There is one thing, above all, that separates successful homesteaders from those who aren’t. It is not well drained soil, a southern slope, good water, wealthy markets, or the best genetics. Even with all those things, if you do not have this, you will be a mediocre husbandman at best. What is this great secret key to success? It is a skill once possessed by all men of the soil and all those who carved out a living from the natural world.
The one thing our ancestors had, that the current generation knows little about, was the skill and discipline of observation. For thousands of years, the men and women who worked stock and soil were, by default, observant people. You may have the perfect farm, but if you don’t cultivate this skill you will flounder and fail. An observant man with a poor hillside farm will fair better than you. The art of observation was once handed down by rural people, father to son and mother to daughter. No one necessarily thought much about it, it was just natural. When you walked out to get the cows with your father and he pointed out a plant or a track, you learned to watch and observe. Modern society, with its separation from the land and the natural world has ended this transfer of knowledge. We are at the point now where both parents and children have little in the way of being observant. This is compounded by the fact that we are the most distracted generations that ever existed.
Here is an example
We live in the thousand island region of northern NY, along the St Lawrence river. Sometimes, while traveling to town we might stop at one of the “scenic pull offs”. People travel from all over the country to come see this beautiful and wild area. It’s not uncommon to see a family get out of their car to stretch their legs and look at the river. This is often the scene. Within minutes, each passenger pulls out their smart phone and stares at it’s screen while a bald eagle flies over them without notice. They put the phones away and walk down towards the river. They pass by ripe blackberries, a big rock with fossils on it, and rare turtle without taking notice of any of it. It always makes my giggle that the blackberry picking is so good in an area where 100s of people a day pass through. New homesteaders are often coming from this kind of background.
Why is observation such an important skill?
The very term Husbandry speaks of relationship and intimacy. You need to know your land, your plants, and your animals on a very deep level. The only way to know these things is by observing them.
I once walked into the field of a “back to the land homesteader” and remarked that the field had acid soil. They replied, “Why yes it is. We just had it tested….but how did you know?” The answer was simple, the land told me. When I walk into a field, the first thing I do is observe the plant life. I saw wild strawberries, bedstraw, and very little grass. These plants love acid soil. I don’t need a ph test to tell me that. Most gardening problems can be avoided or fixed by proper observation as well. What weeds are growing? What does that plant tell you about the condition of your soil?
When dealing with livestock, good observation is crucial as well. Identifying illness is just one reason. Knowing that cow is feeling under the weather because she isn’t “acting herself” means you can nip the problem in the bud. Reproductive management is another. If you missed a cow that was in heat, a drop of blood on her tail will tell you she was in heat, and you can do the math to predict the next heat. You don’t notice a drop of blood by skipping through the pasture paying no attention to details. One reason for the uses of hormone shots and poor pregnancy rates in modern dairy farms is lack of observation. The modern debt laden farmer is too busy and distracted to watch his animals closely.
Where does the water drain off the land? Where are the wet spots? Where do the wild turkeys roost and feed? What areas get afternoon sun? Where do the whitetails feed in the evening? Where are the wild blackberries or edible wild plants? These questions you should be able to answer without even thinking about it. To be a successful partner with the land, you need to know its every detail.
If you struggle with being an observant person, make it a point to find one new plant on your land every day. When you get to the house look it up. Learn its culture and uses. Do the same with wildlife, insects, and amphibians. Teach your children to do the same. I have written about how we teach observation to our children using the subject of Nature Study which includes a list of field guides and ideas to help you.