Good Enough is Perfect: How to Pick Land
There is a lot to consider when searching for farmable land— location, size, price, soil quality, water access, etc. When considering such factors, it is important to look beyond what a plot of land has at face value and consider its potential. Land quality is not stagnant, but can be shaped over time. With a solid understanding of the following characteristics of farmable land, prospective buyers and future farmers can find the power in the mantra, “Good enough is perfect.”
The excerpt below is from The Independent Farmstead by Shawn and Beth Dougherty. It has been adapted for the web.
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. —Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Convinced of the necessity, even inflamed with the desire to take up responsibility for our consumption and our personal well-being, what are we to do? If we are not already owners of a piece of land where we can begin our personal homesteading school, where do we go? What are we looking for? Which of the variables of soil, terrain, and climate are most important to our future venture? And won’t a piece of land where we can realize our vision for a fertile, secure, sane future be far too expensive for most of us?
Granted that these are all points for consideration, the issue is not nearly as complicated as it may seem. All the Earth is, well, earth; practically everyone who is not presently airborne or on a ship at sea is standing over some kind of soil. And after all, our present quest is not to find fertile land somewhere and then enjoy the benefits of it, as long as they last, but to build fertility, somewhere, now. Where you are standing is not a bad place to start. Urban gardeners—great in number, if tiny in percentage of overall population—are converting city and suburban yards, porches, and balconies from chemically regimented, monocultural grass carpets or bare concrete pads to rich, biologically exploding microecosystems that overflow with almost unbelievable amounts of food.
And while a studio apartment in a teeming metropolis, or a 1/10-acre backyard with restrictive zoning, may not be the place to start a grazing operation of any size, the landscape is just crammed with plots of land, many forgotten, neglected, or abused, which could become our perfect homestead. Finding one is a matter of asking the right questions.
Where Do You Want to Be?
The ubiquity of dirt of some sort means that mere earth is not our limiting factor. So consider some of the others. First of all, you are going to live in this place; make sure it’s a place you want to live. What do you want around you? Family? Look for land near home. Are you strongly attached to certain cultural surroundings? Know the flexibility of your aesthetic sense. Is it a sense of community that is paramount to your happiness? Maybe you should look in places where the language and culture are familiar to you.
Climate matters: if you are a heat-loving person you may find you don’t enjoy turning out in subzero weather to water the livestock or sweep the snow off your winter garden high tunnels.
Habitat is important: if you are very fond of picking your oranges and avocadoes straight from the tree, northerly growing systems may not be for you; if you are determined to raise Scottish Highland cattle, residence in the southern states is probably a no-go.
And of course, affordability is usually an issue; if you just have to own the land you are going to work, you’ll have to work land you can afford to own. In any case, for most of us the question of where to live is not one over which we have complete control. The ability to jack up and move to the spot that appeals to us most is just not in our toolbox.
What Are Our Options?
Whatever the area where you plan to settle, the first step in choosing a piece of land is to study its individual characteristics. What does this earth want to do—that is, what are its natural tendencies? This may be hard to determine; widespread urbanization and commodity cropping have ousted or disguised the qualities and preferences of our ecosystems. Except to the eyes of love, Houston looks much like Atlanta, Pittsburgh like St. Louis, and the enormous cornfields of Illinois are remarkably like those of Kansas.
The innate, natural tendencies of an area may be hard, at first glance, to see. Research in this area may help. Vermont, now stripped of much of its topsoil, once exported grain on a large scale. Eastern Ohio, its topsoil and native grassland destroyed by surface mining in the 1960s and 1970s, once was a thriving center of the lamb and wool trade. It is important to have a rough idea, at least, of the inclinations of the land where you hope to reside. Your agricultural plans need to be a good match, because when humans fight to make Nature do what she doesn’t want to do, Nature always wins in the end.
Then, look at real estate ads. Land is expensive; there aren’t a lot of pretty little farms on the market. Unless you’re loaded, you probably won’t find homestead here, but you’ll begin to get an idea of what is selling in your area, and how the market is doing. Land prices in general are probably prohibitive, but don’t, at this point, get discouraged: remember, land is everywhere under our feet, and you aren’t looking for what real estate agents mostly are selling.
Cruise back roads; make note of areas where people seem to be doing a little farming. Not a lot of farming; land already in row crops or commercial hay production, flat cleared land accessible to giant tractors and cheek by jowl with big agriculture is going to be gaspingly expensive, almost certainly already saturated with chemicals, and requiring for productivity more doses at frequent intervals. Look, rather, for weedy, overgrown fields; neglected woodlots; awkward, out-of-the way corners and choppy terrain. Go to the courthouse and find maps; familiarize yourself, at least rudimentarily, with the region’s topography and watersheds; these things are going to matter.
And talk to people: vendors at the farmers’ market, people at the local extension office, the man at the feed store, rural delivery people. Ask about services and organizations for farmers in your area. Attend local ag events like farm days, ecotours, and pasture walks. Visit farms—pick-your-owns with tourist appeal, organic farms that offer tours, orchards and vineyards that host wine-tasting nights. Ask questions, and listen carefully to the answers. Interact with people who are different from you; step outside your comfort zone. Volunteer; not only will you get a lot more from a person who can see that you are really interested than from someone who thinks you’re just idly curious, but the conversation is likely to go on a lot longer if you’re standing beside her helping turn the compost.
In the meantime, there is a great deal that you can be doing so that when your land suddenly drops in your lap—or you in its—you’ll have some idea of where to start work first. Collect tools, especially low-technology, multiple-application tools; especially secondhand and hence lower-price tools. Don’t go out and buy yourself a brand new, imported, walk-behind mower with all the attachments—at least not yet. Collect books. Books about grass, about alternative energy, about gardening. Books about people doing what you think you want to do. Absorb the language, flounder through the unfamiliar terms, grow accustomed to the ideas they contain. Read, read, read.
And plan what you’ll do when you find your land. What do you think you want to grow? What does your picture of fertility, sustainability, and durable tenure look like? Are you in love with a particular species or breed of livestock? Study it, visit people who already have that animal, and imagine how you’ll do things the same—or differently. Consider possible companion species, for guard, fertility, symbiosis. Make a twenty-year plan—but in pencil; keep everything flexible.
Buying Land Organically
When we are looking to buy land, we don’t necessarily think first of real estate agents. There are some good reasons for this omission. First of all is this: most people don’t want land for the same reasons we do, and since they don’t want what we want, a real estate agent is pretty unlikely to be peddling it. Most people who use a real estate agent are looking primarily for a house, and the land on which it lies is of much less importance; we are looking for land, and the house, if there is one, is only of secondary significance. In addition, real estate agents in general aren’t going to know much about the agricultural possibilities of land they are selling—its conditions, uses, or restrictions—so it will be hard for them to help us look at places that might suit us, even on the chance that they have a few.
Instead, we look at the local want ads. Check the newspapers; try the classified magazines, cheap or free, that are often to be found next to the checkout counter at the gas station or grocery store. Try craigslist or its local equivalent, by all means. Look at bulletin boards in the local grocery and hardware stores. If you have a regional agricultural paper, certainly take a look there; while most of the ads are likely to be aimed at conventional farmers or at sportsmen in the market for a hunting lease, you may also find small, inconsiderable parcels that are worth looking at. At any rate, it helps to get to know the area; even if you have lived all your life in the vicinity of where you hope to build your farm, you will find the neighborhood still has lots of surprises for you, little pockets the existence of which you never suspected.
Drive the back roads. Get off the beaten path. When you see a neglected side road, turn into it. Stop the car and get out; better yet, do your searching on a bike, or walk. Investigate curiosities; talk to people. Look for land that looks as though nobody loves it, junk-strewn, overgrown with weeds or weed trees, tucked back in corners difficult to access. If there’s no For Sale sign, go to the local courthouse and look the parcel up; it may be that you can track down the owners and find out more about it. We know people who found a farm in just this way.
Assessing Properties — The Details
Specifically, what characteristics are we looking for in a piece of land for our future grassfed homestead? When most of us say the word farm, it evokes an image drawn from all our past experiences of farms—or, more likely, our past experience of farms in books, magazines, and advertising. Old MacDonald might just about sum it up for most of us: white board fence, a red barn with a gambrel roof, green pastures, plowed garden, a quack-quack here and a moo-moo there. As it happens, if that’s what we’re looking for in our search for land, we probably won’t find much; most places that were ever like that picture have been swallowed up by agribusiness.
In areas that are amenable to row cropping, whatever arable land isn’t already owned by a megafarm is on their acquisition list, and the per-acre price is going to be high. Buying a farm that is already in existence is beyond the means of most of us, and maybe that doesn’t matter, because buying an existing farm means, in most cases, buying land that has been under conventional systems for some time, complete with all the chemical fertilizers and biocides that implies. Not the kind of land we necessarily need for our smallholding.
Once we have found a piece of land that meets our requirements for region, price, and immediate neighborhood, it’s a good idea to get a piece of paper and start making notes of its natural qualities. What sort of land is it? Flat, gently rolling, steep, sheer? Is there topsoil? Is it clay, sandy, or loam soil; are there many rocks, and if so, how big, and of what kind? What is growing there right now: grass, brush, weeds, trees, nothing? Is the land wet or dry? Is there surface water, be it pond, stream, spring, or marsh? Look at the microclimate of the parcel, including the limits of the climate zone—average first and last frost day, summer high temperatures and winter lows, average rainfall and days of sun; also slope and aspect, windbreaks and reflected sunlight. All of these things are going to affect what we can plan for this piece of land.
After the natural qualities, we look at the improvements (by which we mean the human alterations, be they improvement in our eyes or otherwise). Are there outbuildings, and if so, what kind, how large, and how are they placed on the property? Are there fences? Wire, mesh, wood, or stone? How much, and where placed? Is there access to the power grid, municipal water, natural gas? Is there a well? How deep is it, and has the well a working pump? Has the water been tested for toxic substances, like arsenic? The local extension office should know what the common water impurities are for the area. What are the other available resources on the property, things that might give direction or focus to a grassfed operation? What are the prevalent plant species? Are there orchards, vineyards, small fruit or nut trees? Are there specialized improvements, such as a gas well, RV hookups, or riding trails?
And then there are the human influences on a piece of property, in some ways the most important because they are the least susceptible to our efforts to change them. Who are the neighbors? What are their places like—modest homes or trophy mansions? Does their land use appear to be agricultural, recreational, or decorative? Do they have animals themselves, or look like they might have had any in the past? Do they appear to be potential partners in our grassfed interests, with empty fields we might be able to borrow? Or might they be in some way obstacles to our intended land use, as, for example, a fruit tree nursery next to where we had pictured our goat farm, or a market garden right up against the land where we were imagining free-ranging a large poultry flock? Don’t by any means neglect to consider the qualities of the immediate neighbors.
Maybe the piece of property we are looking at doesn’t have a lot of amenities; maybe, when we have narrowed down the possible parcels to something we can afford, we aren’t sure it’s something we want. Improved land, fertile land, and flat land all have a pretty considerable market value; after all, that kind of land is just the place to build a McMansion. For places like that we are outbid before the auction starts; land within our fiscal reach may not look so inviting. So what? Our mission is improving land, not buying land that is perfect already. Not to worry—once we get started, the place will soon be unrecognizable.
Good Enough Is Perfect
There are some real advantages to buying neglected land. Every patch of soil, regardless of market worth, has one intangible value to which no price tag is attached: fertility in potential. Where there is soil of any sort, where there is plant life, where there are sunlight and rainfall, there is the potential to build generous fertility, and, because the potential is hidden from most people, there’s no charge for it. A couple of farmers we know in western Oklahoma found just such a place about thirty years ago, a bare, drought-ridden 20 acres with two oak trees, a sand-plum hedge, and a tiny shanty home. The ground was red and sandy, a sea of mud when it was raining and a dust bath within twenty-four hours when the rain stopped; lovegrass and horse nettles were the predominant groundcover. The couple moved in and began the process of regeneration: heavy mulch, responsible grazing practices and cover crops, rainfall capture, permaculture. Today the place is unrecognizable, a green oasis overflowing with food and beauty in a sunburned sea of eroded wheat fields and drought-starved pastures.
There is an added value, for people who like what they like, in land that has been allowed to decline: that is, a clean slate to work on. It really depends on the individual: would you rather own something you have created, or the product of someone else’s creativity? Do you prefer to buy off the shelf or to customize? Not that we ourselves would turn up our noses in principle at land improvements, if we didn’t have to pay too high a price for them; but it often happens that what appears to be an improvement needs, before long, to be undone and done over before it can be considered an asset. For creative people the neglected, abandoned acres may be the most promising.
And those little chopped-up pieces of land that are left when all the “good” pieces are taken can offer some possibilities that are missing in the plots of level, smooth, cleared, and accessible land that look more like what we think of when we say “farm.”
We noticed this when we bought our farm in Ohio. Where we grew up, in Texas and Oklahoma, land was mostly (or absolutely) flat, dry, and featureless. It was easy to access, easy to plow, and easy to fence. Our parcel in Ohio, by contrast, consisted of a narrow east–west draw with steep sides of clay and slate, weeping moisture in summer and covered with icicles in winter, mixed second-growth trees on the upper slopes, and nowhere anything at all that looked even remotely like our idea of pasture.
But although the state of Ohio has designated it “not suitable for agriculture,” we find that our mixed and off-level pieces of property offer a wide variety of valuable variations and microclimates. East–west valleys, even when they are deep, capture sun and heat in their south-facing slopes and hold it against cool nights and prevailing breezes. Rocky outcroppings soak up sunlight during the day, offering an opportunity for growing less hardy plants than are normal for the gardening zone.
The small streams and ponds that are often found on land too uneven for conventional use can be utilized for stock water and irrigation, and a damp place where sedges grow may be a natural seep—clean, soil-filtered water forced to the surface by an impervious substratum. Wet spots and woodland edges offer habitat to insect-eating birds and amphibians.
And neglected land is, after all, generally less expensive; on poor land you won’t be paying for someone else’s idea of improvements. If you’re loaded—if your bank account is far and beyond “all right” and you have money with which to buy just what you want, develop it, stock it, and then live off the interest of what’s left—maybe you don’t care. On the other hand, maybe you do: many a mistake is made, many an avenue followed that later turns the wrong way, because a person could afford to do things quickly. Haste, in some cases, does make waste. In our little corner of the culture—the sustainable ag world—there is a movement toward appreciation of slow things—slow food, slow money. We would like to propose that there is value in slow farming.
There is a universal value realized whenever a piece of wasteland is reclaimed. Each square yard of soil that is stewarded and encouraged from the condition of barren, sour, and weed-choked wasteland, sluicing rain and topsoil into local waterways, absorbing solar energy in the form of heat and releasing it slowly to warm up the microclimate, into perennial plant cover shading and cooling the earth, building and holding topsoil, capturing rainwater, and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, is one more step toward reclaiming this place for fertility and resilience.
And consider: our information, in this new-to-us area of farming, is limited; our experience even more so. Our sources of advice, in local farmers, veterinarians, and in the vast majority of how-to books, are themselves limited—almost universally espousing methods that are just those from which we are trying to escape, suspicious or even downright scornful of the notion that agriculture may be practiced in any way besides the one they learned at ag school, or the one their seedsman or tractor salesman tells them is the latest problem fixer. Supposing we could afford to go out right away and buy our vision of what a grass-based, ecologically diverse farm should be, would it be a good thing? Would “our vision,” however well we have done our research, be sufficiently well informed and all-inclusive to make its realization the farm of our dreams? In our opinion, the answer is “no.”
Experience is, after all, the best teacher—and experience cannot be bought. It has to be lived—and lived with. Especially experience of the sort a farmer needs: experience of living systems, dynamic, fluctuating; experience of vagaries in climate, water availability, pest population, rest, and renewal. Experience of changes in ourselves, our predilections, preferences and ideals, and in the circumstances of our own and our family’s lives.
Designing the perfect barn and having a contractor put it up for us certainly gets the job done quickly, but what if we discover once we put some animals in it that the loose stalls are just a couple of feet too small for the breed we want to house, or the gate swings in exactly the wrong direction for when we want to load livestock into the trailer? Closer to home, how will it be if we stretch miles of goat fence to keep in the herd of dairy goats we intend to raise, only to switch to pastured pigs after a year or two and discover that goat fence and hog fence are two very different things? And this caveat has application in small places, too; the hundred-dollar cobra-head hoe we pick up at the sustainable ag fair may be beautiful, but its application in the large potato patch that turns out to be the best use of our garden—because potatoes will grow there, and because we’ll eat them—is going to be limited; what we may really need is an eye hoe and a broad fork.
How Much Land Is Enough, and When Is It Too Much?
How much land we need depends on a lot of things, but the answer is likely to be less than you think. First we have to ask ourselves some questions.
How much land can we afford? Heavy mortgage payments are going to mean more time away from the farm, working at our cash jobs. Who is going to live here and farm this land? What kind of time, realistically, will they devote to farm work—to grass management in the form, usually, of moving fences and water tanks for rotationally grazed ruminants, pigs, poultry, or some combination thereof? How interested are they, and how willing? What are their ages, potentials, capabilities, and skills? What are their time commitments, and are they willing to change them? Are we hoping to raise animals for dairy? For meat? How many people do we want the land to feed—ourselves, our family, maybe (sometime in the future) a customer base?
How brittle is the environment—does it receive rain only seasonally, or is the precipitation spread more or less over the year? How effective is the rainfall—that is, how much soaks in, and how quickly does it dry out after a rain? In what sort of condition is the primary ground cover, be it grass, brush, or trees; is the coverage general or spotty; are the roots deep or shallow? We might want to look up the conventional carrying capacity in our area of an acre of pasture for grazing cows, sheep, or goats—but we want to bear in mind that intensively managed rotational grazing gives an enormous boost to the fertility and resilience of land, so with time we are going to improve on the conventional numbers. Further, are there woods, and are they mature or young, dense or scattered? Is there surface water that can be utilized for livestock?
Too much land is when you have more than you can steward, more than you can improve, more than you can take responsibility for. A good rule for the smallholder is that you should be able to walk over every part of your land in the course of your regular routine, at least once a week, and preferably several times. For grazing land, as for gardens, the best fertilizer is the shadow of the gardener or grazier; the best feed supplement for livestock is the hand of the herder. A real farm, a regenerative farm, is not a machine that can be fired up, placed on a productive setting, and then simply maintained with periodic injections of inputs. Holistic management requires regular, attentive observation, frequent decision making, and thoughtful adjustment. Finances will dictate how much land most of us can buy in any case; chances are we won’t be worrying about acquiring too much.
And fortunately, one hallmark of holistic land management is its multiple levels of productivity; fewer acres produce more nutritional calories, and more fertility, than a greater acreage of conventionally managed land. Holistic grazing means that, with adequate available water and sufficient commitment in time, a family-scale, grass-based smallholding can fit in a very small footprint; three years of holistic grazing on even a very small area can so improve forage production and rainfall retention, and so extend your grazing season, that the land will carry more livestock for more of the year, or even allow the possibility of year-round grazing.
Farmers don’t have to have title to all the land they utilize. For over fifteen years we have harvested hay from land belonging to a neighbor whose horses aren’t sufficient to keep his pastures grazed. Much conventionally farmed land is rented; 90 of the acres we manage actually belong to a Franciscan monastery 1.5 miles up the road, where the religious sisters are not presently using the property themselves and are glad to share the land and its produce. Not only does this arrangement provide us with pasture for our small herd of beef cattle; the sisters are saved the cost of having the land mowed twice a year, or having the cleared land go back to brush and scrub. A secondary, but no less important, result is the sense of community these arrangements foster in our neighborhood. Our rotational grazing practices improve the land and grow enough milk, meat, and other produce to share with everyone.
What Qualities Are Necessary?
While we don’t have to start with perfect pastures and expensive improvements, there are qualities the land has to have before our agricultural projects are possible. Number one, unquestionably, is water. It must be considered the homesteader’s primary limiting factor, without which we could not even begin using rotational grazing to regenerate the land. But while this is a limitation, it’s one that can be met in most places, one way or another; the trick is to meet it in the most sustainable way.
Pressurized water—water from a municipal system or domestic well—is the form of water supply with which we are most familiar: turn a tap handle and there it is. We don’t think too much about where it is coming from, or even how much we are using; for most of us, tap water is just a fact of life. But city water is expensive, and often chemically treated; well water is effectively nonrenewable—fossil water being pumped out of natural reservoirs deep underground by means of electrical power. And even shallow wells, while they are more readily recharged than deep wells, still require some sort of power to raise the water to ground level.
The regenerative farmer will look for other water sources for his farming endeavors, emphasizing especially various means of detaining rainfall on the land, of using it and giving it a longer period in which to percolate into the soil. Does the land have ponds or streams; does it border a river or lake? Are there low spots where rainwater collects after a storm? In hill country, like our part of Appalachia, springs are frequently to be found high on rocky hillsides, providing an opportunity for directing water to points where it is needed lower down.
The rate of flow need not be considerable to collect sufficient water for a small number of livestock. Seeps—springs the flow of which is so slow that they don’t create a rill, just a soggy place—can be captured and directed into a holding tank; even a mere drip provides tens of gallons a day. Elevated water sources are especially valuable; whenever possible, look for opportunities to use gravity, rather than electricity, to move water on the farm. Even a slight variation in the surface of the land can offer an opportunity to move water without a pump.
Use local information. Ask the neighbors about the seasonality of any spring you find; they may know whether it tends to flow all year or only during wet seasons. Don’t make the mistake of one of our local grass-based farmers, who put thousands of dollars into an extensive spring improvement program only to find that the water he intended to feed his series of descending tanks ran only from March through June. Ask at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office about local toxicities, and have the water tested; the biggest spring is useless for stock water or food crop irrigation if local mining activity has contaminated it with heavy metals.
After water comes soil. We place it second because, while we cannot do without at least some soil, even a little will do, and its condition at the time of purchase may be—in fact, most probably will be—poor. No matter; we are going to improve and build the soil, and by doing so we will improve and increase the water-retentive abilities of the land. An example we have seen are the Benedictine monks of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in far eastern Oklahoma, building soil on 1,000 acres of undulating land where second-growth oak and maple trees cling to limestone outcroppings and the soil is in many places so thin the white bones of the hills show through.
Well-planned rotational grazing, combined with cover cropping and fermented whey biofertilizer from their small creamery, is resulting in deeper topsoil on their rocky hilltops, and more forage for their flocks of sheep and their dairy cows. Not to make your own first efforts too difficult, however, you’ll want to look for land with at least some depth of soil. It need not be good soil when you buy it: in his book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, author Harvey Ussery includes before-and-after pictures of his rusty, sandy soil, improved to black loam with the aid of rotationally grazed chickens.
Thin, poor soil is one thing; contaminated soil is another. The means by which humans have polluted the surface of the earth are many, and not all of them leave signs that are readily visible. If the land has been mined or used commercially, it may be good to have the soil, like the water, tested for toxicities. Inquire locally if you are unsure of previous land use; some forms of abuse leave few signs.
In our township, a piece of cleared creek bottomland with an east–west aspect—land apparently adventitious for homesteading—was owned, up to a couple of years ago, by a scrap dealer. Broken appliances from which he wanted to separate the scrap metal from the plastic parts he would haul to this plot, douse with gasoline, and light afire. The black smoke that billowed up on these occasions was enough to convince anyone that the local representatives of the EPA must be sleeping on the job; what toxins this practice deposited in the soil we can only imagine. We would be unwilling to eat anything that was grown or grazed on such land, supposing it could be induced to produce much at all.
One of the qualities of a piece of land that could be easily overlooked is slope. If the place we are looking at is not mesa-flat, we need to pay attention to the degree and angle of its inclines. These may be advantageous or otherwise: very steep slopes can make access to some parts of the property difficult for humans or animals, but a pasture on a south-facing slope warms and dries sooner in spring, while one with a northern aspect resists dormancy longer in the heat of the summer; an orchard facing north may blossom later than one in more direct spring sunlight, an advantage in the event of a late frost. Furthermore, it may be important in some areas to get a topographical map and investigate the slopes of our proposed purchase to find out who are our uphill neighbors; their land use or waste disposal practices can have devastating effects on the quality of our water.
Access is a point on which land values pivot, and here you may have a considerable advantage over the generality of land-seekers, who mostly want something with a nice drive or with commercial access. Homesteaders can be more creative, but we must have access of some kind. How are we going to get onto this piece of land? This must be investigated carefully.
Does the land have road frontage with permit to build a drive, and if so does the part of the property contiguous to the road allow vehicular access? Our own farm is cut in two by a well-maintained county road; nevertheless, the steepness of the hillside means that visitors to our farm hesitate, hearts in mouths, before they take the plunge down our precipitous lane. How will we bring in building materials, livestock, or any large movable? What about access for maintenance or emergency vehicles? Our neighbor to the south is without any road frontage at all, only a right-of-way over our property, so he depends on us to maintain the lane, which we do, but only as far as our first barn. From there the lane continues downhill, crosses North Creek and Jeddo’s Run and climbs steeply up the south side of the valley, where the narrowness of the way prohibits access to any really large vehicle, including fire trucks—a fact which resulted, forty years ago, in an overfired woodstove burning his first house to the ground. Road access matters.
A great deal of trouble, frustration, and disappointment may be avoided by doing a little more prying, this time into the future of the neighborhood into which we are thinking of moving. Apply at the courthouse for information on the zoning in the area of your piece of property; find out especially what permits have been granted or applied for. The best piece of land may lose much of its value when the neighborhood goes bad. When a construction and demolition dump was permitted in a county next to ours, neighbors in the area were soon complaining of foul odors. Up to several miles away the air was almost constantly rank with the odor of decay—we spent an anniversary weekend at a bed-and-breakfast in the area, which lost some of its pleasure due to pervasive dumpster smells.
Obviously not all the garbage coming in on boxcars from New Jersey was from construction and demolition, but none of the signees of that contract live within nose distance of the new dump, and so far no one has been able to do anything about the breach of permit. In a similar case, friends upriver, purchasing 10 beautiful hilltop acres with an old farmhouse and a bank barn, found, within months of moving in, that the local power plant was constructing a 5-mile long conveyor belt along the border of their property, the purpose of which was to carry fly ash from the coal-burning plant to a new ash dump only a mile from our friends’ farm. The constant hum and clatter of the conveyor serves to remind them daily of the known and unknown health risks associated with dioxin-laden gypsum. We all live in compromised environments; it is nice to know about hazards ahead of time, so we can limit their extent.
As for your own future use of the land, check out the zoning laws before you buy. How restrictive are the requirements for building? Are there restrictions on the number or type of livestock that can be kept there? What do the laws say about septic systems, and do they require installation of access to municipal water, sewage, or gas lines, whether or not the landowner desires or intends to use these services? Better to discover these things beforehand than to find a sheriff on the front step with a cease-and- desist order in his hand.
Power, of One Sort or Another
We will assume for the purposes of this discussion that you are not planning to do all your farming and building—all of your cooking, cleaning, and food handling—with nothing but hand tools, wood fires, and springhouses. Most of us are going to want some sort of access to electricity. If there is already grid power on your land, it will save you several thousand dollars in installation fees, if you chose to go that route. Being belt-and-suspenders people—sometimes—we consider electricity-on-tap an asset, even if it never gets turned on. Options matter. If there is no power on the land as yet, find out what it will cost to have it run all the way out to your future farm site: the longer the line, the higher the price.
Don’t want to tap into the grid? Then pay special attention to the qualities of the plot of land you are planning to buy. If you hope to use hydro-electric power, check out the elevation, rate of flow, and seasonality of your surface water. For wind power, look up average wind conditions in your area for all seasons. Look around; are any of your neighbors using wind power? Ask how well it is serving them.
And if you live in an area like ours, pay attention to the average number of sunny days: while we do use solar power for some things—lighting one of our big barns, powering electric fence in our more remote pastures—the number of sunny days in this part of Ohio is more or less equal to those of Seattle, Washington, which makes for a good many weeks when our solar batteries run low. Be especially attentive to the aspect of your land—its north-south-east-west exposures—if you are thinking of using solar power. A north-facing slope in our latitude may get only minutes of sunlight a day during the winter months, shivering the rest of the time under an unbroken blanket of snow and ice.
What Not to Pay For (Unless You Have the Money)
Naturally, there are lots of amenities that are desirable on a farm, some of which are downright necessities; but while we may not be able to do without these things, we don’t necessarily want to pay for them. Things we think of when we say the word farm—things like fences, barns, and cleared pastures—may be well within our ability to provide and may suit us better if we do the work ourselves.
Fertility is number one on the list of things not to pay for. If you do find a stretch of virgin land, unpolluted, rich of soil, for a price you can afford to pay, buy it by all means; you will be in the minority. Most land of that sort has a hefty price tag, if you can find it at all. Fortunately, fertility is not a fixed quality, but a fluid one—that is, it is mutable; it ebbs and flows. Committed attention to intensive grazing is going to set a spring tide of fertility on your land, poor though its condition may be at the outset. We don’t have to pay for fertility up front.
Cleared, flat land and existing pasture with tight fences are great if you can afford them but, like fertility, aren’t necessities. There is no rule that says pasture has to be flat, and since flat land is more desirable for building and for mechanical cultivation, it is generally more expensive as well.
Existing pastures in any case, if they have been managed conventionally, have in all likelihood been chemically fertilized and planted with just one or a few species of pasture grass; soil biota will be less flourishing, and the forage spread less versatile than native pasture, as it is less diverse. For the same reason, it will be less resilient to seasonal fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. Look for unlovely parcels instead. Brushy land can be cleared with goats, which seem to prefer their pastures hilly anyway. Weedy, overgrown lots may only need to be grazed properly to become pastures of highly diverse native species.
Fences, especially perimeter fences, are good things, but not absolute necessities, and you can put up your own, where—and when—you want them. The marginalized land that will best repay your stewardship is not usually going to have nice fences. Existing interior fences may—in fact, probably will—be in places you don’t want them. Permanent fence of any kind, as opposed to the inexpensive and lightweight temporary electric fences of the rotational grazier, may have to be mowed under regularly to keep it from becoming overgrown—a thankless and endless chore. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your land has to come with fences.
Barns, corrals, and inground stock watering systems all raise the price of a piece of land without necessarily increasing its value to the smallholder. Grazed animals spend nearly all their time in the field, not the barn; consequently the grazier’s barn, if he needs one, will probably be small and not elaborate. Small numbers of livestock that are accustomed to close proximity with human beings, as are those of the grazier, generally require less handling than conventionally managed livestock, and are easier to handle when they do need it, so corrals and cattle chutes may be extraneous. And because animals are moved to new grass regularly and the land is rested often, parasite cycles are interrupted; hence the need to corral and chemically worm animals may occur seldom or never.
Inground and frost-free water systems are great, but not absolutely necessary to the small-scale grazier, whose stock water, ideally, will follow the animals over the pasture rather than being stationary; in any case, we will be looking for opportunities to use captured or surface water sources, rather than municipal or well water.
What other seeming necessities might be dispensed with? Your flexibility will determine some of these. What sort of shelter do you require for yourself? Our home, the Sow’s Ear, was derelict when we bought it. The previous owner told us if he couldn’t sell the land for what he was asking, he would bulldoze the house and try again—meaning that in his opinion the value of the land would go up if the house were demolished. Out bargained, we paid his price. The house, if terrifically unattractive, was structurally sound; we stripped it down to the studs and remade it slowly, while living in it. Saved us a ton of money. Can you live in a yurt? Manage with an outhouse and solar-heated outdoor shower? Live in a secondhand house trailer for a few years?
The simpler your requirements, the more various the types—and prices—of land you can consider.
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