Unforeseen Costs

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Quinn
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As I still struggle to make my homesteading venture pay for itself on a month-to-month basis, the thought occurs to me: Even if I should one day break even (or even make a profit!) on an operating basis, will I ever get back my investment in equipment?

When I was planning this venture, I had a list of items I knew I would need to do my gardening and use my property in the way I intended. I even had to scratch some large items from my wish list as I discovered they weren’t feasible or necessary: A wood stove or wood-burning furnace; a generator; a large, permanently installed propane heater; an electric food dehydrator; new roof gutters for the house. But I thought my budget allowed for most of the tools and equipment I’d need to get started.

Well … to get started, yes. And that’s about all. As soon as I got into the thick of things, I discovered a multitude of items I really needed to do the job right. Here’s a partial list:

Canner: $75

Fencing materials: $100s (I’ve lost track)

Incubator and egg turner: $99

Icelandic chicks (not to mention the gas to drive hundreds of miles to get them!): $200

Seed starting supplies: $40+

Beneficial insects (It costs a lot to ship them)

Pitchfork (After 10 years of turning my compost with a spading fork, I thought I owed myself this!)

Electric weed trimmer for areas where it’s not feasible to mow with the scythe or the reel mower

Box trap (for catching rogue predators)

Rifle and accessories, when the above didn’t work: $246

Rat wire for covering windows in coop, patching holes, protecting plants, etc.

Hired help for building and repairing structures

Pump sprayer


Wire cutters

Post driver

Post-hole digger

Sledge hammer

Soil thermometer

Soil test, and pH testing kit

Plastic panels for cold frame, guinea shelter

Locks and chains (for poultry housing)

Totes for use as brooders (had to experiment with sizes)

Other poultry supplies: heat lamps, feeders, drinkers, killing cone, scalding pot, etc.

Hose hanger

Knee pads

Row cover fabric

And that’s after finding many useful items that were left by the previous owner, such as a wheelbarrow, plastic sheeting, and various tools.

Besides all this, there’s the ongoing cost of poultry litter, replacement tools, gloves, boots, insect repellent, and more. I’ve pretty much sworn off companion plants as a means of pest control (I don’t think they’re that effective), and am trying to do with a minimum of soil amendments and other inputs, trusting that the work of my poultry flock plus applications of compost will eventually produce richer soil, healthier plants, and fewer insect pests. And I’m adding dried-up weeds and will try some dry leaves in the poultry house to save on pine shavings.

I was encouraged when I actually came out $1 ahead for the month of September, but this month it looks like I’ll be in the negative again. All of which raises the question: How did people eke out a living by subsistence farming?

OK, for starters: no purchased poultry litter, no gardening gloves, no insect repellent, no soil tests, no nursery-purchased companion plants or beneficial insects. A dog and a gun were basic equipment for life in the country, so they didn’t even figure into the equation: that gun could provide much of the family’s meat, while dispensing with most predators not scared away by the farm dog, who subsisted on whatever he could find plus scraps from the table.

Manure from various livestock would have supplied the fertilizer for the crops and garden. Strong men supplied the labor and skills for felling trees, building structures, repairing machinery and managing large animals. Quality tools were used for a lifetime and maybe even passed on to the next generation, while I’ve launched this venture alone with maybe 15 years to make it pay. Land was relatively cheap, and with large families, so was labor. Large families meant more mouths to feed, but also provided economies of scale.

So I wonder, will my homesteading venture ever be more than a costly experiment in sustainable living?

Photo by Getty Images/Martin Poole

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