This time of year, I often think about Aesop’s iconic fable of “The Ants and the Grasshopper”. Summer has turned into fall and my pantry is completely restocked with beautiful mason jars. They stand as an amazing reminder of a summer’s hard work of planting, cultivating, harvesting, and preserving. I can relate to those little ants. I’m in the home stretch now, but I’m still working hard to prepare for the winter that will surely come.
When I was a city girl, I guess I was much like the grasshopper of the story. I didn’t prepare for winter because I just didn’t need to. I changed the thermostat and pulled out winter sweaters and coats from the back of the closet. My husband remembered to have salt and his snow shovel ready to go. But I’ve found that living the homestead life means that we have to become like the ants! It is necessary to prepare for the winter. So we work through our list every year.
Fall preparations may look different for homesteaders depending on their weather and individual activities, but I thought I’d give you a little glimpse of our off-grid homestead’s priorities as we look forward to hunkering down when the first winter storm rolls in.
You can never have too much firewood. May I say that again? You can never have too much firewood! We grossly underestimated our need for firewood during our first winter on our homestead. With so many projects taking my dad’s and husband’s attention, they had not spent the time to stack firewood through the summer and fall. When the weather turned cold, they decided to purchase some. I will always remember my husband’s comment after they had unloaded and stacked it. “That should last us a good while!” I looked at it with some skepticism, but hoped that he was right. In reality, it lasted only two weeks! They spent the rest of that cold winter, scrounging for dry wood to cut from fallen trees on our property. In the following winters, we learned that when we had fallen a little behind in cutting wood, it was much cheaper to purchase slab wood from a nearby mill. Slab wood is the “waste” product of a log after it has been cut into boards. One ton is sold for $20 and that can go a long way in keeping a house warm and toasty! This winter we have slab wood from our own trees milled on our very own sawmill.
Our wood stove is our sole source of heat for our home, but it also fulfills so many other tasks in the winter. It heats all our water, cooks our meals, and even helps dry our clothes. As they say, “The hearth is the heart of the home.” During the early part of the fall, cleaning the chimney is a top priority. Built up creosote needs to be cleaned out so that daily use of our stove over the winter months will not cause a dangerous chimney fire.
Winterizing the Greenhouse.
Our greenhouse holds our aquaponics system, consisting of grow beds for vegetables and fish tanks for our bluegill fish. During the fall, we plant the grow beds with veggies that need cooler temperatures, like salad greens and kale. To keep the greenhouse as warm as possible, we have installed a wood burning barrel stove inside. With this wood heat source, our plants can thrive and our fish tanks don’t freeze. We have tried different methods, but this solution works the best to keep our greenhouse from freezing during our coldest winter nights.
The shorter days of fall mean that we bring out our kerosene lanterns and lamps to use again. They are one of the things that I love most about fall. During the summer, we collapse into bed as the sun goes down. But with the shorter fall days, we enjoy the warm glow of our lanterns in the evening. Cleaning and filling our lanterns, as well as trimming the wicks is a necessary task this time of year.
Every fall I fill water containers and 5-gallon buckets to have in the house for winter emergencies. The pitcher pump at my kitchen sink brings in water from a holding tank outside. It’s not usable in below freezing weather because the pipes freeze. We also have a manual water pump outside that we can sometimes defrost using boiling water from a tea kettle, but in temperatures under 15 degrees we have found that even that effort is fruitless. So we use our stored water on the coldest days, as well as draw up water in a bucket from our old fashioned well. Carrying buckets of water from the well is also a necessity for our animals when their rain water tanks are frozen.
Hanging clothes outside can be difficult in the winter. Some days they freeze just as soon as they are put on the line! Consequently, fall is the time of year when I pull out my inside drying racks to use when the weather is cold and cloudy. As long as I have a fire in my wood stove, they dry well inside. My drying racks are just the sides of my boys’ old crib. I love repurposing things and it makes an excellent use of the space I have next to the stove.
During the fall, all our blankets and quilts come out of storage. We have a lot of them because without central heat, they keep us warm when our wood stove is dampered down for the night. In my mind, I often relive the stories my grandmother told me about waiting for her father to get the fire going in the morning before she emerged from her cocoon of quilts. Three generations later, my children are living that same experience.
Animal Butchering and Meat Preservation.
Fall is a great time for butchering animals and preserving the meat. When the garden canning is done, we shift our attention to canning meat. Fall is the best time for butchering animals. First, the cooler weather means less pesky flies to get in our way. Secondly, the animals have been fattened on fresh grass and/or plenty of bugs all summer. Finally, we butcher in the fall so that we will have less animals to feed through the winter.
A large majority of the meat we consume throughout the year comes from the deer that my husband hunts on our property during the fall. We process and butcher it all ourselves, and either can it or turn it into hard salami to be stored without refrigeration. We also butcher and can our own homestead chickens.
Food and other supplies.
The fall is a good time for all of us to go through our pantries and take stock of our food supplies. You just never know when a winter storm or other emergency will cause you to be unable to get to the store. It’s an important consideration for us because snow plows don’t come out where we live and our driveway alone is too steep to drive on when snow and ice are on the ground. I remember one winter when we were stuck on our mountain for almost three weeks. Along with our preserved garden produce and home-canned meats, I stock up on dry goods: rice, dry beans, pasta, wheat berries for milling flour, olive oil, coconut oil, and spices.
Putting the garden to bed for the year is always a fall activity. After everything has been harvested, we put down layers of rabbit manure and wood chips. Both are available in abundance this time of year, but they are difficult to find in the spring when all the local homesteaders begin working in their gardens. Putting in the extra effort in the fall also means that the layers have the opportunity to break down over the winter to provide rich planting soil in the spring.
So that’s it. When the first freeze comes and my family is tucked inside our little house with fire blazing and wood stacked high, I’m grateful that I have the foresight to be an ant and not a grasshopper. With the needed preparations done in the fall, we can sit by the fire and enjoy the well-deserved season of rest that the winter will bring.