By Terry Hooker
Everyone who homesteads has hit that point where they decide to be more self sufficient. Sometimes it’s from life circumstances and sometimes it’s a conscious choice. For me the moment came after my husband left me and I lost my job. I had a four-year-old and was hanging on to the house by the skin of my teeth. My neighbor was aware of my circumstances and after long days of job hunting or picking up substitute teaching jobs, I would come home to find fresh eggs or vegetables left on my doorstep. Yes, I was grateful, but I also knew then that I really needed to be able to grow my own food.
Even though eggs and the meat from chickens provide a lot of food, I was not ready for chickens even though that seems to be where a lot of people start. I didn’t think I could afford the chicken food since I couldn’t really afford food for us. I was also concerned about where to keep them. I have a small barn on the property but I was not ready to convert it to a chicken coop. Then there are the predators. We are located in a rural area between two large nature preserves. We hear the bull alligators call at mating season, have seen large bobcats as well as panthers. Coyotes roam the cattle fields close by and there are black bears in the woods. No, I was not ready for chickens, even though the fresh eggs from the neighbor were feeding us.
I decided to start with a small 5×5 garden bed. I was so proud of building my first raised bed. I painted the boards purple and started to plant. But the soil here is sand. I mean sand! We call it sugar sand because it looks just like sugar. So that was one problem. The second problem was that I grew up in the Northeast where I learned to garden, but I am now in Central Florida. Big difference in planting seasons! My garden was not successful at all. Nothing grew, not even weeds.
So I started to watch my neighbor since she was born and raised in the area. She brought in soil and composted the chicken manure. She planted year round and made sure to water regularly and use pest control. Also if the seed packet said the plants needed full sun, she often put them in partial sun. I got up the nerve to ask her for help and she taught me how to grow a garden in Florida. She taught me how to find plants that would grow in our climate and soil. She read every seed packet to see if they would grow here and would only buy plants from local nurseries, none from the large box stores. I followed her example and the next planting season I had a beautiful garden. Many of the plants I grew that first year were not things I would normally eat, but some of my lessons were how to cook everything I planted. It was amazing! I learned so much and my confidence soared.
Then Mother Nature gave me another lesson. A big mamma black bear with two cubs came into my yard, sat right in the middle of my small garden and ate everything! No more plants, no more garden, but I was successful enough to feed at least one mamma and her babies, even if it wasn’t me and mine.
Our 10×10 garden
Life went on. I continued to container garden but did not have the time to work the regular garden. I mainly stuck to growing tomatoes and herbs. My daughter got older and we joined 4H. Her first project was rabbits. We didn’t own a rabbit, nor did I particularly want a rabbit. Life as a single parent was busy enough without adding more to the mix. As my daughter’s first show was approaching, a local breeder was going to allow her to borrow a rabbit to show, the only stipulation was that she compete in showmanship and skill-a-thon. My goodness, did she practice … on the cat of course because we did not bring the rabbit home. She went on to win showmanship and place second in skill-a-thon. The breeder was so impressed that she gave my daughter the rabbit. We were soon the owners of a small rabbitry.
We had a small building that at one time was used as a dog kennel for the previous owners. Here in Florida it can get extremely hot, so this building soon became the home for our rabbits. There was a small air conditioner inside which helped to keep the temperature cool enough for the animals. We replaced the lights with a large fluorescent fixture which allowed the rabbits to have a substitute for daylight. The cool air and the light helped the rabbits to reproduce, allowing us to continue to raise better and better quality animals throughout the year.
Mo and Bear and a blue ribbon
Another project that my daughter took up for 4H was fruit trees. Here in Florida we have a citrus project. She was to grow a citrus tree until the fair to see how well she grew it and how healthy the tree was, as well as how she dealt with issues such as leaf miners and orange dog caterpillars. For the leaf miners she just removed the leaf and did the same for the orange dogs, although these things spray you with a liquid that stinks to high heaven. She used a stick to remove those leaves.
Due to citrus greening many of the orange growers have started to introduce alternative crops such as blueberries and peach trees. Our local extension agent also included these plants with the citrus program and soon we had a small orchard of citrus, blueberries, and peaches, all different varieties developed by the University of Florida to grow well in our climate. Some of these trees were experimental varieties that the university allowed the kids to grow to see what was possible, while some varieties were known to grow well here. Mostly we were learning the ins and outs of growing fruit trees in Florida. Things to consider were soil type, pest control, the correct amount of water, and the best fertilizer. We learned that palm fertilizer worked best for the citrus trees. We also learned to catch rabbit urine in trays for the blueberry bushes.
Not being one to shy away from asking questions, I called the local peach farm and requested a tour for my daughter and me. I explained about her project and they were more than willing to help us. They taught us the proper way to trim the tree, when to trim it, and why to trim it. We also learned to make sure all the leaves were plucked off by December first if we wanted to produce fruit. At the end of the tour the farmer even gave us a big bag of the fertilizer that he used on his trees to help produce a lot of fruit. (Side note: for show trees it is not recommended to pluck the leaves off. Our fair is in February and this does not give the tree enough time to grow lush and beautiful for the judge. This is only suggested if you are growing the trees for fruit.)
Chickens and a pig
Our family soon expanded. My daughter and I welcomed three more people into our family. The first time my new husband came to my house I could see his brain going with all the opportunities my little acre had. Within the first year he had expanded my garden to be 10×10. I learned a lot from the neighbors the first time I had tried to garden, so I knew that an advantage to having all those rabbits was the fertilizer. I diligently composted and added in the rabbit manure and soon had a pretty nice little garden. The fruit trees were doing well, and each year we got more and more. And of course we had to get more rabbits. I got all the kids involved in 4H. All three raised different breeds of rabbits but my stepson was more interested in chickens and ducks. So chickens were finally introduced to our homestead.
All of the animals contributed to the compost pile, and I grew some things in the garden just for them to eat. At some point we found a pot bellied pig wandering which no one ever claimed, so she took care of any food waste that could not be composted.
Dixie, the livestock guardian pig
Everything we did helped to contribute to the successes of the other things. The rabbits and chickens created manure for the garden, the rabbits’ urine went to help out the blueberry bushes, the chickens gave us eggs. My daughter had a nice little business going with her show rabbits and taught many other children about how to care for rabbits as well as working with the genetics to create the best looking rabbit. And that little pig became the best LGP (livestock guardian pig) and helped keep the predators from our chickens.
Soon my little garden was not big enough anymore, so it was expanded again to 20×20. Still not huge but large enough to produce enough fresh vegetables to feed our family. The chickens were producing a good amount of eggs and we soon added some ducks. In all, at the beginning of 2020 we had a pretty good little farm going without even trying. We had over 50 rabbits, some of them meat breeds, about 20 chickens, and 4 ducks. Being avid 4H supporters we purchased a market hog and steer from local kids so our freezers were full. We had raised a hog a few years before and understood the work involved in the raising of these animals. We were now in a spot where we could help support the kids that had worked so hard. It was life as usual for us on our small farm. Then Covid-19 happened.
In the beginning of March 2020, spring break for our schools was just starting as the country went into lock-down. All my work dried up, but my husband was still working as he is a first responder. You probably saw this in your community too. People started panicking — buying every piece of food at the stores, all the toilet paper, everything they thought they could possibly need. Eggs became scarce, except for us. Meat became scarce, except for us. Fresh vegetables became scarce, except for us. Our little farm that has always been a labor of love and joy has turned into our savior. Without realizing it we had become homesteaders. We had renewable food sources with the rabbits and chickens. We were knowledgeable in how to grow our own vegetables. We had enough meat in the freezer to get us through a lot longer than it would take to breed and produce rabbits for food. We even began to cross breed some of the different breeds we had to see if we could produce a better meat rabbit for ourselves. We bred Silver Fox with Florida Whites to try to get the loin of the whites but the size of the silver foxes. We were grateful to be in a good spot, much better than most of our neighbors.
I started to reach out to other families I knew who had small farms like ours, especially those that raised different animals or grew bigger gardens. Soon we developed a small network to trade with. If milk was scarce I could trade rabbit meat for goat’s milk. If I wanted pumpkin seeds, I could trade fresh green beans for them. I traded both duck and chicken eggs for the beginnings of a full rabbit garden that would produce enough fresh greens to feed all our rabbits. Whatever I couldn’t trade or eat, I sold. I do not price gouge so it got to the point where people were messaging me nonstop for eggs. I only sold what I could not trade or eat so the amount was somewhat limited. Soon people were trying to buy our chickens. There was a shortage of chicks at the feed stores. We usually get a few each year to make up for the ones we lose to predators, but there were none to be had. So for the first time we allowed one of the broody hens to sit on a nest and we now have our first chicks hatched at our home.
From the very beginning of this accidental journey to now, my knowledge of how to sustain our family has grown exponentially. I now have the confidence and the contacts to know that we will be alright through this pandemic. The animals provide the fertilizer for the gardens and the gardens provide food for us and the animals. Making sure to ask the right questions of the right people has helped to get this little farm to the point of almost self sufficiency. Expanding our network to include other small homesteads has helped to provide the things we are lacking.
Though unintentional, we have become homesteaders. We have always loved the land and our animals and happily taken our harvest each season, but it took a worldwide pandemic for us to realize just how self-sufficient we truly are.