Shannon Slee Homesteader in Missouri

Big Ideas, Bigger Grace

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As we round out the month of February, we find the days getting longer and the hope of spring on the horizon. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but I feel it coming! I’ve noticed some of the flower bulbs the children and I planted last fall poking their heads through the soil, teasing thoughts of colorful blooms, happy pollinators, and strolls in the warm sunshine. Our chickens’ laying strike has come to an end and today I’ll be dusting off the incubator to set some eggs. My friends’ goats are kidding beautiful babies (mine are still six weeks from their due dates), new litters of farm kittens are popping up, and seed catalogs are arriving in the mail. It’s time to get serious making plans for a new growing season!

While we turn our faces toward spring with hope, honest reflection of the past reminds us that it’s unlikely everything will go our way in the year ahead. One feature of our homesteading journey has been that the ideas have been many and the execution of them has been consistently imperfect.  At first glance the truth of Psalm 94:11 feels a little depressing: “The Lord knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile.” But how accurate it is! I thought it might be weirdly encouraging to those who admire our family’s homesteading adventures to share some of our big ideas that have been accompanied by big disappointments.

  • HOME ORCHARD: I’ve lost count of how many times over the past eight years we’ve planted and replanted fruit trees, but it’s probably a good thing I can’t remember; the cost has been staggering and the effort involved tremendous. Our soil is terrible. The deer are ravenous. But little by little, we’ve replaced losses, amended the soil, protected better, learned to make compost tea, mulched deeper, and refined our pruning techniques. It only took forever, but last year we enjoyed the firstfruits of peaches and apples and now we have tangible hope that the quantity and variety of our home orchard will continue to improve in the seasons to come.
  • SEED STARTING: Any gardener knows the thrill of buying a glorious variety of interesting seeds and preparing for a great gardening season. I won’t belabor this point, but how many times have we started seeds enthusiastically, only to get our timing or quantities way off, be disappointed by poor germination, forget to harden seedings before transplanting only to have the wither and die, or ultimately have to purchase plants from the nursery? And yet, as our family enjoys canned, frozen, and freeze dried vegetables, fruits, and herbs all winter long, we know that the imperfections of our gardening are far outweighed by the benefits of stubborn perseverance.
  • LIVESTOCK: Growing up far removed from farm life and having only pets, when I started dreaming of fluffy chickens, fuzzy bunnies, and endearing goats, I was entirely unprepared for the experience of livestock loss. But the saying is true: “when you have livestock, you’ll have deadstock.” Our garage has been converted into “animal hospital” time and again, with mixed success. We’ve lost chickens, rabbits, cats, a dog, goats, and a llama to predators, dog attacks, feed issues, automobiles, and sickness. Each loss has been keenly felt as a personal failure, and some have been particularly heartwrenching. We have improved security, adjusted the rosters of who is well suited to the homestead, learned more about nutrition and wellness checks, and year-by-year learned from our mistakes. Nonetheless, whenever guests to our property visit and enjoy our creatures, few fathom just how much of an emotional rollercoaster it has been for us to keep livestock.
  • BEEKEEPING: We purchased our first nukes last year and got them established. Jordan scrambled like mad to get boxes built to save money over purchasing premade hives. When two opportunities arose to catch displaced swarms, we went for it and got them installed. After all the time and effort, one of the swarms left, and in spite of catching it again, neither thrived, bringing our hive count from two, to four, and back to two. Still, the two nukes we started with did make it through the winter in fine form, and we now feel more prepared to catch swarms this year if we can. We continue to be thankful for good mentorship and hold the hope that homegrown honey is in our future.

I could go on and on with self-deprecating examples of how unqualified we are as homesteaders, and might convince you that we’d do well to sell out and go back to city living, were it not for one feature of our approach that reappears in almost every endeavor: grace. If we homesteaders are willing to accept the undeserved favor and goodwill of a perfect God towards imperfect people, we can face hardship with hope and try, try again without shame, knowing that this experience ultimately brings glory to God. As the apostle Paul wrote, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.’” –2 Corinthians 12:9

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In one of my favorite Christian apologetic novels, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes (from a demon’s perspective) of God’s will for the spiritual growth of his most precious creation: “He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.” While the chances are slim that Lewis had homesteading in mind when he wrote this, I cherish the belief that God uses our experiences working with our hands, tending the earth, and caring for his creatures as a means of maturing us as individuals and teaching us about Himself.

Life is a journey of learning and growth. Of pursuits that often miss the mark. Of dusting ourselves off and trying again. Of tears of disappointment and tastes of victory. Above all, it’s about getting to know the Creator of this complicated and beautiful existence, finding mercy in the blood of His Son for our inevitable shortcomings, and, through faith in Jesus and the obedience that accompanies it, being prepared for an eternity with Him. As we make our plans for herbs and flowers and vegetable gardens and berries and fruit trees… of chickens and rabbits and kittens and goats… of bread making, milking, and food preservation… let us make those plans humbly and joyfully, with eyes ever open the lessons He will provide along the way. 

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” –1 Corinthians 13:9-12

Happy planning, and may your homesteading adventures be covered in growth and grace.

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