When you look around the homesteading world and see other people doing all the things, it can be overwhelming to know how to get started. In this episode, Melissa K. Norris, a homesteader for over 20 years, joins me to talk about where to start when you want to learn new homesteading skills. She reminds us not to be afraid of starting small and learning as you go. She also provides many tangible tips for getting started. Whether you have been homesteading your whole life or are still contemplating jumping into this lifestyle, there will always be more to learn, so these tips on self-education are for you!
In this episode, we cover:
- One prerequisite for becoming a homesteader
- Deciding what to start with on your homestead
- How to start researching a new skill or endeavor
- What made Melissa decide to get a dairy cow
- Questions to consider when adding livestock to your homestead
- What Melissa’s 20-year homesteading journey has looked like
- The mindset shift that makes homesteading accessible to anyone
Melissa is a 5th generation homesteader who helps people produce more than they consume for better health and self-sufficiency using simple modern homesteading (because our food shouldn’t be overcomplicated). Her popular Pioneering Today Podcast has inspired thousands of people to learn traditional skills with over 3.8 million downloads.
She and her husband have been homesteading for over twenty years, bringing practicality and long term strategies to help others make homesteading a successful lifestyle for good. Readers and listeners love Melissa’s passionate and simple style, including her book, The Family Garden Plan: How to Raise a Year’s Worth of Food, because they can easily apply and implement the tips for quick successes that build on one another.
Keeping a Family Cow by Joann S. Grohman
Melissa K. Norris | Website | YouTube | Podcast | Instagram | Facebook | Pinterest
Lisa Bass of Farmhouse on Boone | Blog | YouTube | Instagram | TikTok | Facebook | Pinterest
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Lisa Bass Welcome back to the Simple Farmhouse Life podcast. Today I am bringing on longtime homesteader, Melissa K. Norris of MelissaKNorris.com. She’s on Instagram, YouTube, and she has so much information to share, so much wisdom with all of her years of experience. Today we are going to talk about getting started. So I received a message from a listener about a few months ago where she was just wondering how I research things to get started and how the process looks going from, “I want to do this thing,” to gathering all the information to do it, and then to actually implementing some of those things in my own home. So what that looks like, the whole process. So that’s what we’re going to chat about in today’s episode. Now today’s episode is brought to you by Toups and Co. More on them in a bit. They are some wonderful organic skincare, and I’m really excited to share them with you because I have definitely been enjoying them in my own home for my own skin. So more on that in a bit.
Lisa Bass Thank you so much for joining me, Melissa. I have all of your stuff pulled up just looking through your Instagram and your YouTube and your podcast and your website. You have so many resources for homesteaders and people getting started in this lifestyle. So thank you so much for joining me.
Melissa K. Norris I ended up having my propane guy— because we’re getting a propane stove. I can’t wait to cook.
Lisa Bass Oh, that’s exciting.
Melissa K. Norris —is here. So he knows that at 12:00, it needs to be a little quiet, but he might end up walking back and forth behind us. So anyways, hopefully noise is at a minimum.
Lisa Bass That’s fine. I have my baby right here. So we’ll see how he does. He’s been waking up a lot more. He’s finally at that age where he’s not just sleeping constantly and now I’m like, “Okay, now I got to figure out something to do with this child during my podcast times.”
Melissa K. Norris Yes, all kinds of things to figure out, right?
Lisa Bass Yeah. For those of you who don’t know—which I’m sure most people do—Melissa has a— what would you like to promote most? Your website? Your Instagram? You’re in all the places.
Melissa K. Norris Yeah, right. All the places. Yeah. You know, really, my website is the best just because you will find anything that is your preferred mode of learning or consuming information is going to be there. So there’s a link to podcasts. If you are— I am a podcast junkie. I love listening to audio while I’m doing chores. But if you’re a visual and you want videos, then those are actually within the tutorials, within the articles and also on YouTube. If you’re like, “Nah, I just want to watch straight up videos.” So really, the website is like the hub. And then it’s like pick your— you know, remember those books when you were little? It was like pick your own ending? Yeah. Yeah, pick your journey.
Lisa Bass Choose your adventure.
Melissa K. Norris Yeah, choose your adventure.
Lisa Bass Yeah, cool. Yeah, because everybody likes taking in different forms of media. I really have taken to loving making YouTube content and podcast content, probably because that’s what I enjoy the most. But yeah, the website is a good place to find you over at MelissaKNorris.com. So I received a question from one of my listeners. I’m sure it’s a question that you probably get all the time. Basically, I’ll just read it. But she says, “I’d love to know how you research new things you want to try on your farm. If you decide you want to get chickens or grow something new, do you have some default resources? Other bloggers, people you know, websites? I’m always impressed with your ability to try new things, and I’m the same way, so I’m curious to hear about your research process.” So basically, like I kind of thought we would take it along the lines also of how do you get started, where do you start?
Melissa K. Norris I love that question because I think a prerequisite for being a homesteader is you have to be a learner at heart. You have to want to learn new things. And so I love that, wherever you’re at in your journey, it’s going to look slightly different for everybody. You know, we’re all coming from different starting points. And because homesteading is so vast, really—under that umbrella—a lot of people will enter homesteading one avenue versus another. Because for some people, it’s livestock. For some people, it’s learning how to do traditional sourdough or ferment vegetables. Others, it’s a garden and then food preservation. So everybody is going to then have the next thing that they want to learn. No matter how many—hopefully—years you’ve been doing it. I mean, I even have the next things I want to learn, and we’ve been homesteading for over 20 years. So I, one, love that, and know you’ll always be learning, which is actually a beautiful thing with homesteading. But my advice—as far as first kind of getting started or where would you start with homesteading—is really identifying the areas that you have the most interest to and/or that is a pain point for you. So for some people, it may be health. If you’ve got different, you know, food sensitivities or can’t do certain foods or really are like, “I need to do, you know, whole organic— I need to get into whole foods that—” you know, whatever that might look like, for most people in some form or another, it does come back to food. And so, you know, if you have a local source— say you’ve got a local farmer that you can get grass-fed beef from and you can buy a quarter, or a half, or maybe a whole cow, which is saving you money compared to purchasing each of those individual cuts from the grocery store— you’ve got that source, so that might not be something you decide to jump into first. But maybe you don’t have a source for a lot of organic homegrown vegetables, or it’s super pricey, and you want to be able to grow enough not only to feed your family fresh throughout growing months, but also enough to preserve to feed year round from your own garden, because a garden does have less— I want to say it’s less than livestock. Like livestock has— you know, it’s a little bit different than growing a garden, though there’s still, you know, daily care and those types of things. So really, identifying what is the most important thing for you and your family right now? Because if you try to do everything, you’re going to burn out and the goal is to live this lifestyle. I’m sure for you, too, Lisa, like my goal is to be able to live this lifestyle forever. It’s not something that I’m, you know, trending or trying out. And so I need to be able to do so in a sustainable way with my time, energy, and resources. And so you got to pick some of those top most important things, dive into those, and then add the next layer once that becomes a bit more of your normal everyday— like I’ve got this, this is something that is more habit now.
Lisa Bass Yeah, I really like that idea of jumping off where the biggest pain point is. What can’t you access for your family that you’re really wishing that you could, that you could take into your own hands? I hadn’t really thought about it quite that way, but that seems like a really good place to start. And like you said, with something like gardening, anybody can start growing their own food. And we have to remember, too, that it isn’t necessary. You can get food at the grocery store; you can get milk, eggs, everything like that. So because of that, we didn’t grow up knowing everything about this like past generations would have grown up with this knowledge. And so it’s okay to give yourself a pass that you have to get stuff from the grocery store for years while you’re learning one thing. It’s not like you’re not going to be able to get that food. So whenever you decide that you want to start learning the next thing—and like you said, you’re still even learning things all the time even though you’ve been at this for 20 years—where is a place that you start doing some research or what are some of your favorite resources?
Melissa K. Norris I love this question, and it— sometimes I hate it when I’m listening to things and people give this answer: it depends. Because I’m like, “No, I want— just give it to me.” But it really does depend on the subject. Because even myself, I know a lot of things quite in depth, but even that, I don’t know everything. And nobody does. So I really try to look at it by the specific subject and then go into my research. So I don’t have an overall encompassing homesteading resource that I could tell you, like go to MelissaKNorris.com. I mean, I cover a lot there, but even that— you really want to niche down into what the topic is. And so that changes what my resources are is why I’m kind of going with this broadly to begin with. So for example, I like to create a good foundational knowledge base when I’m going into something new, but I don’t need to be— it doesn’t need to be an exhaustive. I don’t need to know everything. And the reason I say that is because a lot of people will get stuck in that research or thinking, “Gosh, I just don’t know enough yet.” And really, the true learning happens in the doing. We want to have a base of knowledge so that we don’t, you know, injure an animal or end up wasting a lot of money, or having a crop failure, for example. Or even with doing herbal remedies and natural health, you still need to have a basic knowledge of that specific herb, how it works in the body, those types of things. But then you also just have to get started and take that first step because that’s where the real learning is going to come in. So that being said, what I try to do is— if I have somebody that I know— now, this could be in real life, but I know for a lot of people who are homesteading, even myself living out in the country, I don’t necessarily have people in my physical proximity that know about specific subjects that I could just go to a neighbor and be like, “Hey.” You know, sometimes that’s the case, but not always. So I try to start within that circle, and then I look like at social media. For example, you know, is there somebody an account that I’ve been following on Instagram that’s really dialed in on this specific subject? Or if I’m looking at blog posts or even YouTube videos, is there a source that everybody is referencing? Like that keeps popping up? Then I need to go to that actual source. So I kind of do it that way by level of who do I know? And I really try to look for, too—like if I am looking at social media or a website or a blog or something like that and it’s not like an extension office or a university or, you know, some entity like that that we’re pretty hopeful that they have valid information—I try to look for somebody that has been doing it for a long time and has a lot of experience. I love following people with their story and journey, and like I’ll be really candid: we’re going to probably—this is the first place I’m saying this publicly; I’m putting myself out there, like I’m committing—we’re probably getting our very first dairy cow in two weeks. So I’m super excited, and I will be sharing that. I’ll be sharing that, but I also will be sharing it with like, this is my first dairy cow. I have raised beef cattle. I grew up raising beef cattle. My husband and I have had beef cattle for over 20 years. So that aspect, I know. But I have not had a dairy animal before. So follow along with me on this journey. But I am not your expert dairy cow person. So I say that because I love following people’s journey as they’re learning things, because it’s really fun to see people’s adventures, and there are things that we discover as we’re learning and we should be sharing those. But when I’m brand new to something, I want to follow somebody who’s got some years of experience or has been doing it, say, every single day for 365 days. That’s still somebody who has experience. But someone who’s been doing something for a year, maybe once a month— you know what I mean? So I really do try to find someone that’s got some long-term personal experience in the subject, and that’s just kind of a way that I can gauge who am I going to go to in here? And then I really like to—and I know this sounds really involved; it’s not as involved as it sounds—but I also like to have two or three sources where I can double check. Because if all three sources say the same thing, that’s pretty sure that’s going to be accurate. But if I have one source saying one thing, then another source saying something conflicting, then I know that’s an area I need to research more to find out well, which source is correct? Or why is this conflicting? What have they discovered that maybe the other person hasn’t? So I kind of have layers there, which makes it sound very convoluted, but that’s the process I use.
Lisa Bass Well, I think you’re just saying that you start exploring and learning, and sometimes you have to dig deeper than just what is on the surface level. And I think we expect that with any topic that’s worth learning. Whenever we got our first dairy cow, there were a few people that I had made connections with on Instagram, and whenever I ran into things, I would reach out to them just personally. You know, like, “Hey, what happens when this happens?” But I also had a few just like great sources, like the Keeping a Family Cow book. The Keeping a Family Cow Facebook group was really helpful. I will warn you, though, that there will be conflicting information with dairy cows. I don’t know with some of the things that happened that we ever actually found out what the true answer is on it, because I got a lot of different information with the dairy cow. Like you said, you have to almost check it three times to see if it’s the right answer, but you end up digging deep and figuring it out.
Melissa K. Norris Yes. Which is why I say you got to be a learner at heart. Because for some people, that would be a complete turn off. They’re like, “I don’t want to research that deep. I just want you to give me the handheld information.” Which you can still find. But I feel like when you’re brand new to it, you do need to have some of your own foundational knowledge obviously gathered and gained from multiple sources. But rather than just jumping in cold turkey— you can do it. I mean, people have done it, but I’ve found that I’ve saved myself a lot of angst and money by having at least a little bit of base knowledge first.
Lisa Bass So what did that process look like for you whenever you were getting a dairy cow? Because that’s something that you’re brand new to starting to do right now? Like what steps did you take to get to the point now where you’re actually about to get your first dairy animal?
Melissa K. Norris Yeah. Well, actually it’s funny enough— I brought people on a podcast and interviewed them like, “Hey, you know, you have a dairy animal. What does that look like?” You know, so it was just kind of that first just gathering info. And this was like even a couple of years back. So not even— just kind of that base, like if I were to get a dairy cow, what would I actually be in for? You know, how much milk am I dealing with a day? Do I have to milk twice a day? You know just all those things. Can you calf share? Can you do once a day? All those kind of fun intro like curiosities. How much milk, on average, are they going to produce a day? We’re only a family of four; so my son is almost 17 and my daughter is almost 13 and my husband and I. So for us, too, it’s been weighing does the cost of everything really offset what we’re buying the milk from the store? And all of that evaluation. So it’s taken us a long while to get here. But here in Washington state where I live, you can buy raw milk legally, but they make the producers of raw milk pay so much extra and go through so many more steps. It’s expensive. A gallon of raw milk here— if I go and buy it from our local co-op, which is the only place that I can buy it. It’s about an hour away from me that sells raw milk. So I can’t just, you know, go to a local grocery store or something. It’s almost $13 a gallon. Now, I know they have fees to pay and I know how much feed costs. Like, I understand all of the reasons that it costs that much. But on the same hand, that’s a lot of money for a gallon of milk. And so I had been—instead, I kind of went the next best route. So it wasn’t raw milk, but it was low vat pasteurized. So it wasn’t high heat, ultra treated, or anything like that. It was non-homogenized, so cream on the top. Glass bottle, organic, and grass-fed dairy. And so for about the past five years, I’ve been able to buy milk from from them, you know, take my milk bottles back. And so that feels good. I’m not using plastic, it’s all in glass, and they’re reusing those. Well, unfortunately, at the end of January, unbeknownst to me, I went in to take my bottle deposits back and they’re like, “Oh, I’m really glad you brought these back in. Tomorrow’s the last day we’re taking them.” They went out of business. And I’m like— if I would’ve known, I would have bought a bunch of extra milk to turn into cheese and you know, all the things. And I’m like, “Oh, no.” And so I’m like, “I don’t have any good milk source right now.” And so we found somebody fairly local to me through word of mouth that I could get raw milk from. I was so excited. I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got real raw milk. You know, it’s got the cream line.” All these things. My third week getting milk from them, they’re like, “We think we’re going to dry the cow up because we’ve got dairy goats coming on, and we’re just one family, and we can’t deal with both of them. So I just wanted to let you know.” And I’m like, I just I came home and told my husband, like “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Like, I just found this good milk source.” And I actually, interestingly enough, can’t have goat’s milk right now. I’m dealing with some food sensitivities issues, and goat’s milk is something I react to, but I can have raw cow’s milk. So I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” And so my husband said, “Well, ask him if they ever come across another local dairy cow that’s already broken—like it’s already trained, it’s a good milker, it’s not some cow we’re having to tame and you know, all that, train from the ground up—but maybe they’ll know of another cow that comes around and a dairy cow and we could look at getting one. And it’s the first time he’s ever— like, I’ve hinted, but it’s the first time he’s ever been like— he opened the door. He knew what he was in for. We’ve been married almost 23 years. So at the same time he tells me that, I had my phone on silence and she messaged me—I saw it an hour later—and said, “Hey, would you be interested in buying the cow? Because we’re either going to have to dry her up or sell her? Would you want her?” And I’m like— I don’t know. There’s just some things that it’s not coincidence. I’m like, “Okay, God, you’re telling me to go get this cow.” So I went down and got to milk her, got to milk her last week and went through the whole process with them and everything. Which is great because I’ve got a local person that’s had— it’s been their cow. They’ve had dairy cows and dairy animals for years, so they are really able to walk me through the process, especially with her specifically. But then I also have a really good friend, Katie Millhorn, and she’s on Instagram @millhornfarmstead. It’s the third largest dairy producer of raw milk I believe in the United States. I could be misquoting, but I believe that’s it. And so Katie and I are friends. And so that second source. So I’m messaging her and I’m like, “Okay, here’s what they’re saying about the cow. What do you think?” You know, blah blah blah. And so then she’s coming back, you know, with with her advice and stuff. So I’m able to kind of balance. And they aligned in this instance. They’re both lining up, which is great. So that was a very long story, but that’s kind of how my journey has progressed. And it’s looking, at this point— we’re building a milking station because we don’t have a barn or a milking area to milk her— this coming weekend and should hopefully be bringing her home in two weeks from the time of this recording.
Lisa Bass Okay, yeah. So you’ll be jumping right in. And there will be things, too, that no matter how much you’ve prepared, things that kind of throw you. Like when we first got our dairy cow— well, first of all, she calved when I thought she was going to calve like three months later. That was kind of just a vet error. So she calved three months early. She wasn’t really. And then for the first two weeks or so, her milk was salty, and I learned that that could have to do with mastitis, but it cleared up really fine without any antibiotics or anything. So anyways, yeah, there’ll be a few learning— oh, she also got an abscess when we brought her from, I think we brought her from the one farm to our farm. Maybe the injury happened in the trailer. So we had to get the vet out. But yeah, you know, there’s lots of that on the job learning that is going to happen. But with homesteading, you have to be comfortable with that, you know?
Lisa Bass So to what extent do you feel like you have to have every detail? Or to what extent do you feel like you can just dive in? I know you said there was a few things you don’t want to happen: you don’t want to waste a ton of money and you don’t want to, you know, hurt an animal. But when do you feel like confident enough that you have enough information?
Melissa K. Norris Yeah, that’s really good. So, you know, I think it’s understanding that specific animal’s needs, at least on a base level. And we know all animals need food, water, and shelter, right? And so it’s then finding out the specifics of what is that animal’s food need. So, for example, you know, with a dairy cow, they need more carbohydrates than a beef cow because they’re producing milk. And so their nutrition is going to be a little bit different than what you need for a beef animal. And even then, with chickens— if you’ve got chickens that you want to flock just for eggs versus meat birds that you’re going to be raising for meat, then there’s a little bit of a difference there with their protein needs. Now, their basic shelter and water is going to be the same— and it’s just the type of food. But it’s just, you know, kind of understanding that so that when you go to purchase the food, or if you’re supplementing, that you’re making sure you’re meeting those base nutritional needs and how that changes based upon what you are using the animal for like in those examples. So just kind of understanding like their basic needs and requirements. And all of that information is really easily found online, quite honestly. You know, this base stuff. You know, breeds. Like looking at—if we’re talking about livestock—like looking at some of the specific breeds. So if we’re looking at chickens— again, what breed is best suited to what your goal is and also your climate? And your your space? So for example, if you are looking at a heritage breed of chickens and you’re wanting to raise them for both eggs and meat, then that heritage breed is going to take longer. So you’re going to have to feed it longer to reach meat butchering size where it’s actually developed enough meat free for it to be worth the bother of you butchering it for meat harvest. Now, if you’re just going to be using it for eggs, then you know, about six months is going to be when you’re going to start getting eggs out of that chicken. If you’re going for a straight meat bird and you’re looking at a hybrid, then you can get breeds that are ready to be butcher sized in eight to nine weeks. So just kind of depending upon like, how long do you want to be feeding this bird before you get the harvest? If you’re looking at it as a meat wise. And then even like with any livestock is how much space is required with your growing climate? Meaning—where I am, we get a lot of rain, but we’re not very dry, and so grass grows pretty good here, except in the winter months when we’re just too cold and it goes into dormancy. So for us, about two acres per large animal—so, horse, cow, et cetera—means I don’t have to supplement any feed until we hit the winter months. But I can go the end of spring, all of summer, first part of fall, and I don’t have to feed anything. It’s completely grass pasture raised. So that’s really important for me to know because then I’m going to be able to adequately look at, “Okay, this is the acreage we have. This is how many cows we can run on here without having to supplement during these months.” However, if you live in a more arid part of the country, you might need five even 10 acres per animal. So that’s why I said, like really looking at your climate and the space. And then of course, pigs take less space than cows. And chickens even less and so on and so forth going down there. So just kind of like that— I feel like that’s basic, but I realize if you’ve never raised livestock, that might not feel like basic knowledge to know and to research those things. So really, also using local sources, especially when you’re looking at climate, can be really helpful. So see if you can find somebody that’s raising what you want to raise and just go and interview them. And most homesteaders or farmers are really excited to see someone coming into this and taking that on. And so they are going to love your questions and love helping you. At least you know that initial time and even, you know, a lot of people just give tours.
Lisa Bass I think everybody will find this conversation just helpful in general to hear how you go through that whole process. And like you said, it’s just the basic what do they actually need space wise? Whenever you’re considering a new animal, look up that. What are their basic needs? And then go from there. You’re going to be making local connections. So for us, we can’t grow hay on our property. We only have seven acres, but we need hay probably like at least 150 days a year. And so Luke and I were just talking about that the other day. We have some local connections. We’ve learned a lot from people. And he went to their farm yesterday, and I think in June he made the deal that he’s going to go and get the number of bales we’re going to need. Because we have been there so many times because we keep thinking, “Oh, we only need this many more bales to get through the winter.” No, we need a bale per day for like 150 days. So I think getting the rhythm for how this works— we had no clue what we were doing. We’re about eight months into our dairy— like milking every day and knowing, “Okay, this is what actually is required for this cow.” It’s something we’re definitely just learning as we’re going. We didn’t necessarily know, and now we have a lot more information just doing it. But yeah, I think what you’re saying more than anything else— because, yeah, we could give books and resources and podcasts. And, you know, we all know how to find that stuff by digging around on Instagram or Google or YouTube or the podcast app. But more than anything else, it’s just the confidence to start trying something and just getting started on something at the very basic level and then moving on to the next thing just over the years. Because a lot of times, you’re looking at somebody like Melissa who has been doing this for 20 years and you might be on day one, you’re just going to have to start that journey. And you know, it might take you 20 years to get to where she is.
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Lisa Bass So what did your journey look like over the last 20 years? What form has all of this taken? What path have you gone down?
Melissa K. Norris Yeah, I love this question, and I also love that you brought that up because quite honestly, we all start at the same spot and that’s knowing nothing. Now, some of us maybe are born into a family or an environment where we get to gather some of that knowledge at a much younger age, but we all really did start knowing none of it. And so I think it’s really important to remember that. And then my journey has been very interesting because I’m a fifth generation homesteader, meaning both sets of my grandparents and my dad— like I was raised— my dad always raised beef cattle, so we never did dairy by the time I came along. I’m one of 10 kids. But I have seven older half siblings and so then they got divorced, and by the time my mom and him got married, even though I have all of these other siblings, until I was 11, I was the only child at home. And then Mom had my two younger brothers when I was 11 and 16. So I say all of that because by that time, he had just got done raising seven kids where they did have a dairy cow. But he’s like, “Well, we only have one kid and I’m done with the dairy animals for now.” So we always had our own beef though. My dad always had a large head of beef—about 129 head of cattle when I was growing up—and so I helped him feed every night and I only know grass-fed, home-raised beef, but we didn’t raise chickens anymore. We had a vegetable garden. My mom canned. My mom sewed. She cooked from scratch, but we didn’t do any fermenting. She didn’t do any dehydrating. She didn’t do sourdough. No herbs. So I had a good foundation, especially for a vegetable garden and knowing how to can and how to live, you know, pretty frugally. And then how did you beef cattle. But that being said, when I moved out on my own and my husband and I got married and we decided to do a vegetable garden and I was canning on my own, and then we just started to bring on our own beef cattle—we bought a cow and calf pair from my dad—it’s still different doing it yourself. Like, I had that base hands-on knowledge because I was raised in it, but I’m not kidding you— the first time I canned on my own, I mean, I’m on the phone with my mom like the whole time. Like, did I do this right? You know, like all the things. So that’s why I say the true learning and confidence happens in the doing. But you just need to have the foundations to make sure—especially with like something like canning or a cow or, you know, an animal—that you don’t inadvertently do something that would be dangerous. That type of thing. Gardening is a less dangerous option. Not worried about botulism like you would be with canning. Or, you know, killing a cow is a bit different than killing a tomato plant, honestly. But what’s been interesting is— I worked full-time and so did my husband up until just a couple of years ago. And my husband still does work full time. So a lot of the skill sets that I’ve learned on my own, I haven’t had anybody to teach me, like herbal medicine, and berry plants, and orchards, and chickens, and pigs, and rendering lard, and you know, all of those things. I had to learn it all, and I also had to figure out systems while I was still working a full-time job offsite of the homestead. And that was probably the most difficult to do because, you know, like now I am home full-time even though I’m working from home, but that’s a different. I’m not off the homestead. It’s hard enough being able to do all of the things that you want to do when you are at home. But then when you’re working a day job, being able to still manage those so you’re not crazy and you’re not working 24/7 between the two places was really important. So figuring out like systems and ways to make that work while still working was challenging, but also really nice because those systems still serve me very well today. And there’s a lot of people that are wanting to come in to homesteading, and they can’t afford to quit their day job. And I completely understand that. Some people don’t want to. We kind of make this thing like day jobs are bad or that. Some people really enjoy their work. Not everybody should quit their day job or even wants to. But you can still have a homestead and do homesteading things without— it doesn’t have to be one or the other. And so I actually feel very fortunate that I’ve been on both sides of that so that I can help people who are like, “Okay, I’ve got this limited amount of time in a day where I’m actually at home. How do I still make this work?” And then I can, you know, share that with them.
Lisa Bass Yeah, I think that’d be really encouraging for people to hear because I do think that people think you can’t really do a lot of this stuff unless you’re home all the time. And like you said, you probably got some systems in place that helped you now because whenever you are home all day, you don’t really have to get the chores done by a certain time. You can just kind of get them done whenever. That’s how we are with our dairy cow. We have a time that we like to be outside by, but we don’t necessarily have to be out by then. And so things can start to get a little off schedule if we’re not careful about it. So I can see how you’d have to really be very regimented with that. So what are some of the first things that you did with with homesteading? Did you get chickens first? Did you start a garden? Did it take a long time to learn all of this?
Melissa K. Norris Yes and no. So we did a garden first. I’m thinking, “Okay, I got married at 18.” My husband and I are still married, by the way. Almost 23 years. But I say that because I was very young starting this. Like I had never had my own household either because I was only 18. And so I went to getting married, graduating high school— I graduated high school and then I got married. Let me say that in correct order. Then I started a full-time job at our local pharmacy. And so that was a lot to figure out. We got married in September, and then the first spring rolled around and I told my husband, I’m like, “We need someone. We either need to borrow a tiller or pay someone to come and till up the garden. Or we need to buy a tiller, but it’s time to get the soil prepped for the vegetable garden.” And he didn’t grow up— his grandparents had a garden, but his parents didn’t have a vegetable garden. He didn’t grow up like on a homestead like I did. And so I still remember he looked at me and he was like, “You want to do a vegetable garden?” And I remember in my naivete of being only 18 years old, I looked at him and I’m like, “Well, what do you mean? Like you just— everybody had— you have a vegetable garden. Like, it’s not ‘want to’.”
Lisa Bass You didn’t know that wasn’t an option. That was an option, just to not have one.
Melissa K. Norris I didn’t have a clue. And so, bless his heart, he jumped in and we ended up borrowing— I think it was his grandpa’s rototiller, our neighbors— I can’t remember now. It’s been too many years. But anyways, so we always have had a vegetable garden, and we just, you know, did it. But when we first started, it was just a summer vegetable garden, meaning I was just planting, you know, one time a year. Your typical beans, you know, tomatoes, corn, what you would grow in the summer months when it’s warm. And so we really started there. We started with a vegetable garden. And then my mom had always canned green beans because my dad’s family brought with them from North Carolina our own strain of heirloom Tarheel pole green beans that my family’s been seed saving for, like, over 100 years. And so that was something that we had to—.
Lisa Bass How cool.
Melissa K. Norris It’s actually really cool. At the time, I didn’t like appreciate it, but now I’m like, “Oh, what a gift.” So this is going to sound so bad— I can’t eat store-bought canned green beans, and neither can my kids. We’re so spoiled. But the taste difference— like it’s there. So I knew that I had to grow our beans and I had to can them because I refuse to eat store-bought green beans because they just taste so bad. And so that’s what we started with. So the only thing that I preserved and grew a year’s worth for years was the green beans. And the other stuff we just, you know, ate fresh and I’d maybe do just a little bit jam here or there. So that was really like the progression is a vegetable garden— one crop, preserving a year’s worth of. And then we just began to add and add to that. But it really wasn’t until about 12 years ago—because my daughter’s almost 13; she was about a year old—I had my upper stomach and esophagus biopsied for cancer. I didn’t have cancer, but I had erosion and cellular change. And I had been on max dose of proton pump inhibitors for stomach ulcers and GERD for a long time. And the specialist said, “One: you have to get off these medicines. Like, I cannot believe that you have been on these doses for as long as you’ve had. We don’t like to see anybody on them. The only way that you can figure this out is by the food that you eat, because the medicine is obviously not working anyways, and you need to come off of it. But you have cellular change and erosion. So if you don’t figure out a way to get this under control by the food you eat, the next time you come in, it probably won’t be a benign biopsy.” And so I was 29. And Lisa, I thought I was cooking from scratch. I mean, here we had this vegetable garden and I was canning. But I realized, as I started looking at ingredients, like I used Crisco lard. I didn’t know that, you know, hydrogenated GMO— I had no idea about actual foundational health, like nutrition and traditional— like, I don’t know any of it. I thought if you ate like red licorice— well, it’s low-fat. I mean, like, really it’s almost embarrassing how little I really, truly understood. But that was the catalyst. And so I’m like, “Okay, if I want to be here to actually raise my kids, then I’ve got to figure this out. And if modern medicine has failed me, so the only resource is now to look at foods and healing and what is there out there.” And so thank goodness that the internet was a thing at that time, because that’s how I learned. I mean, I just started Googling and reading all of this stuff about traditional foods, and then I figured out at that time— we’ve actually come a long way as a society because this was 12 years ago. And now there’s way more organic options. Or even, you know, you can buy organic coconut oil at Costco now. You know, a lot of these things weren’t available, at least in big stores or where I lived, that I didn’t— now I see way more on the shelf, which is great because people are— the message is getting out and consumer demand for better food is getting higher. But at that time, honestly, with our budget, the only way that I could afford to buy things that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup, that were raised organically, like blah blah blah blah down the line, that was to raise it ourselves. And so for me, I felt like it really was life or death. I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s how I felt. And so I’m like, “I have to figure this out.” And it was kind of the same process where I shared earlier—your biggest pain point—is I looked at the foods. This is what we’re eating on a weekly basis or daily basis. What are my healthier options? And can I grow it myself? And that’s where I started. So things that I was consuming the most often, because honestly, the things you eat the most are the things that are going to have the biggest impact on your health. If they’re not the best thing and you change them. So that’s where I started determining what crops are we going to grow? And so meat was really big. I wanted only grass-fed. So we actually started with cows first. I know that sounds totally backward, but we started with beef cattle. One: because I knew how to do beef cattle. We bought our first pair from my dad and we, you know, we ate a lot of beef. And you can raise one animal and have a year’s worth of meat off of one animal. So that’s where we started. And then we brought in chickens, and then we brought in pigs, and now lastly, the dairy. But that was—in a not so brief nutshell—that was our progression.
Lisa Bass So did you start your marriage off on 20 acres or wherever? I forget how many you said you have— but wherever you are right now?
Melissa K. Norris No, we didn’t at all. We started renting a 1974 single wide trailer on like maybe a half acre of yard. So we did have a backyard where we could put a garden, but we didn’t have any like pasture land or anything to raise any animals. And so that’s where we started from 1999 until 2006. So I guess that’s seven years. And then my uncle had inherited acreage that surrounded our place that we were renting from my aunt. He had inherited almost fifteen acres. It’s 14.96, to be exact. And he decided that he was going to put that up for sale, that he didn’t want to keep it anymore. And so we bought our acreage from him and then we were able to put our manufactured home on in 2006. So he moved on here in 2006. And then we started bringing in the cattle and, you know, the rest of the livestock. But we did, you know, the gardening, really almost the first half completely on rental property.
Lisa Bass Oh, wow. Yeah, that is encouraging as well. And then also you started with meat animals on 15 acres. I mean, that’s a large amount, larger than probably most people have, but it’s still not like a huge ranch. People might be expecting that you have to have this— I don’t know, I even have a hangup about meat animals. And I guess it’s easy for me to say that because I also come from my family raises beef, and so I really don’t need to raise beef. And so I guess that’s why it hasn’t been very interesting for me. My sister and dad have lots of cattle, and then my sister also started doing pork. So it’s not really super necessary for me, but I could on this property, raise beef if I really needed to.
Melissa K. Norris Yeah. And again, it kind of goes back to like, do you have good local sources of that food item? And if so, like with you— like then it makes sense for you to do another item that you don’t have maybe as easy access to, like a dairy cow. So I think this is what we’re getting at is— everybody’s homestead is going to look slightly different. Yes, there’s going to be some commonalities. But your homestead is going to look different and don’t think because you’re not in an ideal situation—maybe you don’t have any acreage—but don’t think that that doesn’t mean that you can’t do homesteading with what you have available and where you are right now. Pick and focus on what you can do, not with what you can’t do because— I know this sounds kind of like, I don’t know, airy fairy, maybe. homesteading is truly a state of mind first. And once you get that state of mind in that you can figure out how to do it and you’re just going to do as much as you can with where you’re at right now and that’s okay, you will immediately begin to look for things that you can do. But if you have this mindset like, well, I just live in an apartment, I can’t do anything, then that’s exactly what you’ll end up doing. And I know it sounds goofy, but it really is true. Like, if you tell yourself, “I can do this,” your brain is so smart, you’ll start to see areas that you didn’t see before when you begin to look for them.
Lisa Bass Yeah, I mean, if you live in an apartment, you could go and make connections with farmers or go to the farmer’s market, buy a ton of local vegetables, preserve them, line in your pantry or maybe just your countertop with preserved canned vegetables and fruits and all kinds of jams, and learn how to make a starter and bread. And yeah, there’s plenty plenty to do with homesteading. I don’t even know if we’ll ever move off of these seven acres, and that’s really not that much, but we have so much more we can do. We’re nowhere near maxed out with what we want to do here. We could have probably an orchard on the hill if we really wanted to. So there’s so much more. So what’s on the horizon for you? What are some things— I obviously know one thing on the horizon for you. What are some other things that you’re still hoping to learn? Ways that you’ll expand? Is that something that you plan, or does it just come up organically?
Melissa K. Norris It’s a little bit of both, honestly, because I had played with the idea of a dairy animal, and then I really just feel like God just opened the door and was like, “No, you need to do this now.” Like, I feel like the circumstances were just too perfect to be happenstance. So I think some things do happen like that organically. Like you may not be expecting them; it might not be what you thought the timing that was going to happen, and then there it is. And I think those are great. But then there’s also definite things that we have planned for. And so some of the things that we’re going to be doing here—this year we’ve started to put in—is we have produced for our own family for so many years now, which is a beautiful thing. But I now want to be able to produce more for our community, both as a local physical learning place, but also where they can come and get items, like where we have extra— we’ve raised enough for our own family and I have excess— I want to be able to offer that to people in our community. So we have started raising meat birds and we do live workshops where people come two times a year to the homestead. They learn how to butcher a chicken, they get to take one with them. And then whatever extra we have, we do like a poultry CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and so people locally can come in and pick up those birds on butcher day or the day after while they’re still fresh before they’re frozen. So that’s something we’re doing with the extra eggs. And then we do the same thing with the beef. And when we do pork, we do that, though that’s every other year. But now that I have the dairy animal, I have to look up all of our locality laws and, you know, all of that stuff, because each form of livestock depending upon where you live, has different rules, regulations if you’re doing it beyond your own consumption. So I have to dive into that more to see what we can do and how I’m going to do that because I know I will have more milk than we’ll be able to use, you know, every week. And so the other thing— sorry, apparently I have like a lot of fun things or things I’m excited about. But the other thing is we got sick last fall just with a cold. We did also have COVID, but that’s not what I’m referencing at this time. And my husband really needed some herbs for an herbal steam. Like he was super, super congested, and I thought that I had back stock of the herbs I like to use for herbal steams. I thought I had them in stock. I didn’t. So it was on a Sunday and I realized there was nowhere I could go locally to actually get him the herbs that we needed. Of course, I could order them online, but I realized there is no local source for this, and I’m like, “Surely I’m not the only person who’s fallen into this where we live.” So we are expanding our medicinal herb garden like largely and are going to do workshops. And then we’re also going to have the available excess herbs beyond what we need for our medicine cabinet. So we put in a little 10×20—my husband calls it my “she shed”—but it’s going to be like a farm store that we’ll have opened to the public. And I still don’t know all those details yet. Like some of it’s just happening organically. So I’ll have to see like, you know, do I want to be home every weekend and have certain shop hours? Do we just have it like by send me a text, and if I’m home, you can stop by and grab it. I don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, but it’s happening and we’ll figure it out as we go. So those are things I’m really excited about on the local level because I already have done so much, like you, like online and digitally, which I love, and I’m not going to stop that at all. And I’ll still have digital courses on a lot of the things that we’re doing with the herb garden. But to be able to meet a local and to get to see people in person, I’m really excited about that. So that’s what I got going down.
Lisa Bass That is some exciting stuff. I have really become more interested in herbal medicine and herbs. Lately, I feel like I’m learning a lot more about herbs versus essential oils and all of that. I mean, I’ve always loved that form of medicine and care. But yeah, that’s exciting. We don’t have anything like that locally either. We definitely have to order all our herbs online unless there’s somebody who has little shop that I don’t know about. It’s the same way here. So I like that idea. If I were local to you, I would definitely come visit, that’s for sure.
Melissa K. Norris Awesome. Well if you ever take a road trip, my door is open.
Lisa Bass Cool. Yeah. If we ever end up up in Washington state—
Melissa K. Norris Yeah, probably not likely.
Lisa Bass My husband would love it. We we’ve been up to Oregon and we’ve been in Northern California. I’m trying to remember if we ever actually— oh, of course I’ve been to Washington. I went there two years ago to visit a friend. But either way, my husband would love it because he loves that whole area is just so beautiful. We probably won’t end up road-tripping there.
Melissa K. Norris Yeah, totally get it.
Lisa Bass Well, thank you so much for joining me. I feel like you gave a lot of good encouragement and advice on getting started on things. Just start. Start learning and it’s a journey, but you definitely can. There’s all the resources. I don’t know. We didn’t have internet whenever we first got started with a lot of this stuff, so we couldn’t even Google it or find podcasts. And so it’s definitely readily available for you to get started on your homestead journey.
Melissa K. Norris Yes definitely. And thank you so much for having me on. It was so fun to get to talk with you again.
Lisa Bass I hope that you enjoyed that discussion between Melissa and me on starting a homestead, gathering information, where to start and hopefully give you the confidence to dive into some of that, even if you’re a brand new beginner. Again, make sure to check out Melissa over on her social channels and her website. And thanks again to today’s video podcast sponsor Toups and Co. Make sure to visit ToupsandCo.com and use the code FARMHOUSE to get 10% off your order. As always, thank you so much for listening, and I will see you in the next episode of the Simple Farmhouse Life podcast.