This Home on the Range series celebrates all kinds of homesteaders, from urban rooftop gardeners to rural ranches and farms, from beekeepers to goat herders, from container gardeners to egg gatherers. All are welcome.
Today’s feature will be from Walter Jefferies who owns Sugar Mountain Farm (Pastured Pigs, Sheep & Kids in the mountains of Vermont). I hope you enjoy hearing his story and seeing his homestead! Walter and his family are in the middle of building an abatoir on their property in order to cut costs associated with slaughter of the hogs. He is running a fund raiser for this project at Kickstarter and has met his minimum goal of $25,000, but there are many others goals to reach to complete the project.
The event ends in just a few days and he still needs help. Any help would be greatly appreciated by Walter and his family. Here is his story.
What led you to become a traditional, urban or suburban homesteader?
We’re definitely rural so I guess traditional homesteading is the term.
My parents homesteaded to a degree. They were both country doctors. They had large gardens for food, burned wood for heat, raised pigs with a cousin who was a dairy farmer and I kept bees from a young age having built my own hives with my grandfather.
As a teenager I decided I wanted to homestead, to farm. I knew that buying land was the big hurdle and I knew that I didn’t want to be in the commodities (e.g., CAFO pork, chickens or milk) market where there was no control over what we sold.
To raise money for land I did a lot of different things from working in a slaughterhouse to yard work to computer programming and consulting, to writing, to art, to cartography, to inventing a number of things and rebuilding houses. I had a business manufacturing some of my inventions and selling them as well as a publishing company for books and a magazine. All this was with the goal of earning the money to buy land for our farm. Farms don’t grow on trees.
Meanwhile I, and then my wife with me, practiced and explored what we might be good at by raising things at a homesteading level so that we produced most of our food needs. Homesteading in turn allowed us to save money money by living very frugally which made buying our land happen sooner.
Developing our farm is really an extension of our homesteading. We do all the work on our farm ourselves. We build everything here. We do all the chores. We have no hired hands. We simply do it on a large enough scale than a typical homestead and are able to share the bounty. This allows us to work from our land. To do that took years of figuring out what we were good at and what we could produce here that was marketable. Being able to work from home so that I could be with my family was always my goal.
What do you love about your homestead?
Family: We are very close. We work together in all that we do. Caring for our animals. Gardening. Homeschooling. Playing. Doing construction. Building our house, our on-farm butcher shop, etc. We share in all the things that happen around the seasons on our homestead.
We are off the beaten path yet close enough to ‘civilization’. We live in a beautiful place with available resources of water, fuel (firewood), timber, rock and pastures. Our land is not good for large scale crops – it isn’t tillable soil being rocky and steep as it is up in the mountains. It is perfect for grazing. Our home is surrounded by pastures and peaceful forests. This makes it both a beautiful place to live and a place we can make our living from without having to commute to far off jobs.
Our farm provides all the essentials we need. That is not to say that we have to be insular or isolated. We love our luxuries like the internet and chocolate. But they are luxuries. If we need to, for economic or other reasons, we can produce all that we need. We like that balance.
What would you change?
It’s not so much a matter of changing anything as continued improvements down the path we’re working on. Some of the things that we’re working on right now are:
1. Finishing our on-farm butcher shop. We are building our own USDA inspected meat processing facility that will be owned and operated by our family so that we can process our own pigs on our farm without having to make the day long trip each week to the distant slaughterhouse. As we wait for the weather to warm (it snowed today) so we can begin construction for the year we are doing a Kickstarting the Butcher Shop at http://smf.me where people can pledge to back our project and in turn get meat from our farm, hot dogs, sausage, T-shirts, ivory and more. Check out the link for a video from our farm.
2. Fencing improvements. In 2009 we cleared an additional 40 acres of fields back to the original stone walls. Our first step was to fence the outside perimeter in 2010. In 2011 we did initial field divisions. This year we’re doing smaller paddock divisions so that we can easily do managed rotational grazing which improves the quality of the soil.
3. Building the Ark. This is what we call a very large greenhouse we are building out in our south field to help provide better winter farrowing space for our sows. We keep our pigs outdoors year round with the sows farrowing out in the fields for the majority of the year. In the winter we have open shelters for them but we would like to improve that further. In the winter we replace the pastures with hay. By having a large open greenhouse we can make our dead of winter like our late fall and early spring, thus extending the warm seasons of our year. We’ve been practicing this on a small scale for years and look forward to building a larger version.
4. The Tiny Cottage. Five years ago we built a very small, highly energy efficient house made of masonry with a ferro-cement barrel vault roof. This low maintenance building uses only 0.75 cord of wood a year to heat. We want to add a tower to the back of the house and do some other finishing details. A fun part of our projects. Our kids want to stay on the farm so eventually expanding the cottage will become a necessity when they take partners and have kids of their own.
What new skills have you learned and how have you applied them?
We’re always learning new skills and polishing old ones. Practice is key. Starting small and then repeating over and over again. We take pigs to market weekly which means we get to practice the entire cycle of farming 52 times a year since there are pigs at all stages all the time. This has honed our skills in what has become the money maker for our homestead.
We have the typical homesteading skills of gardening, woodlot management, canning, food preservation, etc.
Not everything works. One tries things and explore options. We found we were not good at raising meat chickens. We were good at sheep but we couldn’t make them pay because the processing ate up all the money and there wasn’t enough demand. We were also very good at raising pigs on pasture and for that there was both the market and enough margin. Still, the processing takes 30% to 50% of our earnings on each pig. Our solution is building our own butcher shop which means we’ll have more vertical integration which will keep more money here on the farm. That in turn makes our family’s more secure and provides a future for our children.
My wife worked in construction and cabinet making when we first met and I had been repairing houses. We continued to improve our skills at building. With each structure we make we practice and improve things. One of our techniques is that we make small things and then gradually do bigger and bigger things. For example, we built table models of our house, then animal shelters, then a fancy dog house, then our cottage and now we’re building our butcher shop using many of the same techniques.
In preparation for opening our butcher shop we spent eighteen months apprenticing with a master butcher to learn the art of meat cutting. This was a traditional apprenticeship where we provided our labor to learn. It was a wonderful experience and the butcher, Cole Ward, is going to help us as we open to get things smoothly operating.
This last year our son Will taught himself to weld which is an invaluable skill on the homestead as well as being vital to building our butcher shop.
What skills would you like to learn?
What animals or plants do you have?
Chickens (a variety of breeds of layers), ducks (Pekin), geese, sheep and, of course, pigs. It is the pigs who bring home the bacon for our family. They pay the rent and make it possible for us to earn our living from our land.
We also have a pack of livestock guardian herding dogs. I wouldn’t want to homestead or farm without them. They keep off the predators, literally eating them, herd our livestock and are wonderful friends.
Our kids have two ferrets which are great fun and there is a wild ermine that lives around our house playing hide and seek with us.
We have apple trees, pear trees, various nut trees and acres of berry bushes which provide the fruit for our family.
We also garden, growing a lot of pumpkins, sunflowers, beets, turnips, potatoes and tomatoes as well as the usual other things like herbs and such. I love gardening. We also forage in our fields and woods for wild plants.
What makes you happy with your life as a homesteader?
Independence. Being able to choose what we do, when we do it, our way, together.
Check out our Kickstarting the Butcher Shop at Sugar Mountain Farm project on Kickstarter.com at this link:
There you can see a video of our farm, pigs grazing in the field, meet all of our family, see construction of our butcher shop and get snuffled in the face by a pig!
Also check out my blog at http://SugarMtnFarm.com where I have tens of thousands of articles, photos and answers to questions about homesteading, chickens, pigs, sheep on our farmstead at Sugar Mountain.
Thank you Walter, for such thorough answers to these questions. Your homestead is awesome and I bet the pork and bacon from your pigs is amazing! I wish you all the best in raising the last of your needed funds for your butcher shop project. Here are some photos of the farm!
What an interesting house!
That is one big mama!
So much better than a CAFO pig!
This is some beautiful pasture for pigs and babies.
These pigs are huge! I hope they are friendly!
That’s going to be quite a building. I’m sure all the meat packaged here will be fabulous!
What is a Real Food Homesteader?
A Real Food Homesteader is someone who cares about the earth, the soil and the animals that give us food. You don’t have to have acres of prairie land to be a homesteader. You can be an urban or suburban homesteader with a tiny plot of land, a rooftop garden in a city, or a community garden. You could also be a more traditional homesteader who is concerned about organic, sustainable methods of farming or gardening, who supports pasture raised animals.
Real Food Homesteaders don’t use genetically modified seeds. They don’t use poisons on the plants and soil. They don’t feed poisoned grains to their animals.
They cook traditionally with raw dairy from grassfed animals and eggs from chickens on pasture. They shun processed vegetable oils like margarine and other processed foods. They try to buy as little packaged food as possible — growing and preserving their own instead.
Are you a person like this? Do you have an urban, suburban or rural homestead? Please share it with us.
Send your answers to Jill at Real Food Forager dot com and 5 – 6 of your best photos sized 450 – 550 with caption
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