As lifelong city folk until moving to the country in 2010, we’ve had plenty to learn. During childhood visits to grandparents, great grandparents, and extended family we glimpsed life on the farm. These experiences kindled a dream of life outside the city, but did little to prepare us for working the land and caring for animals. Here are some books, videos, and websites that have helped us. You can’t learn it all from a book, but these will give you a good start and help avoid costly mistakes.
Any significant change in life requires a strong foundation of vision and proper motivation. Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm gives a wide perspective and highlights many of the problems with large scale industrial agriculture. As we started fresh, it was comforting to know we could do a lot with a few basic tools and a willingness to think creatively. Likewise, The Essential Agrarian Reader exposes many problems in modern agriculture and encourages fresh thought and practice. This book focuses on the life and world-changing potential of proper agriculture, but does not cover the practical aspects of farming. Finally, a great book that strikes a good balance of thought and purpose along with many practical ideas is Born Again Dirt by Noah Sanders. The author learned most of his farming ideas on his own and supports his family by working his large garden/small farm.
Farm and Garden
We’ve found that the key to success in growing vegetables and fruit is to fit your practice to the conditions of your land and climate. Home Sweet Farm is a successful central Texas farm about 50 miles from our home. Their blog has many helpful articles for anyone wanting to go beyond a small hobby garden. Planting schedules are very important so be sure to find an accurate one for your location. Here’s a proven planting calendar for our area. Since soil conditions can vary even within a single farm, it’s important to get your soil tested before you start. Amending the soil is not very expensive but will greatly improve your results. If you’re in central Texas, contact us if you need help understanding the soil test results. For a small fee, we’ll help you determine the amendments you need. If you have very little or no soil to start with, see the Back to Eden project. With patience you can still have a great garden!
Regarding books, a great place to start for an overview is Born Again Dirt as mentioned earlier. For growing locally, you’ll find Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening very helpful with details on soil, plant varieties, pest control, and so forth. For even more detail on soil and associated technical aspects, we recommend The Biological Farmer. Finally, Acres magazine delivers a monthly treasure of wisdom on gardening, livestock, nutrition, and health in general.
Animals – Chickens and Cattle
Start with chickens. This humble bird is so useful and easy to raise. Build a coop from scrap lumber and buy a dozen chicks for about $2 each. As they mature you’ll have a dozen fresh eggs daily and an ’emergency’ supply of meat. Laying hens usually don’t make the best meat but the chicken is easy to clean and prepare. Think of them as 2 weeks worth of meals in a worst case scenario of power outages after a storm or other calamity. The Storey guide books on farming are all helpful and we recommended their Guide to Raising Chickens as a great start.
After some experience with chickens, you’ll be better prepared for a bigger challenge such as pigs, goats, or cattle. Though cattle are the largest of the farm livestock, they are also the easiest to raise. Cattle are not as prone to illness as sheep or goats and are also easiest to fence in. Smaller animals will work their way through almost any fence, but cattle usually stay home unless highly motivated to push or jump a fence. Gentle cattle are a must for the new homesteader so find an experienced friend who will help you find the right cattle to start your herd. Having gentle animals of the right breed for your pasture and climate will prevent many problems and set you on your way to a successful, pleasant experience. For a thorough overview, we recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle.
We raise our cattle on grass pasture and avoid the expense and hassle of feeding grain, along with the risks of cattle eating genetically modified corn. There are several key principles to successful ‘grass fed’ cattle and thankfully the internet has many free resources. Start with Walt Davis’ helpful articles and continue with Gene Sollock’s video series on YouTube. These both give a good overview of the concepts. The Stockman Grass Farmer monthly magazine is reasonably priced and has been essential to our ranching plans and activities. A good reference book that explains many details yet is easy for a novice to follow is Grass-Fed Cattle by Julius Ruechel. Gene Logsdon’s All Flesh is Grass: Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming has fewer technical details but will inspire you. Gene focuses on the simple and enjoyable calling of tending animals naturally.