I love reading Hobby Farms. I can just see myself on each month’s pages, as it shows different aspects of what my life could be like. My childhood dream of a large farmhouse on acres of grassy, rolling hills lined with split-rail fences grew as I did. Several horses whinnying greetings to wake me at the break of a new, crisp day. Me creeping downstairs in the still-dim house to whip up some breakfast while the children stir awake. I take the carafe of fresh, raw milk gleaned from my dark-eyed cow to mix with the warm brown eggs my hens donated, and stir them into the freshly ground wheat flour. Last week’s leftover milk was turned into sweet butter to melt on top of the stack of fluffy, golden cakes for each child. We trade homemade cheese for syrup that our friends in Vermont harvested from their maple trees. After breakfast, the children cheerily help me clean up dishes and start about today’s milking, feeding chickens, riding tractors through the lovely fruit orchard and transplanting some herbs into Mama’s fragrant kitchen garden. In the summers, the smell of different fruits we can and sell at the weekend farmer’s markets sets a happy mood while chatting with neighbors and friends. The money we make is turned into supplies for our luxurious homemade soaps and candles. I’ve driven through Kentucky; I know this can be mine. I even have experience doing most of these things on a smaller scale.
Girls, before you convince your husbands that this is the life you’ve always dreamed of, spend a weekend with a real farmer. Not a bed and breakfast facility; a real farm where the only vacancy sign is on the side of the barn. Because there is a difference. And it should ideally be a family dream, not just yours.
The reality of farm life is that it’s rural – dirt roads mean dust all summer and soupy mud all winter. A clean house and car are no longer reality. Fencing is expensive, a necessity for keeping animals, and rarely intact on properties for sale. Neighbors are a thing of the past, for the most part. Quiet, though, it is. There is nothing quite like going to bed with only night birds and crickets in the air. And then the single cluck, a little later, that tells me my hen was just lifted from her perch by a coyote 20 feet from my bedroom window.
Therein lies the reason that country folk keep their shovel on the porch and the shotgun behind the door. Predators requiring abatement you usually know about before you open the door, so you can come equipped. Rattlesnakes clinging to your door frame are a little more startling. My neighbor (I use the term loosely) talks about the one on her front porch when she went out for coffee one morning. She chopped it, scooped it out into the bushes, and calmly sat down to accept the steaming cup as her husband joined her. Nobody ever mentioned that in Mother Earth magazine.
I love organic foods – I cook everything from scratch, and made pancakes every morning for years, different every day. Some days would be pecan, or chocolate chip, or blueberry waffles. I nearly burned down the kitchen with my banana flambé adventure, but those sure were good! And since the family is large, the logical next step for me was to begin to grow my own everything.
I’m really not into cows, but did toy with keeping a family milker so I can have fresh milk, butter or cheese. I’m just glad I never had enough money to move forward with it, because whoever espoused that idea should be shot. Milkers only give the juice if freshened yearly. What a nice euphemism. Anybody got a bored bull they’d like to loan me? And in 11 months, I either get to bottlefeed a calf, or start liking veal so I can have the milk. I’m a mother – I cannot take a lovely calf I just watched birthed and turn it into dinner. Farm fresh anything is worth every dime you pay for it, I’m convinced. Slightly off topic here, but – have you ever noticed that you rarely see cattle grazing in the shade of lovely trees? That’s because they knock them down. I’d love to butcher every bovine that’s ever broken something on my front porch – if I could do so on my own without killing myself in the process.
But then I came across a plan for a small orchard/garden that would be lovely as well as productive. It combined fruit and nut trees, planted so they provided a bit of shade for the squares of vegetables in the center. Companion planting and weeder geese provided the protection from pests that I needed. Chickens would be rotated through to clean up between seasons, providing fertilization and loosening the soil while cleaning every last weed seed from the site. Its amazing simplicity – putting everything together in a well-planned layout – was pure genius. The book even had photos of the man and his wife in what they espoused.
But somehow things are never as simple and logical as they appear. We began planting the veggies; trees would have to come later. Only to find out that using geese to weed is tricky. You have to keep them out of the garden until it’s grown without weeds, and then let the geese in to pull any new sprouts that come up. Your carrots are history either way. My geese ate everything they could find and left the ragweed for me. Then they bit my leg just for good measure. I gave them to the first guy that bought meat goats from me as incentive to do business with me again.
Chickens aren’t so likely to bite the leg that feeds them, and are amazing for keeping the bug population down. But – like most things in the country, there’s always a ‘but’ – they must be given completely free range of the yard to keep spiders out of the house, which translates into them also digging up and eating any edging plants or container gardens you design to spruce up your entryway. Oh, and that means the $100 you just spent on organic seeds is history, as well. Eggs will not necessarily be laid in the beautiful nesting box built specially for them, either, but they will be the one animal to actually pay off more than you put in. Roosters can be quite helpful in several ways, especially if electricity is iffy.
So it only took me five years to learn what my mother told me in the beginning. The serene country life is very lovely – on a visit. Otherwise, it will charge you retail for your raw materials, fight you every step of the way, eat your lunch, and then, if there’s anything left to sell, allow you to ask wholesale price. But you should be willing to be flexible at that. Because most country folk would rather borrow or barter than buy anything.