I'm Tonia and this is my family. There's Hubs, my wonderful partner; Bug, my darling daughter; and Boo, my charming son. We are the Collins clan. We are a homeschooling family who try our best to live out God's will for our lives every day. There are lots of stumbles along the way, but we love each other and this little life we're carving out for ourselves. Recently we found ourselves called to make some big changes in our lives so we're packing up the McMansion and moving out to a little farm in need of a lot of TLC. We have tons to learn and tons to do and we invite you to share the journey as we turn our not-so-new heap into a home.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Holding On Loosely

It's hard to believe it's been nearly a year since I last posted anything. I never meant for it to be so long. It's been a year full of high points and hard days. Life doesn't look like what we had pictured when we moved to the Heap four years ago and there is still a certain amount of struggle as we try to figure out our priorities, but the rewards are worth it.

We spent the year learning how to be beekeepers. Although the scholarship was awarded specifically to Bug, we have all attended classes and meetings and helped to check the hive and harvest honey. It has truly been an incredible experience. Bees are way cooler than you realize. We were able to harvest about 5 gallons of honey, which Bug was able to sell. She won ribbons at three different fairs as well. The plan for 2017 is to split the hive into two, hopefully doubling the honey harvest. You can find Heapstead Honey on Facebook and follow her progress there. She so appreciates your support. I'm hoping to have her do a guest post here sometime soon. 

We raised and butchered our heritage hogs. It worked quite well to have them on pasture and we were pleased with how well they grew. The pasture has a few places that need new seed, but overall they didn't do tremendous damage so that seems to work well for us. I feel like the resulting meat is a little bit off, though, so we will have to evaluate a few things before we raise more hogs. Because we raised a heritage breed and left the animals intact, rather than castrating them, it is hard to know exactly where the difference lies. 

We have two grown sheep now-  a (hopefully) breeding pair. Dodge and Annie are pretty low maintenance and are quite happy on the pasture, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of romance happening out there. We have no idea if this means they don't like each other or they just prefer the privacy of the barn at night. We're praying for lambs this spring. 

A new freeloader joined the family this year. Nalla came to us from my mom, who couldn't care for her anymore. She's a sweet girl even if she doesn't contribute to a job here at the Heap. She's so cute I can't help but forgive her for the extra work she creates

Most of last year was spent working hard to make a special family vacation happen. We decided to funnel our funds and resources into a trip to Disney World rather than work on things at the Heap. Even though we did not make any progress on the house or homestead, it was so worth it. The time spent as a family was so absolutely perfect and wonderful memories were made. 

This year, we plan to turn our focus to the house remodel. Homesteading is going to take a back burner for awhile so that we can use our time and money to make a comfortable home for our family. We will maintain our laying flock and the sheep, but we won't be bringing in any other babies this year and we'll take a break from butchering and intense gardening. It has been necessary for me, in particular, to really stop and evaluate priorities. Between working and being in school, I don't have much more to give and homesteading was beginning to stress me out way too much, so we are going to take some time off. In the meantime, expect to see exciting things happening inside- I cannot wait to make this house pretty!

Time marches on. It's hard to believe we've been here almost four years. So much has changed, but there is still so much to do. I think I'm starting to realize there always will be and that's okay. We'll take each moment as it comes. 


Sunday, May 1, 2016


One of the babies died yesterday.

It was the last straw. I sat out on the brick pile and looked out over the pasture and sobbed. Not sniffled, people. Ugly cried. .......and said naughty words in my head while thinking how much I hate everything. Everything.

The Hubs came out to me eventually and said, "This is the suckiest part about having animals, huh?" He's right, of course. Watching animals, especially babies, suffer and not knowing what to do to fix it is definitely the worst part of raising animals, but my breakdown was coming long before poor little Taz developed bloat.

I. am. tired.

I really, really love my job, but going back to nursing has definitely complicated an already full life. I'm not even close to having some sort of balance figured out. After a good cry and a long nap, though, I'm thinking I'll keep trying.....I don't actually hate everything. I might even kind of love some of it.

I love knowing we're raising high quality poultry for ourselves. The meat chicks are fully feathered now and have been moved out to the tractors. Last year we raised the typical conventional meat breed, Cornish cross, and decided they are gross and definitely not normal or healthy birds. This year we're raising Freedom Rangers and we're super excited about them. They are growing faster than the laying birds, but not in a freakish kind of way.

I love having fresh eggs from happy chickens. The new layer chicks are growing well and the turkeys are too. We realized this winter that we need to be a little more aggressive with culling the flock. Most of the winter we only got 1 egg a day, which isn't enough, and it's because our layers are too old. So, we will replace about half the flock each year. We are going to keep to just a couple of specific breeds each year as well so it's easy to know which ones are the ones that need to go. This year our chicks are Buff Orpingtons and Americanas.

I love watching babies grow. Annie, our bottle lamb, is so sweet and cute. She adores Bug, since she's usually the one feeding her and follows her around bleating. She's lonely without Taz, though, so I'm hoping we'll get another one to keep her company.

We got a new puppy this spring, too. Codi, is a border collie/lab mix and she's growing like crazy. She's very sweet too. She's been sleeping in the chicken coop so she learns chickens are part of her pack. It seems to be working quite well so far. Sophie loves having a playmate, which is the biggest reason we got her.

I love cooking up a dinner made with pork we raised. I love watching animals live good, clean, happy lives and knowing that they will provide us with healthy meat.

Our first pig went to butcher a month ago and provided us with about 170 pounds of meat that has my freezer well stocked. For our first go we just bought a conventional breed and raised him in the corral and barn. He was never on the pasture, mostly because the Hubs was still working on the fencing. It wasn't our ideal, but it was a good first experience.

The new pigs are a heritage breed called Red Wattle. We chose this breed because they are supposed to be pretty good foragers and because we found someone who had them within driving distance. You'd be surprised how difficult it can sometimes be to find heritage breed animals! B&LT are growing like champs. They went on the pasture this week and after a couple of days of nervously pacing by the barn they've really settled in. They love digging around for roots and will come running to the fence when called, in hopes of getting a treat. They follow us into the barn at night easily, when they get fed a ration of grain. We're still waiting to see how much they tear up the pasture, but so far it seems to be going really well. Yes, they root, but no, they don't destroy. We're hoping it will continue to be a positive move.

I love learning new skills and watching my kids do the same. 

Bug won a beekeeping scholarship this year and in April the bees came to the Heap. It's been super exciting to watch and everything is going fantastically so far. She checks the hive at least once a week, looking for eggs and larva, which show that the queen is still in the hive and doing her job and that the other bees are doing their jobs, raising more bees. God willing, we'll be able to harvest some honey this fall.  We've all had a great time going to the bee keeping association's meetings and learning all about this new venture. 

I love watching the Hubs work on a project. He is seriously the best. He's so diligent and careful and everything he takes on ends up being more than we hoped for. Right now he's working on a tree house for the kids. It's a project he really felt needed to happen now, before they get any older and won't enjoy it anymore. They're helping him build it and they are so excited. 

I love knowing tomorrow's a new day and I can just keep trying to get it all figured out. I'm realizing that this whole homesteading thing is a marathon, not a sprint, and I'm going to have to pace myself. I'm reassessing some of the ideals we came out here with and working out which ones are truly non-negotiable and which ones can be discarded. I can't do everything. I can't even do 1/2 of everything, so I'm going to have to choose what really matters. That's hard for me, but heaven knows I'm strong enough to do it, so I will.......after another nap.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Sharing the Love

We really love our little homestead and the self reliant life we're working toward, so we were excited to find out this fall that American Heritage Girls has added Sustainable Living to the badges girls can earn through their program. It didn't take us long to work out the details and invite our group of Pioneers and Patriots out to the Heap to learn more about what we're doing. Bug was particularly excited to share her life with her friends. Over two days the girls camped out on our land and learned all about homesteading and sustainable living. They had a great time and we loved having them here.

The beautiful pictures are courtesy of my sweet friend Michelle Geis. What a blessing it is to have a chaperon who also takes amazing photos!

 The girls started by setting up their tents in the area behind the garden.

  And, of course, they had to get a fire going.

Then, they took a tour of the Heap and our 3 acres, while we discussed why we moved out here and what sustainable living means. Next up, it was time for a yummy dinner cooked over the camp fire. We had chicken chili made from several ingredients harvested right at the Heap including the chicken, onions, and tomatoes.

Before night fell, the girls got a chance to help with evening chores. They fed the chickens, geese, and turkeys and helped move the tractors to fresh grass.

 The evening was full of fresh air and tween girl shenanigans. They ran all over the place playing lightning bug tag and took full advantage of the tire swing, zip line, and trampoline. Michelle and I sat bundled by the fire and waited patiently for the magic hour when we could tell them they had to go to bed.

 After a breakfast that, of course, included fresh eggs from the hens, the girls learned all about my food storage and tried their hands at making strawberry jam.

 We had saved the quarterly cleaning of the chicken coop especially for them so they got to experience the sights and smells of the coop as they scraped the roosts and shoveled out old bedding before replacing it with new fresh wood chips. It's not a glamorous job by any means, but it does do a good job of showing the reality of life out here and the responsibilities we have. The girls were amazing- not one of them complained or uttered one, "Ew" or "Gross". I was crazy proud of them.

 We also spent time talking about things that we aren't doing at the Heap yet. Some of them, like beekeeping and permaculture, are among our goals. Others, like alternative energy sources will probably never be practical for our life, but are still good to understand. The girls got a chance to meet the neighbors cows and pigs as well- and we talked about the housing and feed requirements for all the different animals we could keep. My friend and fellow homesteader, Holly, shared some honey with us and the girls got to taste the difference between real, raw honey and the stuff you buy in the store. I think they learned a ton and it meant a lot to us to be able to share our life and teach others about all that we're doing.

We had such a good time sharing the Heap that we decided to offer the experience to others who might be interested in learning about homesteading and sustainable living. We have two more camp outs scheduled for the spring and are hoping more groups will decide to book some time out here as well. We believe it's good for kids to see where their food comes from and how much work it takes to produce it. Even if they never decide to homestead themselves, they can live with a deeper gratitude for what they have. Of course, nurturing future homesteaders is good too...we love that.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Taking Stock

 The first snow is on the ground and we're finally able to stop for a moment and look back over the past few months and all that we've accomplished. I have to admit, before I sat down to write this, I was feeling like we hadn't done all that much. This working season has been about a lot of smaller jobs rather than one big project, but all those little jobs do add up to some significant movement forward.

 We raised three turkeys to butchering age and got them put in the freezer. It was exciting to eat our very first turkey for Christmas dinner and I have to say, it was also delicious. I was a bit concerned because pastured animals tend to be smaller and tougher than their factory farm counterparts, but it really is just a matter of learning how to cook them.

For the first time, we allowed broody hens to sit on eggs and raise the resulting chicks. We ended up with nearly all roosters, which was a bummer, but we learned a lot and were able to see that we truly CAN keep the flock self sustaining if need be. Plus, it turns out it is super cool to watch a momma hen care for her babies.

 Two geese made it to the freezer. It remains to be seen if we even like goose, but they were fun to raise and by far the cheapest animal we've raised so far. They are very good grazers and got quite big and fat just on pasture, which makes them ideal for homesteading.

 Inside, the Hubs installed all new windows, a new front door, and built out our bedroom closet. It has been easy for me to get down about all that still needs to be done in the house, but if I'm fair, these improvements are huge for us. We can't hear the wind whistling through the house anymore and they really look nice. We've got a long way to go, yes, but we've come a long way too.

One of the big jobs that we've been needing to do finally got done this year. We had no idea where the septic tank was or what kind of condition it was in so we had someone come out and find it for us. Then the Hubs dug it up and had someone else come out to look it over and pump it out. We were thrilled to get the news that all is in good working order. Before it got buried again the Hubs put a riser on the lid- now it will be easy to find when it's time to clean it out again. It's one of those jobs that has no aesthetic value whatsoever, but it's a pretty important part of our life out here and it's a relief to know we don't need to worry about it anymore.

My garden was definitely a challenge this year, but despite that I was able to harvest a big crop of garlic, tomatoes, carrots, and green beans that I then put away for the winter. I also went to the produce auctions a couple of times this year with my friend, Holly, and we spent days canning. In the end, I put up about 300 jars of food this year, plus a bunch of things that I froze rather than canned. We've still got quite a way to go to be even remotely self reliant, but every year we make progress.

The Hubs has been working on creating a barn out of the existing loafing shed and putting animal pens and a corral up. He's getting close to having it ready for our next adventure- hogs! We hope to bring them home very soon.

In the midst of all the work going on here, I went back to working outside the home. After nearly 6 years away from nursing I'm back at it. I love my new job and the small hospital I'm working at, but it goes without saying that this has added a whole new layer of challenges to our life. The income is very welcome and allows us to start getting serious about some of the improvements that need to happen at the Heap, but the time I have available to help work on those improvements has been drastically cut. It's a balancing act that we're still trying to figure out.

It's been a productive and busy year. We're all ready for a little down time, I think, but we're already dreaming of spring and all the things we're going to work on next year!