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4 Reasons Homesteaders Should Network

Networking is often associated with business and the workplace, but have you considered how it can benefit your homestead?  It can be a source of knowledge and inspiration, the basis for a bartering system, and a lifeline in times of need.  But how do you build a network and who should be in it?  How do you find people to add to your network?  

It’s no secret that networking is an important part of running a business.  It can increase profits, expand your business’s reach, and provide valuable resources.  Yet, many people don’t consider the importance of networking for the benefit of their homestead.  Even if you aren’t running your homestead as a business, having a good network of contacts can provide valuable knowledge, resources, and assistance to make your homesteading adventure go more smoothly.  

1. For the Beginner

Many families entering into homesteading today have no former farming experience.  It can be a costly endeavor, especially where animals are concerned, and learning by trial and error can get very expensive.  It can also add time to your goals of self sufficiency.  There is nothing more frustrating than spending months tending a garden just to have most of the crop fail or some pest eat all of the plants and produce.  Worse yet, it is absolutely heartbreaking to put time and money into an animal only to have it get sick and die from a treatable disease.  While having a network won’t necessarily guarantee success, it will often help prevent a lot of typical mistakes.

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2. Sharing Resources

Even for those of us with more experience, starting a homestead is an expensive process.  Aside from purchasing land, equipment is usually the most expensive purchase on the homestead.  There are some items, like our tractor, that we could not do without.  We use it to move hay and chicken coops, clear trees and install fence.  We paid more for it than we did for all three of our vehicles combined.  Then there are other items like post hole drivers, tillers, weed whackers and mowers that we’ve needed to borrow from time to time.  If you can’t afford to purchase these items or your own equipment breaks, it’s a great idea to have friends and neighbors from whom you can borrow them.  Just keep in mind that it’s a two way street.  While our friends have been great about letting us borrow equipment, we’ve also been there for them when they’ve needed help with yard or tractor work.

3. Shared Labor

There are a number of ways for networks to be used to share labor.  The most common way is to help take care of the farm while friends and family are out of town.  Growing up, our uncle was always willing to come over to feed and let the dogs out when my family went on vacation.  I have a lot more animals these days, so I usually split the work between a few different people.  Usually I have someone to care for the inside animals and someone else to care for the outside animals.  I may also have a couple people to share morning and evening feedings.  We also make ourselves available when our friends need to go out of town.  Even if you choose to pay for help, it is far better to pay people who you know and trust to care for your farm than strangers with no known reputation.

Another practice I’ve seen gaining popularity is shared ownership of animals or gardens, which also means sharing the work and product.  A large garden can be a lot of work for one person to manage, not to mention the work of preserving the harvest.  By sharing the work with one or two other families, the work is less burdensome and they can have help when it’s time to harvest and preserve.  This can also be beneficial for families with less space or knowledge to team up with someone who has more room and experience.  It’s also a great way to learn about canning, freezing, dehydrating and other preservation methods.  

I’ve actually considered sharing ownership of a dairy cow with a couple of friends.  It could live on my farm, but my friends and I would share expenses and milking duties.  Whoever milks for that shift keeps the milk.  I would do this simply for the fact that one dairy cow produces in a day what my family drinks in a week.  Even with making cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream, I think we would quickly be overwhelmed with the milk we would get from one cow.  Plus, by sharing milkings, we wouldn’t be tied to a milking schedule.  If we wanted to go out for an evening or even leave for a week or weekend, we would have other families to swap shifts with.

Fellow blogger Pamla, aka The Duchess of Cansalot, has worked out fantastic working relationships with a couple of her area farmers.  Pamla does not have any land of her own, but she has an amazing work ethic.  At one farm in particular, owned by her friend Deb, Pamla helps milk, farm-sit and care for the farm’s certified organic garden.  She helps pay for feed, but in return for feed and labor she receives a share of the farm’s lamb, beefalo (Angus/buffalo crosses), pork and chicken meat.  She and Deb also work together to make cheese and preserve their food.  She’s able to learn more about farming, have a hand in producing all of her own food and receive a pantry, fridge and freezer full of fresh produce, meat, eggs and milk.  Aside from a few essentials totaling $37, Pamla hasn’t needed to go to the grocery store all month.

4. Bartering

Self-sufficiency is all well and good, but it’s also very easy to get in over our heads.  More often than not, people start a homestead with dreams of producing all of their own food and living completely off of the grid.  They acquire animals, start a garden, learn bee keeping and buy a FoodSaver.  Before long, they start selling off animals because they didn’t realize how much it costs to feed all of them or that their 12 hens are giving them a dozen eggs a day and they only eat 4 eggs a day.  The garden gets eaten by deer and the bees decide to swarm and abandon their hives.  If the homesteader is lucky, they haven’t completely lost their minds and/or gone bankrupt in the first year.  Either way, they begin to question their resolve and desire to continue on this madman’s quest.

Believe it or not, there is an easier way.  You do not have to go all or bust right out of the gate.  Start small and find what you can manage before deciding to take on more.  Find what works for you.  You may have found that you are great at growing cucumbers, but your tomatoes do horribly, while your neighbor is being overrun with tomatoes, but wants more cucumbers.  Neither of you have to go without or worse let some of that produce go to waste.  Work out a bartering arrangement with your neighbor where you will trade cucumbers for tomatoes.  Granted, this is a very simple scenario, but it can work with anything  you produce on your homestead.  Trade pork for beef, eggs for produce, or honey for milk.  You can also trade goods for skilled trades.  You are only limited by your imagination.  Plus, you’ll be better able to enjoy homesteading, while also providing for your family’s needs.  

How to Build Your Network

I’m an introvert.  The idea of approaching people I barely know and asking for advice is not exactly an opportunity I’m jumping for the chance at.  However, I have been relieved to find that most experienced farmers look forward to the opportunity to share their knowledge with novices.  The only problem that many novices experience is knowing where to find these experts.  Believe it or not, most of them are not trolling the internet.  There are a lot of know-it-alls out there, but most of the true experts are more concerned with spending their time with their hands in the dirt or tending their animals.  So, how do you find them?  Here’s where I would start.

  1. Local Breed Associations – These aren’t as difficult to find as you may think.  You will have to pay a (usually) small membership fee, but you’ll gain it back in knowledge.  Some clubs have regular meetings, some only meet up at shows.  Many have some kind of newsletter or magazine that will include informative topics and information about shows, meetings and other members.  Even if you have no intention of showing, I recommend attending at least one show.  Pay attention to which breeders are doing the best and seek them out to ask questions.  Get to know the club’s officers.  They typically have years of experience raising and caring for that particular animal and will be your greatest resource for knowledge.
  2. Local co-ops – These may be milk or produce co-ops.  In some cases, you may just pay the farmer a flat rate for a gallon of milk or a box of vegetables.  In other instances, you’re expected to volunteer for a certain number of hours each week.  Either way, you will come into contact with experienced growers and producers.  Get to know them and ask questions.  A co-op where you can volunteer would be ideal because you can gain more hands-on experience and see the techniques in practice.  Plus, nothing builds friendships like sweating together.
  3. Farmer’s Markets – You may not be able to get as much hands on experience through farmer’s markets, but you will come into contact with experienced growers.  I’ve been able to get a lot of gardening and pig raising advice by talking to the local farmers there.  Henry also has a reputation for eating whatever the farmers hand him, which has built him quite the fan club.  It’s also scored us some free produce.
  4. County Extension Offices – If you haven’t gotten to know your county’s extension office, I recommend you find them and give them a call.  Not only do they offer a number of services, such as soil testing, but they often host classes including gardening, animal husbandry and food preservation.  The classes and services will vary depending upon your state and county, but you’ll still find them to be an invaluable resource.
  5. 4-H & FFA clubs – If you have kids and they’re of the appropriate ages for 4-H and/or FFA, I highly recommend getting them involved.  Through these programs, they will have access to knowledge and resources that we adults would be hard pressed to find. They won’t be limited to just animal projects either.  When I was in 4-H, I took projects in pie baking, cake decorating and poetry in addition to horses, sheep, rabbits and cats.  Other members of our club took projects in sewing and painting.  In FFA, I learned public speaking, animal biology, agricultural business, electrical wiring, welding, and small engine repair.  And through these clubs, your kids will not only make friends and build their own networks, but you’ll meet other parents and gain your own knowledge and resources.
  6. Online – While experts are more difficult to find online, they are out there.  You’ll also meet a lot of other novices who either you can help or they can help you.  Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.  However, do your own research.  By building a network of trusted professionals in person, it will be easier to separate the wheat from the chaff when chatting online.  There is a lot of good advice online, but there is also a lot of bad advice.  If something you read online seems to contradict what another trusted homesteader or breeder has told you, don’t hesitate to reach out to them and ask about it.  They probably have a reason why they do things differently.  You’ll learn quickly who you can trust online.  Most of my most valuable friendships have started online.  I’ve only been a member of my local community for 7 years.  I’ve only lived in Florida for 9 years.  Almost all of the friendships I have made in that time have started online.  That includes horse and chicken people.  Granted,I’ve attended shows or trail rides with them since then.  I’ve gone to their farms to share my knowledge or met them in parking lots to buy and sell animals.  They’ve come to my farm to help butcher chickens.  Most of my network is made up of friends I’ve met online, but they don’t make up all of it.  

You probably find that you already have some kind of network, especially if you’ve lived in your community for a while.  Perhaps you never considered it to be a network or realized it’s potential.  Let your group of friends, family and experts work to your advantage, and let your knowledge and resources work towards theirs.  

Looking for more information about building and utilizing your network? Check out these great posts from some of my fellow homesteading bloggers:

5 Ways to Build Local Food Community – Homespun Seasonal Living

Butchering Chickens – Our Style – The Flip Flop Barnyard

The Magic of a Great Homestead Community – Montana Homesteader

How to Host a Farm Tour for Children – The Homestead Lady