I have dabbled with a homestead or off the grid lifestyle for years practicing some of the skills needed but was never able to give up the amenities I was used to or willing to put in the work and effort necessary to make the transition. My love for travel has also been at odds with this type of lifestyle.
Far from being an expert and with limited first hand experience take my advise for what it is, musings of a dreamer. In my estimation there are seven skills that must be mastered to fulfill the reality of living self sufficiently. I will not go into how to become efficient in any of these categories. There are so many resources for all of these skills from canning to gardening to hunting and fishing. My goal is to let you know what skills you will need to master to attempt this lifestyle.
- Agriculture The first of these skills and perhaps the most obvious is the ability to grow a sizable portion of the produce for your family’s personal consumption and to provide fodder for whatever animals you may have. You will need to think beyond the vegetable garden and think of hay fields and growing mangels (fodder beats) or pumpkins as animal feed. Fast growing prolific vegetables that you can can, pickle, freeze or otherwise preserve should be a priority. A lot of this will depend on the amount of land you have. Do you have enough land to plant corn, wheat or some other grain? Can you provide pasture or hay production? Work with what you have, it is amazing how much you can grow even in a small backyard setting. Another example of agriculture that is overlooked is to take advantage of wooded areas or fields around you. “Forest farming” can be a way to extend your productive land. Is there an area with a good berry patch, a wild mushroom tree, or some wild asparagus? See if you can help out these areas so that these wild additions to your “garden” can spread and propagate. A little helping hand may reap benefits in years to come.
- Animal Husbandry This can be as wide ranging and varied as the gardening options discussed above. Animal husbandry can provide you with meat (protein and fat), eggs, honey, fiber, leather and dairy products. If you dreamed of owning your own dairy cow remember an average cow will yield ~ 8 gallons of milk per day during her lactating period whereas a dairy goat will yield about 1/5 of that amount. You will have to learn about ways to utilize this excess milk. Think about butter production, yogurt, buttermilk, ice cream or simply animal feed. Meat animals can be cows, sheep, goats or pigs. Think about purchasing suckling pigs and raising them for slaughter. A better feed to meat conversion can be had with smaller animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs or rats. Do not be meat prejudiced, millions of people in the world eat rat as a main part of their diet. Fiber and leather can be a useful side product. Poultry can provide both meat and eggs. I have raised turkeys, ducks, geese, guinea hens and chickens and the eggs are all similar in taste if not size. The taste of fresh eggs however cannot be beat. Do not overlook insects not just bees for honey but worms for bait or other insect species for added protein sources.
- Hunting/Fishing/Trapping Keep in mind that you are hunting for the pot and fishing for the pan. A big game animal will provide you with a lot of meat but remember that that is your purpose and not a trophy. Smaller game animals such as rabbit and squirrel or birds can be a greater return for the effort. The same can be said for fishing remember you are fishing to eat so forego any catch and release species. Twenty bluegill are better than one bass. If you are a trapper the animal does not have to be only for fur it can be meat as well.
- Foraging This is the most important area to make sure you get proper training before you go out and try sampling any wild edible. Mushroom collecting can be especially dangerous but there are also many poisonous plants that must be avoided. In addition to obtaining food for your own use do not forget to gather nuts such as acorns or other tree nuts mast for animals. There are certainly some crops such as wild berries and some tree nuts that can be utilized in quantity as well as just providing supplemental ingredients. Do not forget to find some maple or birch trees where sap can be gathered for sugar production.
- Gleaning Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable. This is a great way to obtain large quantities of produce for your personal use. The best items I have been able to glean are potatoes and winter squash. Sometimes some of the produce will be damaged by the mechanical harvester and these should be processed or used immediately. Often however whole vegetables can be obtained from the field perfect for the root cellar. Always be sure you ask permission of the farmer prior to gleaning the field. A different type of gleaning is to utilize the discarded produce and other foodstuffs from the green grocer, supermarket or restaurant. This product is perfect for animal feed and can greatly supplement the food cost for your livestock. Again talk to the establishment and enquire about the possibility of utilizing this material. Make sure you make it clear that it is for livestock feed to avoid any liability concerns they might have. Another option for gathering some unwanted food is to befriend the local commercial fisherman. Quite often when they are fishing for a certain species they will get a quantity of “bycatch.” this is the so-called “trash” fish which is not commercially viable. Many of these species are delicious and vastly under-appreciated. With a little creativity in the kitchen wonderful meals can be had. Just by talking and befriending the local fisherman my father would get bags of herring recently brought in from the weirs. We would pickle and can this herring and have a year’s supply of pickled fish in our pantry.
- Scavanging It is important to keep your eyes open. Any number of useful items are free for the taking as they are being discarded by their owners. Used equipment that may only require minor repairs or could supply parts is one example. Don’t overlook anything, used pallets can be firewood, fencing for the pig pen or construction material.
- Tinkering Mechanical aptitude is important. The ability to maintain or repair small engines or create something out of scrap parts can be invaluable. Skills such as carpentry, plumbing, etc. will all come in handy.
These are the skills you will need. There is nothing like first hand experience do some research and get started.