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Dec 30, 2018

The secret behind our homesteading success: repetition without fear of the inevitable failures

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Edited: Dec 30, 2018

 

Rita and I are often asked how we learned so much about the wide variety of homesteading skills we have. People wonder if we grew up in a homesteading families and have been doing these things all our lives. The answer is not really, but kind of. We’re both creeping up on 60 years old, and back when we were kids, do-it-yourself was the normal way people did just about everything. The do-it-yourself things weren’t so much homesteading type things, but the attitude of taking care of your own needs with things like painting the house, cooking from scratch 3 times a day, making your own clothes, fixing your own car and so on, that was the normal way average people operated in their lives. The process of taking care of yourself involves a lot of failures along the way, it’s not uncommon to learn a half a dozen ways NOT to do something before zoning in on the ‘right’ way to get it done, with ‘right’ being the most efficient way that yields good, long term results. There are plenty of times, depending on the job, by the time I figured out how to do it well I don’t need to do it anymore. That’s especially true with many repairs.

 

I’m an ok carpenter, I’m not good at it but I can build something that’s going to serve its purpose and last for as long as I need it to last. If you look at my carpentry and mention that nothing seems to be square, level or plumb, I’ll laugh and tell you I don’t use those words, if I did, I’d never get any carpentry done. A friend of mine made of a big deal about one of my greenhouses not being square, level or plumb and I said those things weren’t my goal, my goal was to have a structure I could use to grow plants for sale. He scoffed a bit and gave me a look that let me know he didn’t think I had a clue as to what was REALLY going to work. It’s 15 years later and my incredibly useful and fruitful little greenhouse is still standing, we’ve been growing plants in it for the past 15 years that sell so well we have been able to make our sole income from homesteading. My friend, who was more interested in the perfect structure, is still trying to make his life work financially. I’m not saying that the perfect structure wouldn’t have been nice, it certainly would have been, but it wasn’t the goal and things not being perfect along the way never stop me from reaching my goal. I’m ok with something being ‘good enough for now’ or even having complete failures that I’ll learn from.

 

Sometime last summer I told Rita that I didn't care how many gallons of goat milk I ruined while figuring out how to make a goat milk brie... I was going to figure it out and it'd become a staple in our home. She whole heartedly agreed.

 

Goat milk brie, in progress

So in true Laurie style, I started doing what I already felt wasn't too hard to get right, which for me was making chevre, and I did it over and over again every week until I could make it in my sleep. I coated some of the many, many, many rounds of chevre that we now had in black pepper and garlic powder and aged them for 3-4 weeks to see how aging works. The first attempt was good, but I realized the rounds were too small, the weight / mass loss during the aging process made the finished product incredibly small. The next attempt was better as the fresh cheese rounds were larger but I forgot to sterilize the aging mat and all the rounds got a nasty mold on them. I cut off and discard the unwanted mold and salvaged most of the cheese, but it wasn't the end product that I was looking for and it also meant I had to empty the cheese cave and sterilize it, a necessary job that is more effort than I wanted to put out because I forgot to sterilize a piece of equipment before using it. Guess what I never forget to do anymore! The next batch was perfect. The rounds were big enough, I didn't forget to sterilize anything, and the chevre aged into a nice sized finished product that's called Belper Knolle. It's a hard cheese that can be finely grated and smacks of a good parmesan. It's now a staple for us.

 

Aged goat milk chevre, aka Belper Knolle

I made a round of cheddar every week, too. It was the cheese I had learned to make while learning how to cut curds from a friend last February. The first round was a total disaster. I messed up cutting the curds, I forgot to do the cheddaring step and pressed it badly. I literally fed it to the dogs 2 days later. The next one looked really good, I didn't repeat any of my previous mistakes and I did that same cheese every week, adding different spices to it and playing with different forms to see how those rounds turned out. I have yet to taste any of the cheddar rounds I’ve made, if I’ve made some kind of error that’s going to effect the flavor or texture I’ll find that out when I cut into the first round a few weeks from now.

 

Goat milk cheddar

After several weeks of making chevre, belper knolle and cheddar I was feeling some confidence in my cheese making skills I decided to try my hand at brie. After going through the process of making, turning and salting the brie for several days, (and as far as I can tell I haven't made any mistakes in that part of the process) then getting it in the cheese cave to age (which it's still doing and that seems to be going well) I realized I now had the understanding and some skill at making a bloomy rind cheese which meant I could make a version of Humboldt Fog, which is an amazing goat milk cheese that’s fairly pricey to buy in the store... so I started that a few days ago. I’ve already made one mistake, but am still working with the rounds to see if I can still get an edible product out of them. If I can’t, I’ll make it again and again until I get it right.

 

Goat milk 'Foggy' cheese, in progess

A couple of weeks ago while reading a cheese making book, it occurred to me that I could make another household favorite, gouda, thanks to the repetitive cheddar making,.. so I made a round of gouda last week. I won’t cut into that round for another 6+ weeks to find out if I did ok with flavor and texture, but I’m not worried about it. Time will tell and I’ll be back after it again whether my first gouda is good or not. Two days ago I made cottage cheese from 2 gallons of fresh goat milk that turned out fantastic on the first try and sometime next week I'll be pulling some mozzarella and figuring out jack cheese. With every cheese I make I gain a better understanding about milk, ingredients, time, temperature, equipment, curds and whey which improves my knowledge and abilities.

 

Goat milk gouda

This is the way it goes.... little by little, learning from every failure until you're zoned in on success, and branching out from there. I can't think of a thing in my life that hasn't been improved on because I'm not afraid of or exasperated by the failures. I also recognize that when I AM finding something too hard to keep at it, it's because I didn't really want to be doing it in the first place... and those are the things I let go of.

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We know that anywhere from two to twelve months time we'll be killing and butchering the grow outs, and at first that was emotionally hard on us, but in time we learned that any grow out that isn't timely butchered needs to be housed and fed, and there just isn't enough room to keep them long term. We've tried selling and giving animals away, but in truth that's harder to do than it is to butcher them. What we want for these animals is a good life, healthy bodies, a feeling of being loved while experiencing joy, with plenty of space to move around in. Not everyone interested in these animals can provide that kind of environment. Travel stress is also a real issue and smaller animals often don't live through the move. After a few years of trying to find homes for animals we can't keep, we've come to recognize that our method of butchering these animals is better than sending them to a new environment where their health fails, their enclosures are too small and they are not fed enough. There have been exceptions that have worked out. There was Steve, a rabbit buck grow out that had one ear that was in a perpetual flop. He grabbed my heart at a young age and wouldn't let go. I didn't need another buck and his genetics weren't something I wanted in my breeding rabbits. I tried to butcher him, but come butchering day, while I hesitated, he gave me a look that made me pick him up and put him back in his hutch. Two weeks later I found him a home on a friends farm, where he could run free in a large enclosed field with another rabbit doe that was already there. He had a light colored coat and there was a good chance that he'd be picked off by a predator at some point, but that didn't concern me. If he had even a few days running free in a field before his life was over that made me feel happy for him. 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Happily, friends a few miles away, who gave us our first chicken eggs for hatching out our original flock, had just lost their beloved rooster, Andy, to old age and hadn't replaced him. They have a wonderful set up for their chickens, which are well fed with plenty of space. AJ was a decedent of Andy's, he looked a lot like Andy and had the same temperament as Andy had. We offered them AJ and they happily took him, overjoyed to have Andy's great grandson to replace him with. Then there was the young goat doe, one sister in a set of triplets. She was feisty and fun and we named her Pipi Longstocking. Even as a really young doe we knew we didn't want to butcher her, but finding a good home for a goat can be hard. Goats aren't easy animals to keep and we weren't willing to give her to anyone who didn't already know how to keep goats healthy, happy and have a really good set up for them. 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