Earlier this winter I lost 25 rabbits of various ages in a single month. Most were in a group I got for free from someone who needed out of rabbits quickly, but the losses were still heartbreaking. At the same time, a litter of my own started having severe GI problems, and I also had to cull a different breeder for a respiratory issue.
For a couple weeks I was going out to the rabbitry asking myself every day, “who’s gonna be dead today?”
This was brutal for me. Well, it’d probably be brutal for anyone. It made me recall the “death walk” talked about in several documentaries by confinement poultry farmers. They just expect something to be dead, daily. I homestead to nurture life, and for quality of life. This was the last thing I wanted to experience.
My Homesteading Nadir
Unlike many, I don’t homestead for financial reasons, though I analyze everything as if it were a business. Those of you who read my previous piece about rabbits here know I’ve had a very difficult time of it, despite frequently being told I was doing everything right. I’ve had something like 85 non-harvest deaths since starting 18 months ago. That’s enough to wear anyone down. We can afford to keep going, I reflected, but should I keep going?
I also homestead for educational experience, for myself and the kids I homeschool. Well, death on this scale is certainly educational. Pain is how nature teaches us to adapt. What was I being taught? Maybe I’m just not meant to have rabbits, I told myself.
Giving up, escaping this failed experiment, and butchering everything was a clear option. The worst of the deaths were happening in deep winter, with highs of 0-7F each day. I just want to fucking give up, I thought.
What do you do when you’ve hit the rock bottom of homesteading?
The answer for everyone will be different, of course. The answer for myself could have been very different. I can only tell what what I did and what I’m doing going forward.
What I Did: Examining My Motivations
Push forward. Scale Back. Completely tear it all down. Each option looked appealing. So the question was, why was I really doing this? I had to re-examine my original motivations for homesteading from the ground up.
Our homestead started as a 4×8 raised bed I built for a science class with my newly homeschooled kids. From there, I quickly got hooked and started ripping up more and more of the yard. My kids have learned a lot from both the animals and the gardens.
The only way I have failed at this original motivation is keeping them as involved over time. My homestead tasks have become times for me to get away from the kids. When I do deep reflection, however, getting them involved is much more important to me and something that will make this an emotionally sustainable endeavor in the longer term.
Raising your own food is hard. Plants and animals both teach us how little we are in control. Living systems have a dizzying amount of variables. Increasingly over time I’ve stopped encouraging so many people to grow their own food.
At first this was because of my own discouragement as I fell towards my homesteading nadir. As I’ve come out of my low, I still feel much less “cheerleady” than other prominent homesteading authors, because conversation after conversation teaches me that very few people want to do this work.
Yet, for all the setbacks I’ve had, I truly deep down love the challenge. It’s undeniable when I search back through my memories and reflect on everything I’ve learned – both about the systems and what they’ve taught me about myself.
Learning about agriculture (I spend a lot of my time immersed in learning about a myriad of successful for-profit farm business models, not just homestead-scale gardening and livestock) stimulates my brain more than anything I learned in primary and secondary education, or even those three years working (unsuccessfully) towards a PhD.
Quality of Life
Homesteading does a lot to raise our quality of life. Livestock makes travel challenging, but for us that does not outweigh the benefits. Working in the garden is usually pleasant for me, though last year I overcommitted myself and got quickly overwhelmed, something I am fixing with the clarity my nadir gave me. Garden produce tastes amazing. It takes my cooking to a new level and I’m starting to learn the best natural medicines for our family’s ailments and our climate.
I like to complain about having to do chores several times a day during the winter but if I’m honest with myself, the forced activity and fresh air is great for my physical and mental health. Winters have been much more enjoyable since we added the rabbits and chickens. There’s a lot of beauty and peace to be had in winter once you get used to it.
The first three motivations don’t require me to keep rabbits, and rabbits were the ultimate cause of my homesteading nadir. But I have become a big believer in being an ethical meat eater. In my view, that’s less about buying meat from farmers you trust (though we do that to get extra variety in our diet) and more about being intimately involved in the lives you take to sustain your own life, from birth through death. Just as vegetables must be harvested out of the garden to truly appreciate their vitality, meat should not come to us already wrapped in plastic. Every person who eats meat should be willing to participate in butchering at least once in their lives.
In my urban context, rabbits are the perfect meat animal. Quiet, low odor, and simple to butcher in a sanitary manner in a very small space. You can raise poultry in pretty small spaces, but none of those qualities apply to meat chickens. Quail might fit the bill, but everything I’ve read says they can be even trickier than rabbits, and I’m just not as interested in them as I am rabbits.
As someone interested in permaculture and regenerative agriculture, I also appreciate the fact that rabbit manure is very balanced for use on plants, and that their diet is heavily based on perennials. Even the commercial pelleted feed I currently rely on (plus a little hay) is mostly based on alfalfa meal. In genetically modified form, alfalfa isn’t the greatest, but it’s much better for land health than the grain that chicken and pork rely on.
I’m part of several communities of rabbit-keepers. Folks across my groups have shared with me their own difficulties keeping rabbits. Many of them have given up, or have found themselves at a similar juncture to mine.
More than anything, people have told me they have been inspired to continue by me – after all, if David has all this shit going wrong and he still has rabbits, I can do it too! That extrinsic reason wasn’t enough to keep me going, but it was strong enough to give me pause in the nadir.
With community support and encouragement, I didn’t go on a wild, unfettered butchering spree. I kept as many rabbits alive as I could through the bitter cold and dark of the solstice. As discussion threads grew and blossomed, a number of potential solutions were proposed.
More than anything, as I explored solutions, I knew I wanted to keep going. Even if I ended up using the most extreme scorched-earth solution of completely starting over, it wasn’t going to be the end. It would just be a new beginning.
What I’m Doing: A Plan of Attack for 2018
None of my intrinsic reasons for homesteading in general or rabbits specifically had been negated. The educational and quality of life benefits were as valid as ever. I still valued a good challenge, and wanted to produce ethical meat for my family. My wife and I also, crucially, were willing to keep putting in the financial resources despite the lack of a return, at least for another year or two.
For the last two years, I have grown additional crops at a large, off-property garden space. Realistically, that sucked up way too much of my time. I have to do a little bit of work this spring to clean it up for the owner, but giving that space up should return much of the joy I have working on my own homestead.
Diversifying Protein Sources
Chickens continue to be easy, reasonably productive except during this bitter cold spell, and we’re adding some extra point-of-lay birds to fully supply our family’s needs. Adding more birds is a small act of civil disobedience on our part, a calculated risk as we’ll be over the legal limit.
It’s hard to imagine an easier animal to care for than a laying hen. They’re incredibly worth it. And putting more emphasis on easy-care laying hens will ensure additional homestead protein production in the form of eggs while I continue to improve my rabbit meat production systems.
The (Tiny, Fluffy) Elephant In The Room
Rabbits were the ultimate cause of my homesteading nadir, and I knew I had to make some difficult decisions. First I took a hard eye to the stock I still had and made some strategic decisions about who to keep.
Additional research led to information about a medication that should completely solve my most severe rabbit health problem, but I’m holding that as a last resort. A number of people from my community offered some great herbal remedies, some of which are backed by extensive scientific evidence. I will be testing those remedies first.
Lastly, I have been talking to a breeder about some replacement breeding stock I’ll pick up in the summer. Better stock is almost always the best solution to rabbit-keeping problems.
Have you ever hit rock bottom with your homestead? How did you get through it?8