January 2017 Homestead Update

For the most part I have been posting all of our news on our Facebook page but I want to update the blog with some of that news and a little more.

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Spreading rabbit manure and waste hay on the mini orchard we’re planting this spring. It should make for beautiful views and eventual summer shade for our picture window.

Early in the month I ordered our seed potatoes, quite a few fruit trees, and almost all of our seed order. I’m still on the fence about ordering some strawberry plants for the country garden or whether I should give myself another season to improve fertility and weed pressure before planting them.

The weather here has been incredibly mild. The past week has been in the 40s and almost 50s. The yard is very muddy and the rainy weather really revealed a weakness in our rabbitry: the scrap roof panels I was using to cover cages and the new hutches just isn’t good enough. I attempted to patch the holes in them but parts of the cages were constantly getting wet.

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New roofs for everyone

Last weekend Menards had roofing panels on sale so I bought enough to replace all the hutches and all the cages in use. I also took advantage of a mild Sunday morning before the awful Packers performance in the NFC Championship to built a fourth hutch. This one is a 3-hole version of the same design I’ve been using, which now houses our herd buck Stewie, our pet bunny Lion Turtle, and the third hole will house the black buck I’ll be saving out of our November litters.

I weighed those November growouts at eight weeks and only two make the cut I’ve established for our breeding progam (minimum weight 3.5lbs at 8 weeks, with good bodies), a black buck and a black doe. Our two REW bucks are very docile, so I’ve considered trying to sell them as pets, but not sure I want to go through the extra work when there’s not a lot of money to be made versus eating them.

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Speaking of eating, I processed my first rabbit this month! One of our original “free” rabbits was a doe that never took in colony and never lifted in cage breeding. I decided it was finally time to cull her. I found parts of the process (removing the head and skinning mainly) to be harder than what it looks like in YouTube videos but 15 minutes or so for my first time wasn’t bad at all in my book. It will be interesting to compare butchering a mature rabbit with the growouts I’ll be harvesting in the next couple weeks.

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Lastly, we had 7 little wrigglers born yesterday to our mutt doe Chocolate. There were two whites, two solids, and three brokens in the litter. There was also a learning experience for me that thankfully wasn’t too costly.

When I did morning check (5:30AM) on her I found a lone kit born dead on the wire. After a quick Facebook conversation with one of my rabbit mentors (the awesome Amy Gamble of Mountain Range Rabbitry) I learned that her nest was overstuffed with hay. I quickly went back out and removed about half of the nesting material and Chocolate was pulling fur again! An hour later I found 7 little babies born alive and well in the nest, just like they should be. Now I know to take action if I see an overstuffed nest box like that and I’m incredibly thankful we didn’t lose the entire litter!

The kits made it through the night last night but after our experiences with the November litters I am trying to have low expectations about the survival rate. I will, however, be curious to see their growth rates. Before we lost her colony litter to rats there was one kit that outgrew all of my purebred growouts by a decent margin.

There is another doe already past her day 30 but she has not shown any signs of pregnancy. I will give her until day 40 before rebreeding. In February we have our two purebred does due, including our first litter of purebred blue New Zealands.

Three Steps On Our Walk to Freedom

The phrase “walking to freedom” is common parlance in the back-to-the-land movement for getting out of the restrictions of an urban environment to a homestead (or farm) that allows you, at minimum, to cover many of your basic needs and live more sustainably. The end goal, once acquired, for many is to serve as a land base that could support your family (and extended community even) in the case of a disaster or SHTF situation.

Right now I’m a Prepper Lite. In our location in urban southeastern Wisconsin, there are very few risk factors I feel necessary to prepare for. There’s very low natural disaster risk. Momentary power outages, supplementary heat in the winter, a certain number of days clean water. Stored food in case of shopping disruption, income loss, sickness, etc. I’ve covered some of these and I’m slowly covering more. Anything more drastic, like a true SHTF, I can’t worry about because I don’t have the landbase to even consider doing that level of prepping.

But for a variety of reasons I’m interested in supplying more of our own needs, as well as bartering with others for what we can’t or don’t want to provide. Like with my post on animals I find homesteading incredibly therapeutic. Fostering a more direct connection to my small piece of the earth has done more for my mental illness than anything. From reading the likes of Joel Salatin, it’s something I believe in ethically with a passion. In an urban environment, there’s only so much can be done, both because of size and also because of legal restrictions.

For long-time readers of my other blog or those who came from my journals on a frugality/early-retirement forum, you know I’m pulling back from sharing many financial details. But I have to share a few here to provide context for our journey.

Step 1 – Get out from underwater. As best I can estimate, we currently owe $20-$30,000 more on our house than we would clear post-sale. It doesn’t pencil out particularly well as a rental property and I’m not particularly interested in land-lording unless we need to as a temporary bridge. So financial priority #1 is shoving as much free cashflow into pre-paying the mortgage while also building cash reserves.

Step 2 – Hoard cash. It’s always good to have defensive cash reserves. It shocks me in a country as rich as the USA is that so few people have even a rudimentary emergency fund. At the same time, I have to be careful how quickly I build cash. Mathematically it makes more sense to throw cash at pre-paying the mortgage than letting it earn a pittance of interest. It makes even more sense to fill a 401(k) or traditional IRA as a tax shelter.

I try to keep our federal income tax at zero or as close as reasonably possible both for efficiency and for ethical reasons.  Over the past few years my political views have changed drastically and I feel I have a moral imperative to give the government as little money as I possibly can, otherwise I’m contributing towards all manner of environmental degradation and violence in other countries.

Step 3 – Find the right property. There’s an immense amount of literature on this, much of which I’ve absorbed. Goals change and the only known about the future is the unknown. That said, my current expectations look like this:

Buying land with an existing house, financed with a traditional mortgage, somewhere in our current bio-region. Maria will more than likely still be working full-time and so we’ll need a non-killer commute. It’s possible by the time we complete steps 2 and 3 that interest rates will make financing land prohibitive, in which case we are open to buying raw or slightly improved land in cash and then cashflowing infrastructure, using it as a weekend or part-time homestead via a camper or mobile home. She would ideally love to design and build our own house instead of buying something pre-existing.

I don’t think I can adequately homeschool the kids and be a full-time farmer without burning out, but I would like to sell excess produce to help defer expenses and allow Maria to downshift her career earlier. I already do a (very) small amount, hence the “farmstead” description on this blog. Analysis of any property therefore has to include our own personal preferences plus an economic analysis of its agricultural potential, keeping in mind that the local food market is already quite competitive and will likely only grow more so in the coming decade.

My interests are very strongly in permaculture design and this cold-temperate bio-region provides good opportunities for interesting land design. One of most successful permaculture farmers, Mark Shepard, is in Wisconsin (albeit a dissimilar climate) and he uses annuals and animal agriculture to cashflow the long-term perennial design. I would love to have a property that feeds us now and feeds my grandkids a century from now.

Speaking of multiple generations, a possible wildcard in all this is a farm in my dad’s family that’s been in the family for about a century now. My grandfather died before I become interested in sustainable agriculture but he was one of the early pioneers of soil conservation during the Dust Bowl era. There’d be a certain poetry in keeping it in the family.

My aunt currently lives there, working in town, while the land is rented to a neighboring dairy farm for rotating between corn and alfalfa. There is a non-zero possibility of her leaving after she retires, us moving there as some sort of farm managers, with most of the acreage still rented out, but a decent portion for me to use as I wish. I’m not holding my breath about it but it’s something that has been discussed. The main challenges with this would be the extra politics involved, learning a new region (similar climate but hundreds of miles away), and a much smaller employment base for Maria to try and find income. I don’t think it will happen but wanted to mention it here.