Recently on the blog post about Buttoning up the Bees, a reader posted a very interesting question as follows:
"Patrice, here’s a question. The bees sound like a project you keep sinking money/resources into (buying bee boxes, buying more bees, having to feed them year-round instead) without getting anything in return. Obviously you’re hoping for a reliable honey source one day. But when homesteading or trying to set up a farm, at what point do you say the sunk costs are too high and quit pouring money or resources into something that isn’t working? Have you had any big projects you’ve had to just give up on after trying everything? When do you make the call between something you think you need for self-sufficiency, and a project that’s just draining you dry and costing you time/money that could be better spent on other projects? No snark. Genuine question. How do you find that balance?"I thought these were brilliant – absolutely brilliant – questions. In fact, I will offer my thoughts below, then invite readers to put in their $0.02 worth as well.
First, let’s explain homesteading. Countryside Magazine defines it as follows:
“It’s not a single idea, but many ideas and attitudes, including a reverence for nature and a preference for country life; a desire for maximum personal self-reliance and creative leisure; a concern for family nurture and community cohesion; a belief that the primary reward of work should be well-being rather than money; a certain nostalgia for (t)he supposed simplicities of the past and an anxiety about the technological and bureaucratic complexities of the present and the future; and a taste for the plain and functional. Countryside reflects and supports the simple life, and calls its practitioners homesteaders.”This is an unusually thorough definition, you must admit.
Those who practice homesteading (as opposed to just living rural) tend to have a few things in common, one of which is a limited budget. Since most homesteaders are not independently wealthy, they must come up with frugal alternatives. The overall result, among homesteaders the world over, is an amazing font of creative, thrifty solutions to various problems.
Homesteading, as long-time readers know, is not something that can be “achieved” rapidly. It’s a rare homesteader who gets anywhere near self-sufficiency after, say, one year. Those who try to push it that fast are generally doomed to failure. I often advise newbies not to bite off more than they can chew lest they grow discouraged and give up the lifestyle out of frustration or exhaustion.
Because of our own limited financial resources, we have to carefully pick and choose projects on which we want to focus. Over the years, we’ve chosen to invest in infrastructure rather than aesthetics. Our house still has its original worn, torn kitchen linoleum and ugly blue utilitarian carpeting, but our garden is looking better every year and our livestock are flourishing.
These choices add up. Year by year, little by little, project by project, investment by investment, we’re building our farm and shaping it into what we want. It’s fun. It’s challenging. The “goal” is just as enjoyable as the “process.” It’s a lifestyle, not a destination.
Some projects will take priority. It quickly becomes apparent what needs to be done sooner versus what can be put off indefinitely. Our need for a barn for hay storage and livestock shelter was a priority. So was a tractor, to act as a force-multiplier. These projects were expensive – we went into debt for both of them – but we knew the benefits would be instantaneous and long-ranging. We also paid them off as fast as possible.
How do we select which projects to tackle? Simple: we consulted our Master List. A Master List, divvied into A, B, and C categories for purposes of prioritizing, has allowed us to accomplish an amazing number of projects over the 13 years we’ve been in Idaho.
The reader asked about projects that might be prone to failure, such as our honeybees, and wonders where the cutoff point is when the price is too steep and failure is too common.
Before picking a project, it has to fulfill several criteria:
1. Is it feasible? Is it possible to succeed?
2. Will it contribute toward our ultimate homesteading goals of self-sufficiency?
3. Is it ultimately self-sustaining?
4. Can we afford it?
True story: Back when we still lived in Oregon, Don thought it would be interesting to try planting peanuts. Needless to say, it didn’t work. While it was a fun experiment, we didn’t follow the criteria listed above. Peanuts are not feasible to grow in a northern climate; peanuts (much as we enjoy them) would not contribute toward a goal of self-sufficiency, and peanuts would not become a self-sustaining enterprise.
Sure, we might have succeeded in growing peanuts if we’d invested, say, thousands of dollars into artificially duplicating the specialized conditions peanuts need. We could have built a greenhouse, heated it, and installed gro-lights to simulate longer day length. But would it have been worthwhile, just to grow peanuts? Of course not. An enterprise like that would violate the criterion #4, affordability.
For the same reason, we won’t try to grow, say, coconuts or pineapples. These projects would be doomed from the start.
So the first thing is, we don’t try projects we know won’t work. We generally don’t start projects which have no chance for success. We can’t afford it.
Let’s look at the bees.
1. Is it feasible? Is it possible to succeed? We know people keep bees successfully in north Idaho. Yes, it’s possible to succeed with bees.
2. Will it contribute toward our ultimate homesteading goals of self-sufficiency? Clearly bees fill this criterion. We knew it would take several years before the venture would “pay off” in terms of honey. But we also knew bees would be an excellent fit for our homestead, with triple benefits: wax, honey, and pollination. The critters were initially costly – I took a beekeeping class, we purchased the boxes, frames, and tools, and of course we’ve purchased the bees themselves – but eventually we hope to recoup our costs.
3. Is it ultimately self-sustaining? Yes, bees can become economically feasible in the long run, as well as self-sustaining and self-reproducing at some point (we just haven’t gotten there yet).
4. Can we afford it? Yes. Startup costs were a bit high, but not unbearably so, and we anticipate the bees will pay for themselves within a few years.
Bees are of high interest to us because we have no other way to produce a sweetener on our farm. Obviously growing sugar cane is out of the question, and sugar beets take too much work to extract the sugar. So we looked at what alternatives might provide a sweetener, and bees were the clear answer. The triple benefits of bees are one of the reasons we’re determined to succeed with them.
Another factor in homesteading projects is to learn from our mistakes. This can’t be underscored enough. Our first winter with the bees, we wrapped them too snugly with insulating foam board, and the resulting condensation killed them. We would be foolish beyond belief if we continued that same practice winter after winter. We learned from our mistake. I’m sure we’ll make new and exciting mistakes in the future, which will allow more learning opportunities, but we won’t repeat our earlier boo-boos.
How do we keep from getting discouraged by our failures? Part of the answer to this is to pick projects in which we already have a natural interest. That interest motivates us and keeps us pushing past the dismay of failure. Everyone has different interests and can pour heart and soul into cultivating those interests. I have no particular interest in raising sheep, for example. They’re fine and noble animals, and provide many homesteading benefits, but I just have no particular interest in them. If I tried and failed at raising sheep, I would be far more likely to throw up my hands and conclude I’m no good with sheep. But bees? Cows? Chickens? An orchard? Sure.
An additional factor in determining what projects to choose is to look for creative answers to problems. That’s how the tire garden originated: we needed a reliable (and preferably cheap) way to overcome the heavy clay soil and massive weed problems in our area.
Another example: We wanted a source of vegetable protein. Dry beans are one of the finest vegetable protein sources available – and they grow in our area – but we haven’t had much luck with them. We’ve learned they don’t have a lot of “bang for the buck.” I could plant a bed of potatoes and get 30 pounds out of it. I could plant a bed of beans and get maybe – maybe – one pound, but more likely eight ounces. A bed of dry beans would use the same space as a bed of potatoes but yield 1/60th of the results. They’re hardly worth the effort. Dry beans, we’ve concluded, are best grown as a field crop.
But we wanted a source of protein outside of animal protein (meat, eggs, etc.). Beans are unparalleled sources of protein. What could we substitute for beans?
We decided to look at nuts. The only two nuts which grow well in our climate are walnuts and hazlenuts. Last summer we planted two walnut trees. The payoff won’t happen for many many years, but it’s a long-term solution to a problem. We also ordered four hazelnut trees, which we’ll receive and plant this upcoming spring. They should produce a crop much faster than the walnuts.
What it comes down to is the willingness to research and examine the feasibility of a project. Have others done it in our region? Does it have the potential for success? Will it propel us toward self-sufficiency? Can we afford it?
In all things, we need to be flexible and adaptable, willing to acknowledge something may fail, and willing to look outside the box to make something succeed (hence the tire garden – it was our solution to our tough gardening conditions).
The failure of the little peanut project we tried years ago was immaterial. It was just a fun sidebar. When we look at putting a lot of work and money into something that keeps giving us trouble (i.e. the bees), we have to look at the potential payoff for its success.
I should make it clear we’re experimenting with bees at this point because we can afford it. Over the years, our finances have stabilized to the point where we can – if we’re careful and save our pennies – afford to try new projects. Back in our poorer days, that wasn’t an option; it was always something “for the future.”
The question of “Can we afford it?” remains a factor in any decision we make. This is one of the reasons we don’t see the need to purchase a solar array; it’s far beyond our price range and would take too long to recoup the costs. We do not – ever – want to go back into debt (been there, done that, didn’t like it). These days, we only start projects we can pay for up front. (By the way, this is another benefit of going low-tech in our preparedness efforts; it’s more affordable and we get more bang for the buck.)
To summarize how we select which projects:
• Is it feasible? Is it possible to succeed?
• Will it contribute toward our ultimate homesteading goals of self-sufficiency?
• Is it ultimately self-sustaining?
• Can we afford it?
• Are we willing to learn from our mistakes?
Don added two more codicils to the above criteria. One, just because no one ever tried something in our area doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Modern equipment and technology may have made the impossible or the too expensive both possible and cost-effective. Always go to the latest research and don't always accept the “It won't work here” mantra as gospel. Things change.
And two, never underestimate human ingenuity in solving problems. People gave us endless reasons why gardening in tires wouldn’t work. But filling the tires with superb soil and installing a large-scale drip irrigation system has worked wonders. Now we’re experimenting with growing fruit trees in tires – despite the nay-sayers – so we can see what happens.
This is where I want to stop and invite readers to add their own wisdom. Everyone, homesteading or not, faces similar issues about selecting projects. Returning to the original questions: “At what point do you say the sunk costs are too high and quit pouring money or resources into something that isn’t working? Have you had any big projects you’ve had to just give up on after trying everything? When do you make the call between something you think you need for self-sufficiency, and a project that’s just draining you dry and costing you time/money that could be better spent on other projects?”
Special thanks to Prepared Grammy who found the perfect Bible verse for this subject: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?" -- Luke 14:28
Okay, folks, pitch in your experience and opinions. Let ’er rip!