About Farm Hand's Companion
In the below interview, we hear from Gary McWiliams ("Pa Mac"), a respected conference speaker, fellow homesteader, and the creator of the Farm Hand's Companion website and YouTube Channel. It is a privilege to know Gary and a blessing to receive his experienced counsel in the joint areas of faith and farming.
1. Describe your farm/homestead.
The best description of our small farm and the type of farming I’m demonstrating on The Farm Hand’s Companion Show, would be that of a “subsistence farm”. This type of farm was prevalent in the first half of the 20th Century, and represented those who farmed and performed a number of other tasks and chores that they lived or “subsisted by”. Though many did occasionally sell some of their goods or produce commercially, their chief aim was to provide food and comforts for the immediate needs of their own family. Many of the things they did, the tools they used, and the methods they employed are my main interests and passion...and the focus of the FHC Show. Now having said that (and with all honesty) my family and I are NOT making a living solely from what I produce on the farm, but the things I’m able to produce do contribute a great deal to the things we eat throughout the year. Some of my main enterprises currently include garden produce (for eating fresh and/or canning), chickens, eggs, cow’s milk, honey, beef, and a good deal of pork. (Don’t get between me and a barbecued rib.)
2. Why did you choose to begin farming/homesteading?
It was the kind of living I was brought up around. I grew up in southwest Arkansas, on the same 40 acres that my Daddy’s daddy, the original “Pa Mac”, farmed and lived on from about the 1930’s till he passed from this world in 1972. My parents (though not earning a living as commercial farmers, but having both grown up subsistence farming and continuing to live the lifestyle of the southern traditional farm) passed on to my brother, sister, and me a knowledge of country ways that had been taught them, as well as good work ethics and biblical teaching. My Daddy taught my brother and me all about hand tools and woodworking. We had the self-sufficient surroundings of southwest Arkansas country life back in the 1970’s: raising livestock like chickens, cows, and the occasional hog, as well as workin’ a big vegetable garden. Like most young ‘uns, I was a lot older before I realized “the enjoyment of hard work” was not the contradiction I sized it up to be. That didn’t stop my parents from sticking a hoe in my hand and pointin’ out which row of beans was “mine” for the next hour. Lookin’ back, I now know that you can love things without liking ‘em, and even without realizing you’re loving ‘em. Then at some point, the day comes when you realize...you like ‘em. I can’t tell you when exactly that happened for me, but that’s where I find myself today all the same: I like “loving” farming.
3. In your experience, what has been the hardest part of farming/homesteading?
Findin’ the time to do everything that needs doin’—when it needs doin’. But through proper organization, that problem can be overcome...or at least greatly minimized.
4. What have been some of your biggest mistakes or failures in farming/homesteading?
Tryin’ to manage too many enterprises while attempting to master ‘em at the same time. (It ends up bein’ the biggest of discouragements)
5. In your experience, what has been the best part of farming/homesteading?
The challenge of resourcefulness. On a farm, there’s usually always a need for tools or materials; and that lack of tools or materials can be an obstacle between you and success. The easiest way to overcome these obstacles is to simply go buy what you need. But to me personally, it’s satisfyin’ to see what little you can get by with, by usin’ the materials or resources around you. This is what resourcefulness is. Really, it’s relyin’ on ideas—some old ones, and some right out of your own brain. But the real power behind resourcefulness is not merely havin’ the right materials to work with, but in one’s desire to accomplish things with whatever materials are at hand.
6. What have been some of your biggest breakthroughs or successes in farming/homesteading?
Firstly, earthworms (or night crawlers) and the realization of what I call the “Little Kingdom” in our soil. The best thing that ever happened to my gardening or raising of vegetable crops is the realization that I’m not nurturin’ the crop or the soil as much as I’m nurturin’ the things that live in the soil...and their “king” is the worm. When that kingdom is thriving, all is well elsewhere, too.
Secondly, homemade lumber, or supplyin’ your own wood needs by acquirin’ the skills and tools to learn to use your own trees well. (And yes, there are ways to make lumber without a sawmill.)
7. Describe what you believe are the key elements to successful farming/homesteading.
An attitude of “can do” must be developed and maintained. Sometimes folks new to homesteading can be overwhelmed or intimidated by the mass of homesteading knowledge so readily available on the Internet through blogs or videos. And when they see somebody doin’ things so well or successfully they think, “I’ll never be that good so why try?” But think of this: Birds fly, fish swim, and humans “tend” the earth; it’s natural. Your chicken, goat or tomato plant doesn’t have access to all that knowledge either; in fact, you’re all startin’ off together. A lot of people might know a lot more about certain facets of homesteading than you—but nobody can love it like God created YOU to love it.
And don’t be intimidated by mistakes—they’re the biggest part of learning. Thomas Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
The aged Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” You’re never too old to learn something about the vast field of homesteading. In fact, become a diligent student of nature and your husbandry efforts. Journal everything (planting dates, harvest dates, animal births, weather, etc.). It’ll be useful reading to you later (and priceless reading to your grandkids).
Lastly, time and resource organization/management are key elements to successful farming. A big part of that is makin’ and usin’ “to do” lists. I keep a running list (sometimes a very long one) of things that need doin’ around the farm. Just about every morning, I have a meetin’ with myself to go over the list and check at least 3 things that I’d like to have done and able to mark off the list at the end of the day; things that if marked off, will represent to me a day well used. Havin’ a list helps you to consistently prioritize the things that really matter. If this is not done, too many minutes, and then hours, and ultimately days will be wasted by bein’ filled with activities that should have waited until more pressing tasks were done. The second part of good organization/management is that of “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. Have a place for everything you need, and have it where you need it. Sometimes the majority of my thinking is used in figurin’ how I can do everything that needs doin’, and take the least number of actual footsteps to do it. The third organizational strategy is that of “seasonalizing” farm or homestead tasks. When we break down farm chores and give them “times” of the year where they fit best, it helps to simplify the sometimes “overwhelming-ness” of farming. For example, I use a lot of firewood in winter. But I don’t cut wood all year. I try to cut it up at the end of summer when the gardening slacks off. I also butcher hogs in the freezing-est time of the year, when I want to do practically nothing else. I try to gather in mulch materials for the garden in May and again in September. If I were to do all these things all the time, I would soon be overwhelmed and moving to the city. Well, it wouldn’t get that bad...but you get my point. In doin’ these things seasonally, I actually look forward to each of ‘em, and am happier than a pig in mud when I get to do ‘em.
8. What would your biggest piece of advice be for first-time farmers/homesteaders?
Starting only a few enterprises (perhaps no more than two or three at a time each year), startin’ ‘em small, and then if need be, increasing a particular enterprise only if it’s been mastered well. If you’re a homesteader, I know you...because I know me; you’re interested in only about a thousand different homestead enterprises that you’d probably like to try some day. But the reality is, to start too many enterprises at the same time, and to start ‘em too big to boot...ends up bein’ the biggest discouragement to homesteading you could dream of. But thankfully, the opposite is true: To start only two or three enterprises modestly, all the while learning to master ‘em well, and then increasing their output the following year becomes the biggest boost and encouragement. Better to start with a 10 foot by 10 foot garden done well, than to have a 1,000 foot by 1,000 foot garden that is overrun with weeds to the point you don’t even want to go outside to see it. Next year, your 10 foot by 10 foot garden can be 20 foot by 20 foot (and chances are, your wife’ll have to run you out of it to get you to come in for supper).
9. What role does faith play in farming/homesteading?
There exists a wrong attitude toward farming and raising crops and livestock that even we Christians can be guilty of: That of “taking” from the soil—rather than “asking what God is willing to provide for you out of the soil”. We tend to look at soil as just another tool like that old hatchet we’ll keep usin’ till it finally gives up and the handle breaks. Perhaps we should be more diligent to nurture the soil and put more back into it than we expect to take out...and then leave the results in God’s hands. For example, take the harvesting of trees. Some YouTubers get on to me in the comments sections of my videos about cutting trees as if that’s bad stewardship; their problem is they’re (whether they realize it or not) tending towards worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. If we read what the Creator God has revealed in His word, we see that His material creation is a gift to us to steward and use. There’s worship found in the using of a tree, as much as there might be sinfulness in the indiscriminate cutting and wasting of too many trees; but how many trees are too many for me to cut? That’s for the Holy Spirit to tell each of us individually—the same as it is for Him to tell each of us how many helpings are too many at supper. There can be gluttony out in the woods as well as the supper table.
10. What role can a farm/homestead play in serving the Lord?
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the "Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens." Of course he was speaking in a generality, but saying that those who husband the earth on their farms tend to have a more honorable character (virtuous) and are more self-sufficient (independent). I would agree with him on that. I half jokingly say that God has planned 51% of the things you grow, raise, or produce on your farm to work out well...and I consider that success. God has engineered our successes and failures for our good. The hardships encountered on the farm or homestead certainly builds a virtuous character. As for the self-sufficiency, there’s no better place on earth to learn that if something on your farm is gonna get done, it’ll have to be by you; but allow me to explain what I mean when I say “self-sufficient” or self-sufficiency in general: It’s NOT sole-sufficiency, i.e., the hermit attempting to live with no outside resources whatsoever. That type of total sole-sufficiency may not even be possible. God’s design often allows for (if not always allows for) the fact that we need others—and they need us. Homesteaders are ever seeking MORE self-sufficiency, but with the understanding that whatever degree we are successful, even that has been granted to us by the hand of Providence, and He often uses others toward that end (and masterfully so). The practice of good husbandry on the farm or homestead also makes for a good citizen, which the Bible most certainly advocates in Romans chapter 13. Self-sufficiency is closely tied to independence, and independence requires liberty, and liberty requires personal responsibility. The self-sufficient lifestyle is perhaps one of the greatest mediums for nurturing these concepts and these concepts are the opposite of Socialism (which is ultimately mass dependency). We have a real problem today: “Doing” for one’s own self (instead of waitin’ for someone to “do” for you) is becomin’ way too rare, perhaps because the farming and homesteading lifestyle is way too rare. Think about this: Many of the more liberal folks among us would perhaps get all worked up and upset about feedin’ animals in a wildlife preserve. They would maintain that to feed bears, for instance, would ultimately result in the bears becoming dependent on sandwiches and chips from tourists rather than foraging for their food as they’re designed to do. Well, I would agree with ‘em on that. I wouldn’t want a mean hungry bear comin’ up to my truck lookin’ for a free handout. But these very same people who would get worked up over this would probably support the feeding of children from one to two meals per day in school at the expense of a state or federal agency. Yet this would serve to foster a generation of kids that think they’re owed sustenance by someone other than themselves or their families. Then that child will more than likely grow up to be an adult liberal with an “everybody-owes-me” mindset. And what if that liberal-minded adult runs for and is elected to a government position? I’d rather take my chances with wild hungry bears. America not only needs homesteaders livin’ the self-sufficient lifestyle, but teachin’ their kids self-sufficiency as well.
Warning: Good Doctrine vs Good Counsel
Under this same subject of “What role can a farm/homestead play in serving the Lord?”, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a caution that many a well-meaning Christian homesteader needs to take heed of; and that is a prideful attitude towards self-sufficiency that is so tempting for those of us who’ve chosen that lifestyle for our families. I have many good friends and close brothers and sisters in Christ that have no desire to raise or grow their own food or be self-sufficient. We who love the homestead life seek more and more of it—and often look with bewilderment at those who don’t. But it’s at that point that we may be tempted to make our lifestyle a point of “good doctrine”, by erroneously suggesting (or even implying through our words or actions) that folks who don’t feel the way we do about homesteading are not living Biblically. Some Christian homesteaders even go so far as to say that others who don’t grow their own food are in sin for not doing so. I see this attitude in various degrees pop up in Christian homesteading chatrooms and conversations, etc. I had a wise pastor friend point out the centrality of the issue. These well-meaning Christian promoters for self-sufficient living, he said, are “confusing good doctrine with good counsel.” For example, I might feel that all believers should at least be aware of the fact that they one day might need to be somewhat familiar with, for instance, self-sufficient food production, in the event they need to provide for their families during hardship (mass economic depression or some such event). I might even suggest that to those folks, which would be my “good counsel” to them. But I would err to suggest that they, in neglecting their development of homestead skills, are void of “good doctrine” and therefore “in sin” for not heeding my advice. The Christian farmer should be happy in his or her homesteading, but at the same time be careful not to make our self-sufficient lives a measuring stick for everybody else.