Photo by Faith Cook
Of all the articles I’ve written, this one is the closest to my heart because it serves as a reminder that no matter how long we do this homesteading thing, we’ll always need good mentors. The week before I sat down to write this, my teenage daughter lost a goat kid during her very first kidding.
Many factors played into the loss: an inexperienced vet, very big triplets, malpresentation, stalled labor, insufficient dilation, an emergency cesarean, and toxemia. As soon as the kids were delivered and the doe stitched up, the vet sent us on our way, despite the fact that all three kids were still wet, cold, unconscious, and barely breathing. We weren’t allowed the time to properly warm and revive the kids before traveling 25 minutes to our home. The doe couldn’t tend them because she was still heavily sedated and unaware of her surroundings. Within minutes of starting the warming process at home, the first kid died. In less than 24 hours, our doe declined, developing a fever, going off feed and water, and becoming lethargic. Had we not been blessed with a long line of goat mentors, we would’ve lost all four lives.
We’re not new to homesteading, just fairly new goat owners going through our first kidding season. We've been building a small homestead for many years now, with countless successes under our belts. We owe much of our success to detailed and thorough research before embarking on a new area of interest, utilizing only the best sources for accurate and up-to-date information. Despite all of our preparations, we’ve learned it’s often difficult to apply book knowledge to our farm without the help of mentors and their years of experience. So, if I could offer only one piece of wisdom, it would be to seek and find capable mentors in all your endeavors.
Guides in Unexpected Places
Locating a trustworthy mentor can prove difficult at times. Sometimes there’s a generation gap that keeps new homesteaders from meeting experienced ones, simply because they don’t frequent the same places. Or maybe there’s a lack of people with the requisite knowledge. Whatever the case, just be sure not to overlook the most obvious mentors.
My mom was my first mentor, even before I knew I needed one. Despite not being a homesteader herself, she taught me how to garden, raise chickens, can food, and have a heart for this world’s creatures. I’m now in my mid-40s, but I still call on her when I have a question or need help.
I found my beekeeping mentor by accident when I asked my dad if he happened to know anyone with a honey extractor. Turns out, he knew a commercial beekeeper who, unbeknownst to me, lives just down the road. Had I been frequenting the local beekeeping association meetings, I’d have met the man sooner, which would’ve made my first summer with bees a lot easier.
Photo by Kristi Cook
Advice from Near and Far
Many homesteading skills have an associated local club. You can find beekeeping clubs, candle and soap making guilds, tanner’s associations, weaver’s clubs, and more. Most often, an online search will give you many options from which to choose. Depending on your location, you may have to travel to make the meetings, but it’ll be well worth it.
Another good place to locate reputable mentors is online via specialized groups. I’m not talking about bloggers who’ve been doing their thing for a year or two and decide to blog as if they’re experts. Those guys have their place, but mentoring usually isn’t it. I’m talking about online experts. Remember me saying we would’ve lost all four goats had we not had a long line of mentors helping us? With the exception of my mom, not a single one was local, and I’ve never met any of them in person.
My first goat mentor was Bobbi, whom I met via Facebook in a goat group. She taught me how to prep our doe for breeding, what minerals and supplements to consider, and which parasites were a concern. She fed me a wealth of information. Even more significant, Bobbi led me to a group called Goat Emergency Help and General Questions. This group gave me lifesaving information on medications, dosages, timing, warming cold kids, bottle feeding, and more. Chelsea Oram, one of the page’s administrators, held my hand from the moment we got the doe and kids home to the day we knew our doe was going to survive — a period of nearly five days. When Chelsea wasn’t certain what our next step should be, she consulted other administrators, from as far away as Canada, to come up with a new plan of action. Mentoring doesn’t always have to take place in person.
Photo by Kristi Cook
Choosing and Working with Mentors
How do you know if a mentor's good for your particular circumstances? First, determine if they’re as knowledgeable as they portray themselves to be. The best method I’ve found is to compare their teaching/knowledge with the science-based information I’ve accumulated. For instance, if a potential beekeeping mentor tells me to add something to my hives for mite control that I know is illegal, or if he loses most of his hives every winter, I know to keep searching. Or if someone recommends Sevin Dust for pest control in the garden, but I practice organic methods, then that mentor won't be a good fit for me. Most importantly, you and your mentors must have compatible personalities, or you won’t learn much from a mentorship.
When accepting the help of a mentor, you, as the apprentice, should follow proper etiquette at all times. Mentors are busy people willing to share their time with you.
Make sure you’re prepared before meeting with your mentor. Have any tools, equipment, or other supplies ready before they arrive. Do your research before the meeting and make a list of questions ahead of time. That way, you’ll make the most of your time together. When you have at least some semblance of an understanding of what they’re talking about, you’ll gain so much more from your meeting. And if your mentor comes to your place to assist in something, do the work yourself under their guiding eyes. It’s not learning if they do it for you. Finally, offer your own services in exchange for their time. For instance, offer to help your goat mentor with hoof trimming, or your beekeeping mentor with their hives. Alternatively, offer something in exchange that they may not have, such as farm fresh eggs, fresh milk, a variety of canned goods, or a jar of your own honey.
Regardless of how long you’ve been digging in the dirt, building shelters, raising livestock, or performing any other homesteading skill, the gift of a mentor’s wisdom is often the most significant key to success. Make room for as many mentors as you can locate. Just be sure to select knowledgeable people and use their wisdom in conjunction with your own research.
Watching my daughter cuddle her goat kids while their mom lazily chews her cud is a testimony to the importance of mentors. We did our research, accumulated our medicines and equipment ahead of time, and felt somewhat capable going into our first kidding season, only to be presented with a bad situation. Our mentors were our heroes. Now, go out and find your own!
Kristi Cook and her family have been building their homestead for years. Kristi shares their experiences through her articles and workshops, and on her blog, www.TenderHeartsHomestead.com.