Sex, death, and recycling: Lessons learned growing up on a homestead farm

Guest post by Cass
Once a Home
By: jimmy brownCC BY 2.0

Nowadays, homesteading is a cool new trend for city folks to “get back to nature.” I want to encourage those of you interested in homesteading to give it a go!

I spent my whole life on a homestead. My mother grew up on a farm, and my dad grew up in areas where farming was still quite popular, and everybody still had home gardens. They wanted a place for four children to be able to run around safely, and a place that felt private. They value a home garden and respect nature, and wanted their children to have the same values. About five months before I was born, my parents purchased a 21 acre farm in Michigan.

Our homestead was once an old celery farm. It is conveniently irrigated by two streams and hill runoff. Our garden plot is about five acres of cleared land, and the rest of the property is wooded. There were several structures left behind by the old farmer that we never put into use. As kids, these turned into awesome clubhouses. In the summers, we rented garden plots to our neighbors. Despite the hard work of keeping everything running, it was a pretty awesome place to grow up.

Here are the things I learned from growing up on a homestead farm…

1. Reduce, reuse, recycle

We reused as much as possible. Old newspapers were used for fire-starters, old jars were containers for screws or used for catching bugs. We composted our leftovers, so we could dig worms for fishing. And we made new things from what we had — our scarecrow every year was made from old wood and shirts we out-grew. As an adult, I still compost, reuse, and recycle.

2. The best snacks come from nature

What we grew, we ate. Our homestead produced many different plants. Not only did we grow a traditional vegetable garden, we had a fruit orchard, and I was encouraged to forage for berries in the woods. There were many times in my childhood when I was hungry for a snack, and my parents told me to go outside and pick something out of the garden to eat. Everything was so fresh and delicious, I had no complaints. My mother makes an absolutely amazing wild blackberry cheesecake every year from berries that grow in the woods.

3. The cycle of life

From an early age I knew that animals had sex to have babies. Sometimes those babies didn’t always live. Sometimes those animals become prey for another animal. But that prey helps another to live. And when animals get really sick, they die. I remember witnessing my first birth at age three, when my cat had kittens. I loved those babies so damn hard. When the mother cat caught a rabbit for her kittens, it seemed so natural to me that the kittens would eat what the mother caught.

When I was that young, I didn’t know why my friends’ parents wouldn’t let my friends play at my house. Now I know that they were horrified that their young child might see a dead rabbit get eaten by a litter of kittens. I assure you, if you’re raising your child on a homestead, these facts of life just seem so normal (and won’t come as a shock when it comes time for biology classes in school). These lessons may be hard to learn, and can be sad at times, but because of it I learned to value and respect all life.

4. The value of hard work

A homestead is a lot of hard work. There always seems to be some part of the land, or the home, that needs tending to. The value of the work you put in, though, pays off so many times over. It feels like magic to plant a seed, and water it, then a few weeks later there is food to put on your table. Watching the seasons change, and caring for the land the whole year, is downright spiritual. Over time you feel the rhythm of life, and anything else feels boring and sterile. (Really it feels all wrong to eat imported fresh asparagus in the winter; it’s a spring crop.)

Of course there are many more lessons to be learned from a homestead farm. These big life lessons were learned early, but now carry me through my adult life. You don’t have to be a committed homesteader to learn these lessons. Even if you’re a city-dweller, you can get closer to the land by composting, growing a garden, or raising pets.

Comments on Sex, death, and recycling: Lessons learned growing up on a homestead farm

  1. I grew up eating local, seasonal produce; my husband grew up in Timmins, ON, where the growing season is too short for most crops, so the majority of the food is imported. He still doesn’t quite understand why I want to eat so much salad in the spring, and then not look at it for most of the rest of the year, or why I’ll binge on tomatoes all summer but not want them in winter. Fresh stuff just tastes better, and spring lettuce is the best — it gets bitter in summer! Even though we can now get all sorts of produce all year round, I don’t want that stuff — I want storage vegetables like rutabagas and cabbage at this season, and I’ll eat my strawberries in June, thanks very much. The main exception is home-preserved stuff — my freezer is full of corn, tomatoes, cherries, and raspberries, and I canned a bunch of jam, applesauce, peaches, and tomatoes over the summer.

    • So funny the differences you experience when you eat local and in season. I grew up on a strawberry farm in Florida. Here, strawberries are long gone by June. We are getting our first early local berries now. The best of our strawberries will be gone by mid-March.

        • Me? Umm, ok… I mean, every fruit and veggie is a little different, but I can probably at least give an overview of what I do and suggest some resources (many veggies, for instance, keep best if blanched before freezing — basically, you boil them for a short time, and that kills enzymes which will continue to degrade the food in your freezer — and different ones have different blanching times).

      • Maybe I don’t do this right either? I just freeze it on a pizza tray, then transfer to a ziplock baggie. Some things I cook first, like squash and Brussels sprouts. Apples & peaches need sugar or pectin added before freezing.

        • That’s how I do a lot of things — but it varies. Some things (chopped peppers, for instance) don’t really stick together, so you can just chuck them in the bag without the tray step. Some things (green beans, broccoli, spinach) want to be blanched. Some things do well fully cooked (squash, applesauce, and any number of prepared foods). Some sauce-ish things freeze well as lumps (hummus, pesto, and peanut sauce come to mind).

          • Oops – I’ve got raw frozen squash in my freezer… But then again, it’s intended for soup, so the consistency doesn’t really matter.

  2. You are KILLING me! I’ve been consumed lately by the desire to do this stuff- to grow my own food (as well as a flower garden “for pretty”) and compost and keep bees and play in the dirt and all that jazz. I was thinking on my commute this morning how much I wish I’d grown up on a farm or in a homesteading household (instead of an inner city rowhouse…)

    For now, I’m doing as much as I can in a suburban apartment but SOME DAY!!!

  3. Although my partner and I grew up in the Detroit suburbs, what you describe is just the kind of life we want for our (future) kids. Saving up to buy some land one of these days!

    • There are so many abandoned houses in Detroit-city-proper that I bet you could buy a few up for cheap and turn them into a farm. Bonus if you pick one of the more food-insecure areas and run a cart at the road or a little farmer’s market a couple times a week.

    • I actually just read an article the other day of a young-ish guy (23) who bought properties for 100 bucks in downtown Detroit for homesteading. He kept one of the houses and used the surrounding lots for homesteading to bring a little bit of life back to the downtown area.

  4. Yay for this! I wouldn’t trade growing up on a farm for any other kind of childhood. We’re trying very hard to do as much as we can in our suburban home, putting in garden beds, keeping bees and chickens.

  5. I love the idea of a farm, but I also love cities too and being able to get places and have lots to do without a car (I’ve never actually owned one). Did you ever feel isolated?

    For now, I’m happy with going to the farmer’s market, and loved reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to get a sense of food seasons and what growing all your food might actually be like. When we have more space, I could see getting into gardening, and beekeeping, and my boyfriend wants a goat. 😀 Hopefully we’ll be able to manage that and still be near a city, though.

    • No, we never felt isolated, the way the land was situated, we were the parcel of land in the center of a 1 sq. mile block, so we had about 50 neighbors.
      And oh! a goat! I’ve always wanted one. My husband and I are living in the city right now, and can’t have any sort of pet like that. But once we settle and buy a house, we will probably have pet goats. They’re so darn cute, and I’m not allergic to them like I am to dogs.

  6. If you don’t mind me asking, did your parents have other sources of income besides rent money from the land? When you are growing so much food yourself and consuming less in general, it makes sense that you don’t need as much money. What types of things did your family buy that you weren’t able to produce yourself? Did you have organizational systems to reuse items?

    I find the tradeoff of time, money, resources, and space all super interesting when it comes to different lifestyles. For example, the more space I have, the more I reuse things since I have a place to put them. And the more time I have, the more food I make on my own rather than buying it.

    • Ok, so I have more random questions:
      Were you able to grow a lot of crops spaced out through the year or was it mainly spring and summer with veggies? Did you have a chest freezer? Did you can things? Did you butcher?

      You mentioned socializing, so I’m wondering how isolated it was. Some people (like me) like a lot of space and non-human noise, so I imagine that part was great. Did your neighbors have similar farms, or was yours the lone farm?

      Mostly living in the suburbs is ok- I have a little garden and my commute is great. But we’re looking at possibly a major change in 6-7 years depending on where are careers go, so I’m gathering information on my options, haha.

      • We had great cellar shelves in the basement and we had a big chest freezer. We canned half and froze half. Every summer we made about 50 quarts of salsa, to last the whole year. Sometimes my mom would make pickles that we canned. We froze things like: squash, bell peppers, apples, peaches, berries, rhubarb.
        We didn’t exactly butcher animals, but we often bought meat in bulk, and so we would process it and freeze it into smaller portions.
        Our farm definitely isn’t isolated. We were about a mile from the “downtown” of the city, and over the years subdivisions and condos have sprung up around the property, because we’re so close to Lake Michigan (lots of tourists and snow birds). The closest grocery store is about 2 miles, and the closest WalMart is about 3 miles – so we never felt like we lacked anything.

    • ^What those guys said.

      I started a little garden last year, and i’m having a little more success this year, a job and a pay-check have never really meshed in my mind with the idea of providing for my family. I shelled some peas the other week, and I felt so acomplished. I’m also trying to learn skills like mending clothes, making soap…

      I want to move far away from the noise and stress of the city/suburbs, current society doesn’t make any sense to me anymore, why do I work so damn hard making money for someone else (even though i have my own business, it’s a franchise, and i get very little actual income for myself) and outsource everything I need to live, when i could and should be doing that myself….?

      • It’s really hard to learn these skills if you didn’t grow up around it all. I recommend YouTube videos! Even the things I didn’t learn as a kid but found myself having to do as an adult without the aid of my parents, I Google it first.

    • My parents both worked as engineers and as adjunct professors at local colleges. We actually got very little money from plot renters, it was something nominal like $50 a year, mostly because we put in the work to till/prepare the land before growing season.
      We didn’t farm any animals, so we got all of our meat, dairy, eggs, and honey from the store, and we didn’t grow any grains, so we bought all of our bread & grain products. We didn’t ever buy many processed foods, my mother is an amazing baker, so we always had fresh cookies and homemade bread around the house.

  7. This is beautiful! Makes me want to get out of suburban southeastern michigan so badly. I think learning about life and death in a natural setting like that is so important- it’s something that has been sterilized and ignored.

    Also- I had no idea a farm could successfully produce celery as its line product. What a mental image of celery rows!

      • The field where the celery grew is a flood plane. Celery requires a lot of water, and around my parts is traditionally grown in sandy soil. For years the city map of our field just showed a big pond. It wasn’t until recently that the zoning was updated and the maps show it as land now.

    • Thanks so much for the compliment!
      There’s lots of resources where you live for growing a little garden, or going to visit some farms. There’s a surprising number hidden away in the suburbs around Detroit! If I were you, I would seek out educational gardens, or apple orchards. And I believe the Edsel Ford house does some gardening events.

    • Just sayin’ – My parents have lived in a suburb of Metro Detroit for several decades and my dad has always had a large and successful veggie garden! 🙂

  8. Thank you Thank you and thank you for saying that the death and sex and just the circle of life is a normal thing!!!

    I grew up farming as well. The animals mated, we watched and sometimes helped birth/hatch the animals, sometimes they just didn’t live. Sometimes we had to remove a dead animal, and sometimes we had to put an animal down.
    I never thought that any of that was weird or gross or whatever. In fact, as I got older, I saw it as something beautiful.It was just how nature worked. At times it could be a little painful, when the animal was a favorite, but it was life.

    I can only hope my kids will learn to feel the same way about it!

  9. I love this article! I grew up in the suburbs, but my parents have an unusually large yard for the suburbs and my dad has always had a big vegetable garden. I was always amazed by how little people knew about where food came from. Now that I’m adult I’m such a fresh food snob because my mom always froze green beans and processed tomatoes that lasted until the next summer.

  10. I absolutely don’t want to be discouraging, but I just wanted to reiterate point 4. Farming – heck, gardening on a decent scale – is super hard work. I know it was mentioned but it’s really something to keep in mind.

    At least for me, every time I think about homesteading, I also think about how much time it takes to maintain everything and how hard my parents worked our rural property just to have a mid-sized garden (granted, where we live there is NO soil, only rocks, but still). I think it’s something that ideally needs to be waded (and not dove) into if at all possible.

    I agree that it can be really rewarding, but could also probably be overwhelming at the start. 😉

    PS: We also loved eating (Salal) berries from the forest for snacks. Even the dogs would snag some now and then!

  11. If anyone here wonders how much you can really do in an urban setting read a href=”″>Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. She runs an awesome farm in downtown Oakland. She’s a total inspiration to my hubbs and I.

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