Establishing a homestead

Making the move:

Our piece of paradise, outlined in yellow.

Our piece of paradise, outlined in yellow.

I wanted to live in a rural location in Canada. I had a fondness for the Bella Coola Valley and had dreamed of living there for about 15 years. I had always loved the Valley and thought it had potential for good agricultural development. So, when the opportunity to take a job there arose, I phoned my husband (who was still living in New Zealand in the new home we had just bought 4 months previous!) and asked, “What he thought about the idea of selling our home and moving to a remote, economically depressed, First Nations village on the west coast of British Columbia.” Can I sell an idea or what?

The Property Wish List:

Good Soil: The first thing I learned after buying and trying to develop a farm on poor soil, but a wonderful location, in New Zealand was: Buy the best soil you can for the money you have.

Good Water: Having lived in NZ for 6 years on rainwater, I simply couldn’t go back to drinking chlorinated water.

Good Climate: I’m a whimp. I couldn’t see myself surviving a real northern Canadian winter, so it had to be on the coast where temperatures are relatively mild. Also, when growing food, you need access to a decent amount of rain. Irrigation actually ruins soil, so I thought is best to move somewhere where the rain can provide the majority of the watering needs of your farm.

Established Fruit Trees: Fruit trees take many years to produce. Therefore, it was important that we find something that had some established trees on the property.

Affordable: Last but not least, it had to be affordable. This is increasingly difficult to find in Canada, BC in particular.

The Answer:

4.1 acres in the Bella Coola Valley.

Winter 2005-6, house on left, looking north.
Winter 2005-6, house on left, looking north.

Year 1: Reclaiming the earth

The first season was upon us when we moved in. We laid claim to the property at the beginning of April 2005. Garden preparations would have to take precedent to anything else that needed doing that spring if we were to have a harvest come summer. So, the first thing we did was create a veggie garden plot from lawn. The second thing I really wanted was chickens so we asked a friend with an incubator to put some eggs on for us.

After turning the sod with a rototiller, I found some seine netting from the dump strung it up on a wooden fence that my husband helped build. This was to keep the deer out of the future veggie patch. They had already been in to my bedding plants (their favourite seems to be lobelia!) and we’d seen foot prints in the newly turned sod, so keeping them out was foremost in our minds. I also built three sections to the garden. This was so I could use my newly hatched chickens to help get rid of the grass and fertilize the soil in the process. Then I would plant into the first space and move the chickens out and into section 2.

In order to try to get a head start on the gardening season, I also built mini greenhouses. These were less than successful. They would blow over in the wind and be cumbersome to actually move around and to water underneath. They also made minimal difference to our ‘head start’.

Year 2: Acquiring more livestock

This year we build our chicken ‘herd’ up to thirty-five chickens. I incubated some, but mostly the chickens themselves did the work. I have found that the chickens are much better mothers of chicks than I am. Thus far, when I incubate eggs I get about a 50% hatch rate. The chickens manage upwards of 90% or better!
One day, six Muscovy ducks suddenly appeared on the farm. Actually, they appeared in a box in the garage. Six little wee ducks looking reminiscent of the yellow rubber ducky of childhood bath-time. We then set to building some ‘dog’ houses for the ducks and set them out close to the pond. Where else would ducks want to live? And last but not least, we acquired two Pygmy goats. Why? Well, why not.

Now that we had livestock, we needed a barn. So, we built a barn. The little ‘Big Red Barn’. We also fenced an area for my horse, built ‘dog’ houses (for ducks and the goats), developed more veggie garden and started a berry patch with canes from neighbours.

Year 3: Politiking with predators

This year we took some animal losses. We lost some chickens to a hawk, baby ducks to eagles and ravens and the Mallard drake to a fox. A couple of days after losing the Mallard drake, I woke to find a full grown male cougar sitting in my driveway, staring at the goats and drooling with the thought of the feast he was about to have. So, that day was spent building more housing for all those who were not securely locked away at night. Namely, the goats.

Until this point, I had never wanted or needed to own a gun. But, I realized that in light of where I was living, it was necessary. I didn’t want to be caught one day with the cougar chowing down one of my goats while I stood there watching with nothing more than, ‘Bad cougar’ to say. If I was going to keep captive animals then I was going to have to learn to protect them properly. So, I set out to get my firearms acquisition license.

We also took a big loss in pears. When you live in bear territory and you are trying to establish or even keep an orchard, you must figure out how to come to terms with the losses you will take from the bears. Bears can wreck an established fruit tree in one night, never mind what they can do to a small baby tree.

We also built a turkey house, fenced in a yard for them and raised six Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys for the first time ever. Turkeys are a blast. Don’t let anyone tell you they are stupid. Raising those turkeys was one of the funnest things I’ve done on the farm yet!

Year 4: Establishing a homestead

Our little homestead. The new barn has the green roof.

Our little homestead. The new barn has the green roof.

I extended the veggie patch behind the fenced garden and another patch to the left of the greenhouse. This added about another 1000+ square feet to our garden. To date, I now have about 5000 square feet of vegetable garden. I’m developing permanent beds so I won’t have to roto-till now that I’ve finally beaten back the quack grass and lawn. This has taken four seasons to accomplish.

The permanent beds with the sawdust paths will hopefully help omit the need to roto-till each year. Thus, I can keep my worm populations up and keep the tillage to a minimum to help retain soil structure.

I’m establishing a permanent strawberry patch and a permanent asparagus patch in this extra 1000 square foot of garden. This will hopefully avoid the roto-tilling incidents to a minimum.

I’ve incubated more chickens for both egg laying and butchering. I am also raising 25 white turkeys, some for butchering and some to sell.

We built a 12 x 36 foot greenhouse with raised beds inside. It was a bit too late in the season by the time we got it finished to be really productive but it has allowed me to grow asparagus from seed (to replace the plants that my well meaning husband killed by roto-tilling!). Also, this is the first year on the farm that I’ve managed to harvest a decent amount of basil!

I am doing various trial patches in the new garden. I brought back a Canadian heirloom wheat from Saskatchewan in the spring and planted it. Unfortunately, I got that part of the garden started/reclaimed too late in the season, and the season sucked. So, I’m not sure if the wheat will actually make it (or any of the pulses for that matter). But the new bed is established and laid out and will be more productive next year.

I bought an Excalibur dehydrater and are putting it to good use. We’ve dried cherries, carrots, peas, beans, zuccinis and will yet to do apples and pears. I also bought a pressure cooker and have canned fish, soups and stews and our own chicken meat and fish.  Finally, I bought a second freezer so I can freeze the fruits and veggies and keep them separate from the meat and fish.

I’m trading eggs for milk from another farmer. We both lamented recently that each one of us would like to be doing some of the things the other is doing (he wants chickens, I would like to milk my goats) but that neither of us has the time to do what we are doing now, let alone take on anything else!

I wrote my CORE exam and got my hunting lisence. I don’t imagine I’m going to turn into a hunting fanatic, but I want to know I can if I have to. Also, I have a very good friend who is excited about teaching me. He’s 83 years old and I’m worried I might not keep up with him while chasing moose through the Chilcotin this fall.

3 responses to “Establishing a homestead

  1. Hi,
    I love your blog. I am trying to research about what kind of gardening I can do in the west Chilcotin. I want to move there soon and have yet to visit it. I want to know what kind of veggies I can grow and if any fruit trees can survive there.
    I am now looking for just about any kind of employment and a place to caretake or possibly rent. Please let me know any advice you may share.
    Thanks,
    Michael Nisbet

    • Hello Michael,

      The type of gardening you can do in the west Chilcotin really depends on where you are. Where in the Chilcotin were you specifically thinking of moving? It is a vast but beautiful area of BC and I wish you luck in getting out here! Of course, the short growing season will be your biggest hurdle, but the long sunshine hours and heat units in the summers will make up for it to some degree. You’ll be able to grow great tomatoes and peppers with good planning and a greenhouse. Onions and potatoes grow wild in some places as do strawberries so I imagine you’ll be able to get crops of those in your garden also.

      I would come out and start job/home hunting if I were you. This way, you’ll be able to get a feel for the place and make some contacts. Start by dropping in at the Tatla Lake gas station and introduce yourself. It is a pretty central hub for the Chilcotin.

      cheers,

      HDR

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