We’ve lost count of the number of times that we’ve stood silently, morbidly, looking down upon some unfinished farm task, dirty and sweaty, perhaps even a little bloodied, and certainly tired. Always tired. And as we turned our backs on this thing that’s beaten us, one of us would mutter, “Well, live and learn, I guess.”
Learning by doing, and by failing, is how we get things done on our homestead in Lynden, Ontario. That seems to be the inevitable rule for all homesteaders. But how we let those mistakes affect us has drastically changed since we started this adventure in April 2013.
It was probably 18 months after running full steam into our first little farm that we crashed, and our burnout was so intense that it lasted another 18 months or so. We had done so much—too much. We had invested too much money, time and energy and had rallied our family and friends for “work days” one too many times. We worked our day jobs, then came home to work the farm in the evenings and, of course, all weekend. We missed events with family and friends because we were either in the middle of some consuming task or too exhausted and dirty to leave the house.
Prior to purchasing our farm, we had done so much reading and dreaming, attending seminars and workshops, that we plowed right into homesteading without a second thought. We needed to opt out of the industrial food system—and we needed to do so ASAP. We needed a big garden, a pantry, chickens, pigs, a greenhouse, a pasture, cattle, a sugar bush, a bee yard, a water capture system, solar panels and a generally well-kept property that wasn’t the scourge of the neighbourhood. If we had given it a second thought, we might have asked ourselves, “Do we like vegetable gardening so much that we need a 20- by 80-foot veggie garden in the backyard?” Or “Do we enjoy picking beans for an hour every night?” Or “Is eating dinner after 9:30 p.m. every summer evening something we want for ourselves?” Had we paused to ask ourselves these questions, the answers would have been no, no and no.
In our first year, while maintaining two full-time day jobs, we went ahead with our homesteading dream. We cleared land and fenced our front two-acre pasture. We planted 1,500 indigenous coniferous, deciduous and fruit-bearing trees three rows thick on three sides of our seven-acre parcel (with the help of lots of family and friends).
We bought a flock of 40 un-sexed Chantecler chicks and three turkeys, repurposed an old pop-up trailer into a portable chicken coop and cleared bush for their pasture. Twenty weeks later, we gently and reverently butchered 26 roosters, plucking and dressing them ourselves. We bought a livestock guardian puppy and started intense training to get him to bond with and protect our free-ranging fowl from coyotes and coons. We bought the famed BCS walk-behind tiller and tilled up, then planted a kitchen garden in the backyard. We cleared a small woodlot and moved earth so we could build a 20- by 40-foot greenhouse adjacent to the barn. We hosted a permaculture designer from Indiana for two days while he drew up a 10-year permaculture plan for our farm. Then we hosted a large housewarming party with a live fiddle band and barn dancing. And let’s not forget the work done inside the century-old farmhouse!
We had, in hindsight, accomplished a lot. But there were also so many unfinished projects, so many tools and resources we didn’t yet have, and so many weeds. Everywhere. As it turned out, we enjoyed planning our garden more than actually gardening, as evidenced by goldenrod, crabgrass and burdock swaying elegantly in our vegetable plot. And this in spite of a meticulously planned, ambitious seven-year vegetable crop rotation design plan artistically drawn in our farm book. The greenhouse turned into Chateau Oiseau (the “birdhouse”) because we hadn’t installed proper water lines and the ground was so hard and barren, the only things that liked being in there were weeds and chickens. Our livestock guardian puppy grew into a handsome and enthusiastic chicken killer, his modus operandi being death by loving licks. We’d occasionally find a dead chicken in the pasture…soaked in puppy slobber. And the 1,500 tree whips we planted—good luck finding them among four-foot-high grasses and weeds.
We were failures. We felt like losers, like posers, like idiots. We had tried and mostly failed. The evidence of it was all around us every day and it was debilitating for a long time. We did not meet our own expectations and it sucked our energy dry. But slowly we started to cast the burden of failure off our shoulders.
It started with an awareness that this constant shame and burden of our past mistakes was holding us back from moving forward on the farm. We began to deliberately give ourselves grace for our errors. Should we have had a weed management plan prior to planting 1,500 trees? Yes. Should we have developed a water capture system to provide water for our garden and greenhouse because of our shallow, hand-dug well? Yes. Did we bite off more than we could chew. Absolutely. But these were good lessons, and a new lens to view failure began to come into focus. The old cliché that “failure breeds success” started to take on personal meaning for us. Through this lens we could lift the burden of failure and replace it with new-found freedom and grace. We were learning to homestead—learning brand new skills, and learning them through the crucible of trial and error.
There’s a beautiful quote by Teddy Roosevelt, who wasn’t thinking about small-scale farming when he wrote it, that spoke to our hesitant hearts: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
That was us! We had literally been marred by dust and sweat and blood! We came up short again and again and we knew the pain and shame of defeat. But now we had a new perspective by which to view our failures, one that allowed us to take pride in our efforts and to learn from our mistakes without letting them cloud and dampen our triumphs.
As we head into our sixth year of our homesteading adventure, we now truly believe that any mistake we make, farm related or otherwise, is never a true failure unless we choose not to learn from it. Our hope is that we will always have the courage to try and fail and learn and try again, and that we can raise our daughter to be a courageous failure too.
Claire Dam is a portrait photographer with many years of experience who specializes in portraiture – such as weddings, families, newborns and lifestyle headshots. She shoots with film and digital on variety of cameras old and new.