PHOTO: Tom Head/Flickr
It’s time for another new year, and many people have set their sights on resolutions—things to do differently and, presumably, better during the next trip around the sun.
For a good many people, this means learning new homesteading skills to become more self-sufficient. That may lead to leaving the grid for some, but lots of folks these days are just looking to do more for themselves—whether by becoming full-on, self-sufficient homesteaders or simply gaining a little more control over their lives and finances by picking up some new skills.
Are you among those people looking to gain some self-reliance this year? Great! We’ve compiled a list of 20 homesteading skills to learn in 2020. It’s by no means comprehensive—homesteading is a lifestyle, not a checklist—but these are some important skills for sustenance living.
This one’s at the beginning of the list for a reason—growing your own food for the first time feels like a kind of magic. Whether you grow kale in raised beds, start a no-till tomato patch or raise peppers in containers, watching food grow and ripen under your care is an absolute joy, and it’s one of the most important homesteading skills you can learn.
2. Caring for Fruit Trees
Fruit trees need their own kind of care, and it’s important to know how and when to prune them as well as grafting techniques. If you have fruit trees (or are thinking about getting some) research proper care to maximize their yield come harvest season.
After you harvest your garden’s yield, you’re going to need to cook healthy meals from it. Sure, you can nibble on carrots or cabbage raw, but cooking increases the bioavailability of certain nutrients, maximizing your energy takeaway from fruits and vegetables. Science stuff aside, a home-cooked meal is a satisfying and savory celebration of self-reliance.
4. Baking Bread
Most homesteaders will say you need to master art of making sourdough bread, a cornerstone of homesteading skills, and it’s true that you’ll probably want to eventually—capturing and nurturing those yeasts is both economical and special. But sourdough can be intimidating for beginning bakers, so don’t feel bad about buying some dehydrated yeast to get you started on your bread-making journey.
5. Making Butter
Is butter making one of the essential homesteading skills? Probably not (the book title “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” comes to mind) … but it’s pretty cool to see the cream pull together into a glob of yellow butter. If you’re not up for working a churn for hours on end, a whisk attachment on a stand mixer does the job a lot quicker.
6. Preserving Food
It’s difficult to keep fruits and vegetables producing inside over cold winters (and it’s not very economical, either), so you’ll need to learn to preserve your harvest to enjoy on snowy days. Canning—either water bath or pressurized, depending on the acidity of the contents—will keep food safe and fresh, but make sure you learn correct techniques, as bacteria is not the canner’s friend. Bacteria is your friend with fermentation, though, and there are tons of cool recipes for letting food “spoil” for delicious flavors and shelf stability. You can dehydrate almost anything either in a stove, dehydrator or the open air. And of course there’s always the freezer.
7. Making Hard Cider
The home brewing movement has taught many of us to make our own suds, but for those who don’t routinely brew their own beer, fermenting cider is a great entry into home-crafted libations. All you need is some cider, brewing yeast (I like champagne yeast, which yields a less sweet product), some honey (to increase the ABV) and some basic home brew supplies. While making alcohol may not the most critical of homesteading skills, there’s no feeling quite like opening a bottle of homemade hard cider after a long day of work around the homestead.
8. Recognizing Good Firewood
Not all wood is created equal when it comes to heating your home. Learn to recognize different kinds of wood at a glance, and know which species of woods are best for burning. Even if you end up buying firewood to get you through the winter, you’ll understand what you’re getting and know how long a particular piece of wood will provide heat for your home.
9. Safely Cutting and Splitting Firewood
If you have your own woodlot, it makes a lot of sense to cut your own wood to heat your home in the cold months. Depending on how many trees you have, you might be able to get by on naturally fallen trees, but it’s still essential to know the basics of safely felling trees. You’ll also need to cut the tree into plugs and, once they’ve cured, split the firewood you’ll need to get through the winter (whether by maul or by machine).
10. Cleaning Your Chimney
When an early cold snap hits, you’ll quickly learn you’re not the only one calling the chimney sweep to clear out a ventilation system. Stay comfortable and save some money by learning to sweep your own chimney. You can purchase the right-sized brush and extension poles at the local hardware store, then it’s just a matter of scaling your chimney (carefully and with proper securement) and working the brush down until all the collected creosote has fallen down into your fireplace or stove. (A powerful wet/dry vacuum can be very helpful in the cleanup.)
Gardening is great, but for practicing omnivores, there’s a lot of protein to be collected in the local animal population. Learn proper hunting techniques for your preferred weapon(s), study the laws in your area, and always make sure you’re practicing utmost safety while out in the woods looking for prey. And unless you plan on taking your kill to a processor, you’ll need to learn to gut, clean and butcher the carcass of whatever animal(s) you kill.
If you like the idea of the woods providing food but maybe aren’t too keen on taking the life of an animal, the forest floor can source a plethora of edible items for your dinner table. Of course, proper identification is key to making sure you don’t end up downing toxic plants and fungus, so take the time to learn, always carry a guidebook and remember—if you’re not sure, leave it alone.
13. Using Herbs for Healing
When illness or malady strike the homestead, nothing beats homegrown healing herbs to soothe the suffering. Not sure where to start? Well, here’s a good place—Hobby Farms has tons of information from a handful of writers on what to grow to ease discomfort and improve human health.
Bees are powerhouse pollinators, and providing shelter and care for the winged friends will reap rewards in your garden. And while native bees are arguably more beneficial than their European counterparts, honeybees make that sweet, viscous foodstuff that’s long endeared their species to ours. Look for some classes offered locally to learn alongside a community of enthusiasts.
15. Chicken Keeping
This is one of the more obvious homesteading skills, right? While eggs are, admittedly, less critical than fresh fruits and veggies to one’s sustenance, it seems kind of silly to go without when you get dinner and a show—chickens are endless fun to watch and interact with. You’ll need to provide shelter, as well as answer some basic questions about how you’ll deliver food and water. And there’s some upkeep in terms of cleaning up poop and spent bedding, but, overall, chickens are a fun and easy addition to most homesteads.
16. Processing a Chicken
This may not be the most appealing of homesteading skills, but you’re going to need to know how to dispose of a hen once its laying capabilities no longer meet your family’s egg needs (or you need to deal with a surly rooster). Processing a chicken, as a physical act, is fairly easy—though the killing part is emotionally challenging for some. After that, it’s a matter of plucking, gutting, rinsing and getting the body temperature down in time for safe storage (or you can just pop it in the oven).
The further you go down the homesteading trail, the more critical soap becomes—a hot shower is very important after you muck out a pig barn. So why not learn to make your own? There are varying levels of commitment to this task, from melting and pouring it into shapes, to making soap from fat and lye, to making your own lye with ashes from the fireplace. How you want to make soap is up to you, but nothing beats a homemade bar in the shower, and the extras can provide a nice source of income on the side.
18. Building and Maintaining Fencing
Whether you need to keep animals in or people out, you’ll need to be able to build a secure fence that’s up to the task at hand. And there are so many ways to approach this task—post and rail, chain link, electrical wire … the list is long. Do the proper research to determine which style of fence meets your tactical and aesthetic needs, as well as what tools will allow you to do it efficiently, then get to work building (and maintaining) it right.
19. Playing an Instrument
Is this necessary? No, but if you want to be able to provide your own entertainment and while away the hours productively, it’s really hard to go wrong picking up a musical skill. Guitar, banjos and mandolins are staples of homesteading traditions for their portability and ease of maintenance … but no one’s telling you not to take up the zither if that’s your heart’s desire.
20. Talking to Your Neighbors
This is important—there will come a time when you need your neighbors’ help, and you want to have established relationships long before this point. Also, if you’re in an area attractive to fellow homesteaders, it won’t take long for a neighbor or 10 to wander over to say howdy for an hour or two. The farther out you are, too, the more important neighborly relations are—porch stories under a clear, starry sky can be the perfect ending to a long, hard day tending the garden, chopping wood and processing chickens.