Living on Marginal Land

With five years experience homesteading in the Oregon foothills, the author offers some advice for how to live on marginal land.
By Vern Cope
September/October 1974
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A wooden track can help move this up or down a hillside.
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If you've been following rural land prices over the past few years, you've probably been amazed at how rapidly the value of acreage has increased in many parts of the country. If you're salting away money to buy your own homestead, in fact, the growth of your savings may only just be matching the rising price for the type of land you want. Then, if you do buy, the interest rates you'll pay are exploitative and sometimes prohibitive, particularly if you move onto your place right away and try to make a living off it.

What to do? Well, you could save your money and wait for a possible recession or depression. Or you could forsake the dreams of owning property in your favorite area—which is becoming flooded by retirement homes, with a resulting drastic increase in land values—and move to one of this country's poorer rural sections where prices are still relatively low. Or you could consider yet another possibility: Buy sloping land.

Over five years ago (June 1969), our group—which now numbers eight adults and one infant—purchased 40 acres of hillside in southern Oregon. At the time, livable tracts of this kind were selling at about one-fourth to one-fifth the cost of flat, tillable acreage. Today the local price of land similar to ours has almost doubled, but level farmland has skyrocketed too.

Why live do a slope? [1] We preferred to purchase our place outright rather than hassle with payments, [2] we wanted a lot of land (so it had to be cheap by the acre), [3] we had no desire to do any more than subsistence food growing and [4] we were looking for isolation.

After much experience with hillside living, we'd like to share our feelings and knowledge with others who are interested in buying what's commonly called "marginal" land. A tract so described can be gently sloping to steep and may include small patches of relatively flat ground. The term may also, of course, apply to part of a parcel which is mainly farm acreage. No matter what portion of the land is hilly, it will be cheaper per acre than flat, cleared property in the same area. But price is only one factor to consider before you buy.

Slope Management

Let's think first about the slope of the land and how it will affect your life. Obviously, the less grade the better: You'll spend a lot of your time walking up and down, which can be a drag (particularly in wet, muddy weather). Still, that activity does put you in shape and you'll notice the hills less the longer you live on such a homestead.

Another disadvantage to a slope is that—unless you own a four-wheel-drive vehicle—you'll have limited access to the steeper portions when you're hauling construction materials, manure, firewood, or anything else that's heavy and bulky. It's possible to pull some building supplies and logs fairly easily, downhill, but not up.

One way to get manure to gardens and orchards, and fire wood to houses, is to rig up a cart or trailer which can be lowered with a strong rope or cable attached to a trucks on your road. We've also used trams and slides with success. Just be sure you have plenty of access for motor transport, and that most of your acreage is below the road.

Of course, a four-wheel-drive vehicle solves those problems for most of the year. The best strategy is to make sure you've got enough money left over to buy one after you've bought the land!

Water Access 

Flatland folks usually have to pump the water they use for irrigation and in their homes from wells or some abovegroud source. This entails the initial expense of the necessary machinery plus its maintenance and the cost of the energy to run it. People on marginal property, however, can make use of inexpensive, pollution-free gravity-flow supplies.

Near the top of the slope on our place we have a small dam which collects water and empties it into a 600-gallon storage tank located just below the dam and off to the side. At the bottom of this reinforced concrete reservoir (cost of constructiontion: only $50.00) are outlet pipes that distribute the water to several buildings and to our garden and orchard.

Some friends of ours a few miles away live on sloping land with a sizable creek. Since they have no need to store water, their pipes for irrigation and home use are simply placed in the stream at the top of their property. (Of course, surface water must always be checked for contamination before it's used for drinking and bathing.)

Speaking of water, it's good to know that—as the owner of marginal land—you'll be high and safe during floods. And in more normal times you'll have good drainage around your buildings and in your orchard ... where this factor can be very important to the health of your tree.

Growing Food 

Before you buy a hillside spread, you should consider the several pros and cons of growing food on it. First, remember that marginal land is the last to be developed for farming (it's generally wooded, large machinery doesn't work it well and—in any case—the pioneers were attracted to the more fertile soil of the valley below). Therefore, you're probably going to have to clear your garden and orchard area, and clearing land, particularly by hand, is hard work. One consolation: The process at least gives you poles for building and firewood.

On the plus side, marginal property is often separated by some distance from valley land, which reduces the risk of entrenched harmful pests on your cultivated food plants and trees. Then, too, those woods around your garden and orchard make a nice windbreak and cut down on the chances of frost. And, since you're probably located above a valley, you'll realize yet another plus for your crops: At night, warm air from the land below rises and creeps up the surrounding slopes. This increases the ground-level temperature and stretches the growing season. We reckon ours to be one to two months longer than that in the valley, thanks to earlier last frosts in the spring and later first autumn frosts.

One more point: If possible, get sloping land that has a southern exposure. You'll be a lot happier in the long run. We didn't think about this when we bought our place, and settled for a north-facing hillside. The result is less light for our crops in the spring and fall, and a winter with lots of cold winds and little sun to keep up our morale.

Coping With Isolation

Since marginal acreage has been much less popular for development than flat tracts (especially in the West), you're likely to be somewhat isolated—maybe miles from the nearest neighbor. Your place might border on public lands, and could even be virgin. Such a life, of course, can be very peaceful. When you're really off in the woods—alone or with good friends—your pace is slower, you won't hear much traffic (unless there's logging nearby!) and it'll be a lot easier to commune with nature. Still, this condition does have its negative aspects which become obvious fairly soon.

One problem is that roads to marginal areas are often primitive and poorly maintained. This probably means you'll be stuck a lot in mud and snow. Also—although getting away from it all sounds good now—you might find later that electricity for blenders, power tools, etc., would be a real blessing, and that a phone sure would eliminate a lot of hassles. Unfortunately, the farther back you are, the less chance there is that these hookups will be available on your land. The nearest powerlines are two miles from our place and the cost of bringing them up here would be thousands of dollars. Since our stream isn't large enough for a small hydroelectric system, our only option is a noisy, polluting gas generator.

Another drawback of isolation is that we have many more wild animals around than there are down in the more populated valley. We have to elevate our hives on platforms or surround them with electrified wire to keep the bears from robbing them. Coyotes, mountain lions, and the like endanger our goats and chickens, and deer will go on nibbling our garden and orchard until we have the time and money to fence them out. Also, where there are deer and bear, you can expect lots of hunters in season. Although this problem diminishes over the years as people learn where you are, it's still no fun to confront every sportsman who trespasses on your land.

Making Money

Another thought has probably crossed your mind by now: What about making money on marginal land? As I've already mentioned, farming is out of the question in most instances. It's hard enough for a small operator to make a profit on good flat acreage and almost impossible if you're working a slope.

One alternative is to take advantage of your woods. Depending on what kind of trees you have, you could log, cut firewood, grow nursery stock, or harvest Christmas trees. In some states, wooded land which will be used for commercial purposes is given a special "timberland" tax status. Such laws were really developed for the benefit of the large timber interests, but you should still apply for this classification if you can. Here in Oregon we declare 38 of our 40 acres as timberland, which is assessed at one-eighth of the ordinary evaluation while the remainder (space for houses, outbuildings, garden and orchard) is assessed at the full figure, giving us a substantial reduction on our tax bill.

Crafts—which don't usually require flat terrain or a lot of space—are another possibility. Or you could raise goats, or rabbits and earthworms in conjunction. We'd also like to recommend beekeeping as a reasonable way to bring in money with relatively little expense and work. A number of hives and a honey house take up only a small amount of land, and isolation is an advantage because there's less chance of competition from other apiaries. Since you're also less likely to have to worry about contamination from pesticides, you'll be able to produce an organic honey which is in great demand both economically and nutritionally.

And Finally... 

Even if you do have the money and the inclination for good farm acreage, you'll be wise to consider a tract which includes some marginal land. You could then situate some of your buildings on slopes, where they'd be protected from flooding and wouldn't use space in the more valuable fertile portions. The marginal area could also be a good source of wood and gravity-fed water. Make the best use of the hilly and flat areas on your place, and you'll have a sensibly arranged homestead that eliminates the drawbacks of both.


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