by Pete Cecil of Bend, OR
Running a self-sufficient homestead or small farm can often be overwhelming. There never seems to be enough time to do it all, or to do some important things well. We often find ourselves trying to figure out big ways to help pay off the mortgage or to purchase something that will make the work easier or faster. Unfortunately, these plans sometimes create more debt and work and problems than they were intended to solve. Perhaps one of the solutions is to start thinking small. The cumulative effect of small improvements over time can be impressive, and may eventually add up to large savings.
One place to start is to look at how you relate to your community. If you stay on your homestead and don’t connect with your larger community or neighborhood, you deprive yourself of opportunities for many kinds of mutual support. On the other hand, if you freely help and/or fairly barter with your neighbors and local businesses, your chances of long term success will be greater, and you’ll have a community that actively cares about your well-being.
Getting to know your neighbors can be slow and awkward in the beginning. However, if it becomes known that you’re willing to treat people fairly and lend a hand to a neighbor when the need arises, you’ll find that like-minded people are often interested in getting to know you.
A friend of mine who has been an urban and rural homesteader is very familiar with the difficulty of breaking the ice when it comes to meeting neighbors. He says the key is to start simple.
“I make it a point of waving at everyone, even if I don’t recognize the vehicle, or I can’t see who it is through the tinted windows. I make a point of running into folks at the mail box just to exchange greetings, comment on the weather, or the volume of junk mail, wish them a good day,” he says. “These little familiarities can lead to longer conversations and help identify shared interests and concerns.”
Many of the improvements on my small acreage are brought about by bartering and networking. A friend introduced me to a local beekeeper who wanted to expand his hives. He was looking for a natural gardener who had feed for his bees and didn’t use pesticides. For the past five years, we’ve traded a share of the honey for a few square feet to set his hives. He maintains the hives and I provide the habitat. He has since provided the same service to several of my gardening friends around town.
A local flooring contractor needed to find a place to store his dump trailer. He wanted to avoid the hassle of paying to store it in an equipment yard with limited access. He now stores it for free in a unused corner of my property. I have access to the trailer when he’s not using it and I can dump my household and construction debris into it anytime. It’s a win-win.
I heat with wood and have never paid for firewood. Several tree service companies know that they can drop off an occasional load at my place to avoid paying dumping fees. These companies also tell their clients that I’m usually looking for wood. Another neighbor recently took out a dozen large trees and wanted it all removed. With the help of a neighbor with a tractor with forks we were able to stack the logs in a corner on my place. I didn’t have to cut it or haul it and I can now process it at my leisure. Some I’ll burn, some I’ll give to friends who can’t afford to buy it, and the remainder I’ll sell.
The firewood gathering also illustrates the ripple effect of sharing. Although I have a hydraulic splitter, some of the Ponderosa Pine that come my way are monsters, so it’s good to have a friend that I can call on to help wrestle them onto the machine. For a couple hours of help, he’ll take home a load of wood to supplement his pile. He has also helped me maintain my pastures, knowing that he can call on me to help out with small projects around his place for which he lacks the tools or expertise.
Another friend who is a semi-retired metal fabricator was telling me about several logs on his place that were too big for his equipment to process into firewood. A few days later I stopped by and bucked and split it in a couple of hours. I didn’t expect payment since he’s always treated me fairly personally and in business. In return he’s helped me out with a couple of metal projects at little or no charge.
One of the local breweries that I like to support after a long day at the woodpile has been generous in giving me as much brewery waste as I want. I use the liquids as a fertilizer on my pastures, the spent grain gets fed to my chickens and sheep. An employee there, a prep cook, also saves greens for my chickens and shares garden starts, in return I give her chicken eggs.
My garden benefits in other ways from this ‘circle of life’ approach. I get a bag of vegetables weekly from Farm To Friends, a local vegetable delivery service. They always include a large bag of greens for chicken feed at no charge. They also allow me to pickup extra scraps at their business if I drop by, which saves them dump fees.
A single mom operates a citrus stand here in town. I noticed that she needed to have a guard rail installed and a wooden handrail repaired. She’d already fallen off the truck tailgate once and couldn’t afford to take any time off. She mentioned that she couldn’t afford the cost of handrails and repairs. I had enough scrap material in my blacksmith shop to complete the job and it only took a few hours to install it. A week later I went back and made a couple of modifications that would make her job easier. I invested a couple of hours helping a small business person be safer and haven’t had to pay for oranges since.
When it comes to building up your community, it’s great when you can bring to the table those practical skills with obvious value to your fellow homesteaders. But remember, everyone brings value to the community. Sometimes offering a couple of hours of unskilled labor, providing transportation to a medical appointment, helping organize a yard sale, or just listening respectfully to a neighbor going through a hard time can strengthen the ties that bind us all together. I have a friend, a fellow writer and author with homestead experience, who is the first to admit he’s not great with building or repairs. He’s lousy at measuring and hates DIY projects. But, he’s happily assisted many a friend and neighbor write up their resumes or letters to sort out billing issues, or proofread articles.
The common theme to all of this is community, respect, and mutual support. I’m happy to help out when I can and don’t expect anything in return. If that person can help me or someone else out a little, then that’s a win. I also make sure I offer to pay a fair rate if they need the business or do something worth more than the value of our bartering.
All of these people have become an integral part of my small farm and several good friendships have endured over the years. While each dealing or trade may be considered small, when put together they can add up to a substantial saving. A happier, healthier homestead and a better community are nourished and created.