With rising food costs and supply chain disruptions leading to shortages, more people are asking the question, is it possible to become more self-sufficient and improve their food security? Having run my own hobby farm on a few acres for the past two decades, and teaching regular people how to do the same in my Backyard Farm Academy, without a doubt the answer is yes! There is so much you can do right now even if you live in a neighborhood with a small backyard.
Now don’t get me wrong, my family still loves going to the grocery store to pick up our favorites. But knowing that in a pinch, if we had to, we could feed our family gives us peace of mind. Our ultimate peace comes from God, but we also want to live wisely and plan ahead so we know we have our necessities covered.
Not to mention as we work towards becoming self-sufficient we have so much joy in the process. There is something special about the simplicity of gathering basil from the kitchen herb garden and whipping up a pesto sauce for a delicious meal with your loved ones. It takes the focus off of striving to keep up with appearances, and on to the simple things that last. This is truly the Good Life!
Growing your own food is not only satisfying and brings a sense of security, but it also is much better for your health. You will not believe how good your freshly grown produce, pasture-raised eggs and meat, local honey, and fresh goat milk can taste. God made this food to fit perfectly with our bodies, and the closer we get back to eating food from the ground, the more our bodies will thank us. We were never created to consume a consistent diet of processed foods and pesticides!
When I think about becoming self-sufficient with food, I tend to group it together into macronutrients and food groups. I like to consider how I can replace the basic food groups like protein, carbohydrates, and fats and still enjoy dairy and fresh fruits and vegetables. To cover these bases, I recommend growing a garden, adding fruit and nut trees to your property, and paying particular attention to growing potatoes in 5-gallon buckets or potato towers so you have a good source of fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates.
If you add some chickens to your backyard farm, you can have protein and healthy fats from their eggs and meat if you choose. Even in an HOA many people are able to raise chickens, you may just have to skip the rooster so he’s not waking your neighbors at 4:45 am. Adding a few dairy goats, or cows if you have the space, would give you an abundance of milk you could use to make butter, simple cheeses, and even ice cream.
You could take it another step and add a beehive for a supply of raw, organic local honey and excellent pollination of your garden. You’d be surprised to know that even in densely populated cities, many people keep their beehives on rooftops without a problem. We’ll cover each of these steps together in detail, and lastly, I’ll share key homesteading skills you can begin to cultivate now.
The Self-Sufficient Garden
You can create a raised bed garden economically using our cedar fence post plans in the Backyard Farm Academy, by flipping an old bookshelf on its back or using a large animal feeding trough or another container. You can also go directly in the ground without a raised bed.
To get your garden started as quickly as possible with minimal effort and long-term results, I recommend a no-till, layered garden. You can go right over your grass, as long as you haven’t sprayed it with chemicals. Using smart permaculture methods of building up your soil, layering compost, leaves, and mulch gives you rich dirt, without purchasing bags of expensive soil.
Because your soil will be healthy, the worms and microbes will work for you, just like they do out in the natural forest, and your plants will thrive. Many people think they can’t practice these permaculture methods in a small backyard, but you can. Building a layered garden lasagna will help keep moisture in, keep pests and weeds at bay and you won’t need to fertilize. With permaculture, we haven’t needed to fertilize our garden in years. Here are the steps to a layered permaculture garden:
Layer 1: To start your layered garden, either in the ground or in the bottom of your raised bed container, layer over the top of the unsprayed grass or soil with contractor’s paper or recycle boxes. If you’ve sprayed your grass with chemicals, simply cut out your sod and start your layers on the bare ground.
Layer 2: Natural compost is the most important step in gardening. Instead of buying soil, you can create a healthier version with layered compost. Many small farms and gardeners who have soil delivered have run into problems with heavy metal contamination in the soil, so it’s best to save money and be safe by creating your own.
You can use various forms of compost from hay, straw, leaves, sticks, and garden clippings. I recommend 6-12 inches deep. Adding sticks and logs to your bottom layer will quickly fill the bed and compost into soil gold as they start to break down. If you have any downed limbs or sticks in your yard, this could help you fill a large area with nutrient-dense compose for free.
If using manure, make sure you are waiting a couple of months to plant, so it doesn’t burn your seedlings. If we are adding new beds in the fall, we will add our goat and chicken hay/straw bedding that is full of their recent manure directly to the new garden bed. We also layer it on top of all of our old garden beds in the fall. Recent manure bedding is referred to as “hot” and needs a few months to break down so it doesn’t burn the plants. In the spring, we add piles of this same livestock hay/straw that has sat and broken down for at least 4 or 5 months.
Layer 3: Top planting soil is optional, but I do like a garden with this thin layer of topsoil for new seedlings. It’s usually only an inch or two deep. Layer 2 of natural compost contains all the goodness that your plant roots will soak up. It’s filled with important nutrients and natural microbes, however, layer 3 of topsoil, gives you smooth broken-down dirt for your plants and seedlings to take hold in. Sometimes that layer 2 of compost has larger debris, sticks, and leaves which seeds and seedlings can fall down deep and then not sprout or take root. This thin layer of topsoil acts as the icing on the cake, holding all the goodness in. Tiny seedlings and your transplants will thrive in this topsoil. Again, I like to make my own topsoil either straight out of the aged and turned compost bin or with a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, or sand.
Don’t stress too much about the ingredients of this top layer, since all the true nutrients are down below in layer 2. If you are in a crunch for time or resources, you can always buy a bag or two of potting soil at the garden center. Although they can be pricey, they do go a long way because you are only covering the very top of your gardens with this soil.
Layer 4: To finish your raised beds, many gardeners like to place mulch on the top layer once their seedlings have been planted or come up. You can also place your mulch before sowing seeds directly in the soil and simply move it away from your seed until it emerges. Mulch helps the soil retain water and prevents weeds from taking over. Using compostable mulch will give your soil the added bonus of slowly breaking down over time and feeding your soil.
Some of the most popular mulch materials are woodchips or hay. You can buy the hay from your local feed store, but if you are an organic gardener keep in mind most hay is sprayed with pesticides, so you may want to search Facebook groups or neighbors for a local farmer who doesn’t spray their hay. Some hay can also attract slugs, or grow grass depending on if it was cut before or after it went to seed.
Woodchips can be purchased in bags at your gardening center, or you can also call a local tree trimming company that will often deliver loads of woodchips near your garden for free or for a small fee. You can also go to www.getchipdrop.com and sign up for a service that lets local tree trimming companies know you are available to receive their excess woodchips.
Remember that when starting your garden, only grow the things that you and your family love to eat. We like to laser focus on a few of our favorites like tomatoes, peppers, and all the salad greens. Growing onions, garlic, and all the delicious herbs take a normal meal and turns it into a foodie farm-to-table dish that tastes better than a five-star restaurant offering.
You can start seeds indoors and use garden bed coverings and containers to extend your garden season while enjoying produce nearly year around.
Self-Sufficiency with Chickens
Choosing the Best Chicken Breed—As you consider adding chickens to your backyard farm, you’ll want to choose a breed that works with your space and climate, has the right temperament for your family, and is bred to either give you eggs, meat, or a combination of both.
Some of the most versatile breeds that can lay 200+ eggs per year and make a good meat bird are the Rhode Island Red, the Barred Plymouth Rock, and the Orpington. If you have a mix of roosters and hens, you can use an incubator to hatch the eggs (or let the Orpington do it herself as the breed likes to go broody) and raise the chicks for more meat and eggs. Raising a heritage breed like this can help you become more self-sufficient with your food.
Another option when raising chickens for meat is to order a fast-growing hybrid chicken from a hatchery like the Cornish X chicken. The Cornish Cross Rock chicken grows extremely quickly and is ready to process for meat in as little as six weeks. They are a hybrid and therefore not good for mating and reproducing, but only for meat. You would then need to get new chicks to start over. For a deep dive into the 20 most popular breeds of chickens, check out my post on choosing the best chicken breed for your flock.
Where to Buy Chicks—You can purchase chickens at several stages of development, it all depends on how long you’re willing to wait for eggs. Day-old chicks are the most common way to start a flock.
These chicks are available from hatcheries. Most often, chicks can be bought locally in the spring, from farm supply stores or nearby small farms. Occasionally hatcheries and feed stores will have “Chick Days” in the fall season as well. They’re usually $3 -$5 each and you’ll have to wait about 6 months for eggs.
We’ve had great luck ordering day-old chicks online. The first time I did this, I was skeptical about the shipping process and how healthy they would be. It was a pleasant surprise. One benefit to this process is that you can order different and uncommon breeds that you will not find at most local stores.
Adding chickens to your backyard farm is a wonderful experience. We have added them to our property from day-old chicks at the feed store, hatched our own inside the coop with a broody hen, as well as used an incubator. They all worked great and resulted in us having healthy and sassy chickens. Here are links to our tried and trusted chick ordering resources:
- Murray McMurray Hatchery https://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/index.html
- Strombergs Hatchery https://www.strombergschickens.com/
- Cackle Hatchery https://www.cacklehatchery.com/
- Tractor Supply Chick Days https://www.tractorsupply.com/
- Incubator we use Farm Innovators 2450 Digital Circulated Air Incubator w Automatic Egg Turner
Setting Up Your Brooder Box—The brooder box is simply the name for the baby chick’s home during the first couple of weeks of life. Baby chicks are so fun. It is a joy to have new little ones on your backyard farm. This process is fairly simple, but each step is critical in keeping those little chicks alive and thriving in the first days and weeks.
- Deciding on a Brooder Box: build your own, or use a metal trough, deck box, or plastic storage tote
- Location of Brooder Box: near an outlet for the heat lamp, and close enough to check on often, like a garage
- Brooder Bedding: we prefer pine shavings
- Chick Watering System: we start with a simple gravity waterer and transition them to a nipple watering system in the coop, add a splash of Apple Cider Vinegar to the water to keep your chicks healthy
- Chick Feeding System: either a metal trough or plastic gravity feeder work well, we like the chick starter crumbles
- Temperature & Heat Lamps: keep them warm using a heat lamp with an infrared bulb on one side of the brooder. Be sure to use new bulbs and extension cords and secure the lamp with bungee in case it falls to prevent fire
- Cleaning the Brooder: I usually scoop out and replace the wood shavings every other day.
- First Minutes in the Brooder: As you remove each chick from the shipping box, dip their beaks in the water to teach them how to drink.
- Secure or Cover the Brooder: consider covering the brooder with chicken wire to prevent them from flying out or to keep predators from finding their way in, such as the family kitty or dog
Your local farm and feed store should have most of these items for a reasonable price, you can also order on amazon:
- Water/Food system https://amzn.to/3BWL1NX
- Heat Lamp https://amzn.to/3pq2MSm
- Pine Shavings https://amzn.to/3AXAT6g
- Purchased Brooder https://amzn.to/3pIIC6t
Predator Proof the Chicken Coop—Believe it or not, the most important part of raising chickens is not taking care of your chicks, but keeping your grown chickens safe from predators in their coop and run. From coyotes, snakes, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and possums, to hawks, stray dogs, and even bobcats, everything loves a chicken dinner. And there is nothing so devastating as finding the feathers and carcasses of the sweet chickens you raised. If there was one piece of advice you need to follow as closely as possible, it’s this one!
Thankfully there are some excellent solutions to the predator problem ranging from beginner to advanced.
The best solution for beginners—the chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a small mobile coop that you can move every few days to fresh grass and simulate free-ranging in a safe environment. I love this solution because it’s economical and gives you the best of both worlds of safety and fresh pasture.
The best solution for intermediate—if you’d like to expand your flock beyond what will fit in your chicken tractor, you can build or buy a coop with an attached enclosed run. You’ll need to make sure this coop and run are protected from hawks above with a bird net, ½-inch hardware cloth around the bottom half of the run walls, buried several inches, and a secure, raccoon-proof gate closure. We also use an automatic door, so that the flock can be outside during the day and then they go into safety at night when most predators attack. This door is on a timer opening at dawn and closing at dusk. The birds naturally take shelter as the light changes, so we don’t have to herd them into the coop. They go inside on their own.
The best solution for advanced chicken owners—if you love the idea of truly free-range chickens, you may want to look into getting guardian livestock like a Great Pyrenees dog, donkeys, or an alpaca. With proper fencing to keep your guardian livestock contained, this can be a wonderful solution where you would only need a secure coop for your chickens at night.
Self-Sufficient with Dairy Goats and Cows
Once you have your garden and chickens, you can take your self-sufficiency to a new level by bringing a dairy cow or goats onto your property. Obviously, you can’t keep a cow in a typical backyard, you’ll need some space for that. But I know people who raise dairy goats even in a neighborhood. With Nubian dairy goats, you can hire out the stud serves to a local breeder so you don’t even need to keep a stinky and sassy male around.
Goats are quite talkative and playful. They love to jump on things and run in such a silly way, they are a lot of fun to have around. They’ll nibble on clothing or untie your shoe laces. Well-socialized goats are curious and love to be around people.
Goats are excellent escape artists, so you’ll need a pen with good sturdy goat fencing on metal t-posts and some play furniture or even an old wooden electrical spool they can jump on. Chickens and goats can share the same pasture space, but they’ll each need their own shelter from the weather and to sleep at night. A simple three-sided shed that’s opening doesn’t face the prevailing winds will work.
Dairy goats require less pasture than other hooved animals and will need a consistent supply of alfalfa or hay, and water. Nubians may need supplements and vaccinations that can be given by the farmer, as advised by your veterinarian.
Nubian dairy goats carry their young for 5 months and have delicious milk. Many homesteaders milk every 12 hours, but you can get away with only milking once a day. The entire process takes under 20 minutes.
A good milking parlor, as it’s called, is important for a clean, safe, and enjoyable experience for both the goats and the milker. A simple stand with a head gate and bucket for feed, while they are milked, is essential. You’ll also need an utter wash, pail, strip cup, and strong hands.
Though I’ve never kept a cow myself, many of my homesteading friends and neighbors have with great success. “Keeping the Family Cow – The Complete Guide for Home-Scale, Holistic Dairy Producers” by Joann S. Grohman is the book everyone I know has recommended. Naomi at Birdsong Farm also offers a Masterclass on buying a Family Milk Cow, along with milk cow mentoring services.
Form a Dairy Co-op If you don’t have the space or resources for a goat or cow, many backyard farmers are forming a dairy co-op with their neighbors. This is a wonderful way to be self-sufficient and have fresh milk. In a co-op, one member has the space for a dairy cow or goat. All four families share the costs of housing, health and feed. Each family is assigned a week of the month or portions of the week to milk and keep the dairy.
Self-Sufficient with Beekeeping
You don’t technically need to become a beekeeper and harvest your own honey to be self-sufficient. But it sure does add sweetness to life. In your quest to become self-sufficient, I want you to more than just survive, I want you to thrive. Not only will honey add an incredibly healthy source of natural sweetness, but it will also bring pollinators to your garden helping it to be happy and prolific.
Something to know about beekeeping from the start is it’s a journey of trial and error, much like all of homesteading! But you can cut down on the learning curve by following a few tips we’ve learned the hard way. The most important thing you can do to get started is to connect with your local beekeeping club or other beekeepers in your area. Beekeeping advice is very region specific so what will work in the hot humid south with long summers, won’t work in a different region.
Often you can connect with local beekeepers for free or for a small class or club fee, but if you need to hire a local master beekeeper for a few getting started lessons, or a consult when something has gone wrong, it is well worth the money invested to get that hands-on help. There is nothing that can replace that in-person support.
My second piece of advice is to expect some hive losses. Because of a nationwide, and nearly worldwide infestation of varroa mites in all hives, and the prolific use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in commercial farming, bee populations have become susceptible. In the United States, it is estimated that ⅓ of hives will die each year. This often happens over the winter when the bees are at their weakest.
Because of these expected losses, it may be helpful to purchase three Langstroth hives, and three nucs of bees so you have wiggle room if you do lose a hive. Lost hives can be built back up by baiting traps to catch wild swarms, or splitting healthy existing hives. There is a lot to learn about bees, but expecting these setbacks will prepare you for success.
To get started, you’ll need bee suits, Langstroth Hives, cinder blocks to set your hives on, a smoker, a hive tool, and a few beekeeping books. I encourage you to learn everything you can! I also recommend you order a nuc of bees, which includes a queen, worker bees, and several frames of baby bees or brood. If at all possible, get your bees locally so you know they will thrive in your specific climate. You can get a package of bees without the brood for less, but I recommend the brood as it greatly increases the bee’s likelihood of staying in their new hive and not flying off.
If you’d like to learn more about beekeeping, understand the lingo, the bee’s lifecycles and rolls in the hive, and how to successfully keep bees, you can check out my in-depth beekeeping training at the Backyard Farm Academy.
Self-Sufficient with Homesteading Skills and Community
My favorite homesteading skills start in the kitchen with canning, sourdough bread making, and mastering kombucha teas and fermentation methods. However, homesteading skills go way beyond the kitchen. DIYs with reclaimed materials, foraging the forest, and building a thriving local community are just as important.
When you’ve had a major weather event or local crisis, it has been remarkable the importance of our local community in those times. The truth is, none of us will truly ever be completely self-sufficient. We were created by God to rely upon one other. We were made for tribes and togetherness, it’s how we’re wired and also how we will best survive in a disaster situation.
Get to know your neighbors and your local homesteading community. The Weston A. Price foundation often has local meetings for people passionate about traditional nutrition and farm-raised food. You can also meet and make friends with your local nursery, gardening group on Facebook, and farmers’ markets, and seek out others in your neighborhood who are interested in raising chickens, gardening, and even hunting.
When you get to know the people in your community, you can start sourcing local things that you don’t raise and trading for things you do have. There is no satisfaction quite like visiting a friend at her farm, letting your children hold her baby goats, and leaving with a few dozen duck eggs. Or the pride you have when you keep bees and get to harvest their honey for the first time, and share your delicious prize with your friends and family, or even sell some of your extras and use the money to expand your farm.
One thing I love about learning new homesteading skills is that even if I have not yet mastered them or become completely self-sufficient, I am learning skills I know will benefit myself and my family for years to come. You can learn how to process meat chickens or pick up hunting. Even if the meat from these activities isn’t feeding your whole family for a year, you still how a new life-sustaining skill you didn’t have before.
When you are first getting started, choose 4 news skills a year, and learn them slowly. Simple things like composting yard and kitchen scraps, preserving extra cucumbers or peaches, growing medicinal herbs, or baking sourdough bread are all timeless skills we have lost in our modern world. Our great-grandparents needed these skills to survive, and our great-grandchildren may need them to thrive some time in the future. This lifestyle is hard work and pure joy at the same time. Let’s learn, enjoy, and pass the skills down to the next generation. Not out of fear, but because those things return us to the intentional life where we can slow down, savor each other and enjoy God’s simple pleasures.