Danielle McCoy of The Rustic Elk loves a challenge
Many homesteaders wait for the perfect conditions — enough land, enough time and the right location — to start their homesteading journey. But Danielle McCoy is not like most homesteaders.
McCoy started homesteading on one acre of property in Northern Indiana with her husband and two little girls while she was six months pregnant with her third child. After reading about the challenges faced by our modern food systems, she felt called to a more sustainable lifestyle. McCoy chronicles her experience on her blog, The Rustic Elk, to show other aspiring homesteaders that they can make more sustainable choices, no matter where they are.
In our conversation with McCoy for our Behind the Homestead Blog series, McCoy tells us about the myth of total self-sufficiency, her passion for raising heritage breeds and the blog that changed her life.
Hello Homestead: How and when did you get started homesteading?
Danielle McCoy: [My husband and I] had always lived way out and had land until we moved to the suburbs at the end of 2012. We never did anything with the land we owned, and it took moving to town to really make sense of what we wanted.
I randomly happened upon a blog talking about cast iron skillets and their benefits over the nonstick variety. Then, I started looking into some other common lifestyle choices involving food: the preparation of it and our failing food systems.
We soon began to realize something needed to change. We started craving a simpler, more sustainable and self-sufficient life. We wanted out of town. We couldn’t leave, so we started a garden there, started cooking from scratch, sourcing local food and making our own soap and household cleaners.
HH: What was your experience in farming and homesteading prior to starting your homestead?
DM: Neither of us has any experience with farming and homesteading. I didn’t even know homesteading was a thing until I started researching it. We had a three-acre property that had a large garden and was set up for horses or other large livestock shortly after we married in 2004, but we never developed it.
HH: Why did you decide to start blogging about your experience?
DM: I started The Rustic Elk as an outlet to begin with. Then I started to realize I could share our journey and people could actually learn from it. With the right mindset and management, you can do a lot with a little and live a more self-sufficient life. It’s my hope that I can inspire others to start thinking outside the box and stop being mere consumers, no matter their space or situation.
HH: You moved from Montana to Indiana in 2015. What were the biggest adjustments that came with that move?
DM: We actually moved from Indiana [to] Montana and back again all within the year. Adjusting to life in Montana was actually easier than adjusting to life back in Indiana when we returned. The mindset is completely different in Montana,. The people are more interested in local food, the farms aren’t all sprayed down with synthetic chemicals and a lot of the beef is grass fed. Even though we’re from here in Indiana, we just don’t have that same sense of belonging we had [in Montana].
Facing having to move back and drag our kids back across the country was difficult, and one of the saddest moments in my life. We love Montana, but God has placed us here in Indiana for now, and that’s okay.
HH: You homestead on one acre of land. What are some of the challenges of homesteading on a relatively small parcel of land?
DM: Homesteading is challenging in and of itself, but doing it on a small parcel makes it more challenging in a lot of ways. We are limited in what we can produce. For instance, we wanted fresh milk, so we bought dairy goats. We found out we are not goat people. I still want fresh milk, but I cannot keep a cow on our property. There simply isn’t room.
We also cannot grow out beef here. There isn’t much pasture, so anything we do choose to grow out for butcher here has to have supplemental feed, which makes it more expensive.
Making the most of the space when the house was pre-existing is difficult. Our house is smack-dab in the middle of our property and creates shade on optimal parts of the property that would be great for our garden space if they received more light.
Another struggle is we have commercial agriculture fields that adjoin our property on virtually every side. Keeping the chemical drift off when you are this limited on space is hard.
HH: In the same vein, what are the advantages of homesteading on a more compact piece of property?
DM: It’s less to take care of, which makes it easier to manage. You know a lot of your limits up front. It’s almost impossible to go overboard with projects because space is so limited.
It has also opened up a whole new avenue of learning permaculture and how we can utilize it in our space. I love a challenge, and it’s fun to come up with ways to produce more with so little.
Also, we are very blessed to live close to public lands, which makes hunting, fishing and wild foraging opportunities much more abundant.
HH: You live on your homestead with your husband and three girls. How old are your three girls, and how old were they when you started homesteading?
DM: My girls are 8, 7, and almost 2. My oldest was 3 and my middle daughter was 2 when we got started. My youngest has only ever known this life. We moved onto our current property when I was 6 months pregnant.
HH: What is it like raising a family on a homestead?
DM: Fun, challenging and rewarding. My husband works off of the homestead 60 hours a week. It is very challenging getting things done with him gone and keeping the girls in check, but I cannot think of a more satisfying or rewarding existence as a parent, watching all of our girls learn to garden, harvest, cook and learn the hard lessons about life and death on the farm.
HH: What responsibilities does each member of your family have on your homestead?
DM: We work together and our responsibilities change from week to week, even day to day.
The youngest helps gather eggs. She even helped pull a few weeds last year and gathered lots of dandelions for mama to make jelly, soaps and salves.
My middle daughter lets the animals out, locks them up, gives them treats and puts feed out. She helps with cooking and cleaning in the house. She is learning to help me can, sew and crochet.
My oldest puts out water and unfreezes it when necessary. She helps with planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. She is also learning about canning, sewing and crocheting.
My husband is in charge of all the big, heavy projects, like building, garden bed preparation and that sort of thing. He also does the majority of the hunting.
Both of the older girls help daddy with hunting and fishing, and we all pitch in to butcher, cut up firewood that we are seasoning for our new wood stove and clean anything up that needs cleaned up, be it coops, typical barnyard messes, or just the dishes.
We work as a team. Our chore list is never ending and changes almost daily. Anyone that is capable does the job, and if they don’t know how, they are taught.
HH: Have your children always embraced the homesteading lifestyle?
DM: Honestly, they don’t know any other way, so yes, they do. The oldest two were so excited when we finally got back out to the country. They love animals and gardening. They like making soap, bread, sewing and crocheting. They love going for hikes, hunting, fishing and foraging. They even like learning how to butcher!
HH: What inspired your interest in self-sufficiency?
DM: I have two favorite books that really sparked my interest in self-sufficiency. One is “Henry and the Great Society” by Herbert L. Roush and the other is “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” by Joel Salatin.
Both of those books challenged me to look at things differently. It was a complete mindset shift for me. For so long, we as humans worked the land and provided what we could for ourselves and our community. I started to realize there was a better, more fulfilling way of life. It was time to make changes before the modern consumer world washed us away.
HH: What have you learned about living self-sufficiently since starting your homestead?
DM: Well, for one, total self-sufficiency is a myth. No man is an island. I would say community, beyond all else, is the most essential facet of self-sufficiency. If you think you can do it all alone, you’ll most likely fail. Other, much more knowledgeable and seasoned homesteaders have helped us time and again on this journey. We wouldn’t be here without them.
HH: What do you think is the best first step for someone with no homesteading experience to take towards self-sufficiency?
DM: Wherever they are, no matter how little or how much land or time they have available to them, they need to sit down and figure out their “why.” Why do they desire to be more self-sufficient? And what does self-sufficiency mean for them?
Then, they need to take it slow, but do whatever they can with where they’re at to achieve those goals. Shop at a farmers market to buy local organic produce, take it home and preserve it. Bake a loaf of bread instead of buying it.
There are so many steps someone can take and there is no right or wrong first step. It is just knowing why you want to and what it looks like for you and taking it from there. Even urbanites can be more self-sufficient with the right mindset.
HH: On your blog, you mention that you are interested in heritage breeds. How does that currently factor into your homestead, and how do you plan to expand those efforts in the future?
DM: Heritage breeds are an integral part of our homestead and I think they’re pertinent to the modern homesteading efforts. They’re far more adaptable to small farms than the typical commercial breeds most people know today.
Currently, we raise heritage breed chickens and ducks. In the future, I plan to start breeding programs for some of the critically endangered breeds.
We are adding critically endangered geese and threatened ducks to our homestead this year. I’m really, really excited about this project. I feel called to help save and bring back these breeds our ancestors worked so hard and diligently to create and I plan to do all I can to help preserve that heritage.
HH: What projects are you currently working on at your homestead?
DM: Right now, we are working on the plans for a hoop house and expanding our gardens. We are also adding a small vineyard and a few fruit bearing bushes, as well as planning to grow more herbs in a new bed.
HH: In general, what do you hope for the future of your homestead?
DM: We hope to move and expand our efforts to far more than an acre, eventually. But, for now, our plans are to work the land as intensively as we can while keeping it healthy. We’re just working as we go along and learning new ways to become producers more and more. It’s fun, and challenging, and I’m so glad we embraced this lifestyle.
This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.