They called today—the local wholesale seed house. They’d been trying to contact me, but then my rural phone service was out (again!) because of the seemingly endless nasty wintry weather. Anyway, my seed order is in, the potatoes are in, and so are the plastic flats and trays for the greenhouse seedling plant-out and the potting soil, too. The tab’s a little over double what it was last year (especially the plastics and soil—petroleum-based, you know, or so they claim to be) and the stuff’s ready for pick-up at any time.
Our local hatchery called too. To confirm my order of 100 baby super-duper Cornish Cross chicks which are also ready for pick-up. The tab here is over three times higher than it was just three years ago. And if I’m lucky enough to have the weather cooperate for a few days, by the time I can travel the roads safely in my brand new Chevy Aveo hatchback, the potatoes will most likely be sprouting new shoots out of their 50# sacks and the chicks will already be sprouting wing feathers. That is, if I have enough disposable cash on my hip to support the purchases. And yes, you noticed the reference to the Aveo—and the fact that after years upon years of running about and doing my farm chores, errands and farm-to-market deliveries in a fairly used (I like to call them quite seasoned) vehicles, I bit the bullet and bought a brand spanking new one.
This may seem like an outrageous thing to have done amidst this period of continuing economic downslide—especially after the past year, when (as I bumbled down the road to and from our Timberlakes Farm in southwest Missouri) I saw more “For Sale” signs than actual crops popping out of the soil on the farms in our neck of the woods.
But, actually, it’s just one part of the new plan Jim and I have devised to keep our homestead operation running smoothly and afloat. As with many farmsteads throughout the country, our operation was impacted heavily this past year by a combination of whacky, unpredictable and out-of-sync with the season weather conditions (tornadoes in the winter, deep freezes in late April, flooding in the middle of summer, and drought conditions in between), increasingly higher fuel costs, and inflationary prices on the goods and supplies we need to survive—on the farm and within our home. And after witnessing our previously quite self-sufficient operation (we grow and market fresh-cut herbs and vegetables to restaurants in the area) take quite the economic hit last year we had to start re-organizing our priorities and goals. In other words, we had to start thinking in terms both outside—and in some cases, more inside—our original garden path.
While every self-sufficient homestead operation differs in how we earn our keep from within the confines of our own talents and land (some of us may grow veggies and herbs; others may raise cattle or produce milk and still others may manufacture wood products, crafts, gadgets, write, run a bookkeeping service, or provide a variety of necessary services), the goal remains the same: to survive as independently as is conceivable on our own home places.
For the past several decades (at least since the 1960s when I began folding into the self-sufficient cloth), homesteaders have been pretty much shielded from the economic downs. Why? Because we generally could handle providing the majority of our personal basic food needs (at a relatively low cost) through our labored efforts involved in our gardens, hunting, fishing, wild food gathering and raising small or large livestock for meat and/or dairy products. In addition, we could generally busy ourselves with a useful business service or product endeavor that was primarily accomplished on our homesteads and was marketable to the world outside our rural beaten paths. Right now, though, it seems as if the outside economic factors and disasters have elevated to the degree that they can and will impact the average homesteader. Why? Mainly because the bare-roots supplies we need to purchase to initiate or continue our home-based businesses have gone sky-high, which makes the cost of doing business or the cost of the end-product higher. And also because the marketplace where many goods were quite saleable has diminished, because we are all in this same economic-mess boat.
I’ll give you a personal summary of our situation and share with you what we are attempting to do to correct it and the changes we’re making to hopefully make that happen. In our case, as mentioned before, we grow and market fresh-cut herbs and vegetables to restaurants in the urban areas surrounding Springfield and Branson, Missouri. We’ve done this for well over a decade, and up until a couple of years ago the flow of production and the sales were fairly steady and predictable. Also fairly predictable were the seasonal start-up costs and the planting weather conditions.
Actual monetary costs for us to start up each year included the seeds, potting soil, plastic flats and trays for the greenhouse, propane for the greenhouse (we usually plant seeds in the greenhouse at the end of March, so we don’t have to use much), some part-time labor to help transplant in the greenhouse and then out into the fields, diesel fuel for the tractor, and some fuel to make the seed/supply pick up runs (and sometimes transportation for laborers). Actual out-of-pocket operational expenses, once the fields were planted and in production, included plastic containers for packaging the fresh-cut herbs, boxes for the produce, the phone expenses for me to make the weekly order calls to the various restaurants, and the gasoline (and car upkeep) required for me to make the weekly delivery runs. Anything else required to make the operation run smoothly was the expenditures of our labor in keeping the fields weeded, irrigated and in order; and also in picking, cleaning, packaging, delivering the products and maintain the obvious bookkeeping chores.
Our homestead business experience
What’s changed is mega-fold:
- Cost of supplies: As mentioned at the outset, the bill for our necessary start-up seeds, soil, etc., has about doubled from last year (which was 1½ times what it had been the year before). If this were the only factor involved, our previous mode of operation and market prices would still be doable.
- Changing weather conditions: The whacky weather conditions have impacted us tremendously in that they are unpredictable and changing, as opposed to what we were accustomed to dealing with. The weather impact, for us, becomes an economic factor, as well. While in the past, we could easily get by with very little propane use in the greenhouse after March, the colder weather conditions which can now surprise us in April (we had a deep freeze in late April last year) elevate the cost of starting our 2-5,000 seedlings each year. And while we always planted in early May, the heavy flooding conditions we now seem to be experiencing in May and June are very harsh on our small transplants, and last year, ruined about half our first started crop of veggies.
In some cases, we could go ahead and plant a second crop at a later date, but not only would it not be economically feasible to seed out another 2-5,000 starter plants in the greenhouse, it would also be too late in the season to begin that process over again. Because we are so rural, the severe and strange weather conditions frequently create power and telephone outages. The power outages aren’t nearly as bad for us as being without phone service, as our calls to the restaurants for orders must be made on a definite timely schedule (call on Tuesday, deliver on Thursday for weekend restaurant high-time traffic). If we can’t call for orders, no orders mean no sales.
- Rise in fuel costs: Although both diesel and gasoline prices continue to hike, the rise in gasoline fuel has impacted us most. My 175-mile (at least) weekly delivery round-trip at say, $3 per gallon, can get pretty pricey and that cost alone could force us to have to raise the prices on our products.
- Diminishing marketplace: Because everybody seems to be suffering from the rise in fuel, food and everyday expenses, there has been a noticeable drop in the marketplace. Why? At least in the restaurant venue, let’s take a close look. The restaurants we serve are generally upscale and because the clientele that could afford to regularly visit these dining establishments are enduring their own personal woes with inflationary food and gasoline costs, these dine-out excursions are usually one of the first things dropped to make the budget balance. In addition, the restaurants— generally small, intimate and privately-owned—are also suffering. In addition to their elevated costs to operate, they experience a drop in average clientele. Nevertheless, they must have the food on hand necessary to chef-up every menu item; the lights on and utilities running to keep the place open and in full-operation; and the employees on board to serve the customers (even if no one shows up for lunch or dinner). Last y
- ear, at least five of the regular restaurants we had previously served for years closed down around Memorial Day, which meant we were reaching farther out (more gasoline) in the region in order to keep the marketplace numbers (for which we had planted in expectation) at its steady level.
Our home front experience
While Jim and I expend as much energy and time at producing and providing for our own household food supply, there are always certain goods that must be purchased from outside sources in order to round out that food supply.
Since we reside in the outer parts of nowhere, trips to purchase these goods does require fuel (even though I try to incorporate the buying along my regular weekly delivery route) and the higher prices on everything from dish detergent to nuts create a situation where we must expand our home-business sales even farther to offset the rising costs.
Even though we do use electricity, the increases (although not minimal) in that service have not affected us that much as we use a minimal amount in the house and do not use electricity as our source of heat. However, if that’s not the case at your homestead, this could be a major issue to resolve.
Here I will share some of the things that we’ve come up with to help correct this on our place. Hopefully some of these will apply or can be adapted to your situation.
Returning to the original goal:
Both Jim and I are veterans at living the self-sufficient lifestyle and because of this, we always remember that it’s not at all about making a huge profit.
It’s much, much more than that and incorporates the concept of surviving (key word) off your own land. This can and usually does involve providing for as much of your own year-round food supply as is possible; and also involves the operation of a home-based business endeavor (using your land, home, talents and energies) to provide the income necessary to pay for services and goods you can’t provide. Sometimes, at least for us right now, you have to go back to the original goal and re-think and re-prioritize so that those original goals are not only met but always held dear, in spite of the outside economy. We have done that.
- We know we’re not going to stop living this type of lifestyle (never gonna happen).
- We understand that we will have to modify our production plans so that the economy (however nasty it is) works for us (and our buyers), rather than against us.
- We must focus our energies less on what we produce to sell, and instead to lower our cash outlay and cut outside costs. And we must increase our efforts to provide more of the services and goods (necessary for our survival) right here on our own place.
- We will go back to our bartering days.
- If we make any purchases, focus them toward cutting costs in the long run.
Sales & a return to the bartering system:
While we will still continue to produce our veggies and herbs, we’ve made some adjustments in how that production will work for us, and how it will work for others without our having to increase the price or market-value of those goods.
We will plant about the same amount of vegetables.
We will continue to market our fresh-cut herbs to our long-term restaurant customers who need and continue to buy them (many have resorted to bulk dried herbs to save costs) and will actually try to expand our herb marketplace well beyond our traditional regional borders.
This past winter, we have spoken to loads of our homesteading cronies who seem to be in our same boat. As a result, we’ve formed a loose bartering network, so that we can exchange some goods and services that will hopefully keep us all above water. Jim will trade the majority of vegetables and herbs with others for services and goods.
In our case, Jim (who owns and operates Timberlakes and this homestead) is retired and closing in on 70 years of age (and so are most of his buddies) so income-tax issues regarding in-kind trades of services and goods are a non-issue. (If you’re not in that same Social Security income tax age bracket, tread carefully and read up on the income tax regulations in this regard.) Jim will grow veggies and these will be exchanged with someone who raises his own pigs and will trade pork for vegetables; the same goes for a retired mechanic who can service our vehicles if necessary, and on and on.
Our bartering companions will help in the fields which will save on labor costs for us and free up some extra time for us to fish, hunt, gather wild foods, harvest the fields for garden-truck sales and for our personal use, and spend more time canning foods for a year-round supply. Jim will help them in their endeavors in exchange.
Here’s what we’ve come up with in that regard.
Vehicle: Because we will be expanding the venue in which we deliver our goods, I opted on the purchase of the new Aveo. At 35 miles per gallon, I can travel farther on my delivery route at a reasonable price and with the 100,000/5-year warranty, I won’t have to worry about the puppy breaking down at any given pass. The small monthly payment for this purchase is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the savings in repair and fuel costs required for the old (but elegant) 96 Buick that previously trucked the herbs around.
Home: Wood is the sole source for heating our homestead. It is also a main source for our cooking needs. In summer, we cook on an outdoor stone grill that Jim constructed; in the cooler months, we cook atop our woodstove (which, since it’s already heating the house, represents a two-for-one free-fuel cooking source). In addition, last year Jim devised an outdoor canning system which uses only wood, so no utility costs there.
While we opted for the outdoor canning system originally to avoid the in-house mess, it also represents a major reduction of the electricity or propane costs associated with the process. We will also can (rather than freeze) as many food products as possible to save on the energy cost of operating two home freezers; and also, since the multiple ice storms and weather conditions have resulted in power outages which caused our frozen foods to spoil, to have a ready food supply, independent of inclement weather conditions.
Peace of mind:
We look forward to adapting to the changes we’ll be making on our homestead in order to combat the outside impacts of the economy and the weather. It’s a challenge, of course, but then, that’s what homesteading should be and is all about. Change is okay, as long as your dream stays intact.
Smart spending tips
With economic recession looming, many Americans would be wise to shore up their finances by paying attention to spending. Greg Karp, author of the just released book Living Rich by Spending Smart: How to Get More of What You Really Want, and syndicated personal finance columnist offers the following smart spending tips:
- Attack the low-hanging fruit. Immediately examine spending in three key areas. Become financially FIT, which stands for food, insurance and telecommunications. These are three areas of spending where most Americans can make significant but painless spending cuts.
- Look for recurring leaks. Regular, recurring and automatic spending can be the most insidious to strained household budgets. These are the gym membership you don’t use, the video-rental club, the daily convenience store soft drinks, etc.
- Keep a cushion. When financial hiccups hit, as they most certainly will, financial disaster ensues because there’s no wiggle room. Funnel money now into an emergency fund to help with unexpected car repairs or roof leaks. Start with $100 a month into a high-rate savings account. (Two on-line accounts are EmigrantDirect.com or INGDirect.com.)
- Take a spending hiatus. Do what corporate America does when recession hits, circle the wagons and cut costs. Try spending on only essentials for one month.
- Care about what things cost. Prices vary widely on a range of products and services, so know what a good price is before you open your wallet. For merchandise, use on-line comparison “shopbots,” such as Google Shopping, MySimon.com, Shopzilla.com and DealTime.com. Check prices on eBay and Amazon.com. For services, use the old standby rule: get three quotes.