford to keep fuel oil in his furnace and is worried about buying shoes for his children…the argument is purely academic to him. Those who are not too poor to buy your food can grow it themselves. Trying to make a living selling high cost food in rural areas is a dead end game.
Biting Off More Than You Can Chew
When people make the decision to leave the rat race and take up an agrarian lifestyle they are, understandably, excited. Often they don’t appreciate the sharp learning curve they are about to encounter and dive in head first. People who have never grown a garden all of the sudden try to grow 90% of their produce the first year. People who have never raised livestock buy several species and begin to run into problems. It is easy to get discouraged and go broke when you bite off more than you can chew. Start with some chickens and a couple varieties of vegetables. Next year you’ll be ready for more.
Already Know It All
Books are great. The internet is great. With that said, if you move to the country and don’t observe what the neighbors are doing and take advantage of the knowledge and wisdom of the local “old timers”, you will fail. If you grew up in the suburbs and read a book about gardening, don’t assume that because the old guy up the road does it differently that he’s wrong. If he’s done it that way for 50 years there might be a reason he’s done it that way. Remember, paper never refused ink.
They Never Really Left
If you move to the country and want be a homesteader, you have to live differently than you did before. You can’t just move to the country, buy a dozen laying hens and a couple of dairy goats, and go on your merry way living like you still take up residence in a townhouse 5 minutes from everything. You can’t run to the store ever other day, you’ll go broke. You can’t call a repair man every time something breaks. You can’t drive a new car. You can’t buy new clothes. You can’t take a vacation. If you can do all these things, you are not an agrarian homesteader but a hobby farmer. Remember, you left Egypt for a reason. Stop looking back, longingly, at the days of slavery. If you try to live the homesteader’s life and continue to spend like a city dweller, you won’t last a season.
Forgetting Why They Started
This is directly tied with direct marketing. I have seen countless people start raising meat chickens because they loved the taste or because they wanted healthy food for their children and end up not eating them but selling them. It starts out as a noble attempt to generate some income. But it ends up with people who used to like raising and processing chickens, burned out, discouraged, and just as broke as they were when they didn’t sell any and just liked raising and eating them. When the things you used to grow because you loved to grow and eat them become commodities to be sold, things change. The small homesteader is seldom scaled up enough to make any money at it in the end but he tries anyway. When the emphasis of the homestead changes to growing things for sale, the first thing to get neglected is the family garden. Anything that takes the family away from the garden should be suspect. Next thing you know, you can’t eat your own chickens because you can sell them for $X per pound and all of the sudden you can’t afford your own food! Never lose sight of why you started down this path to begin with. Grow your own food and enjoy the life. Spend meaningful time with your children.