Off-Grid and Free: Considerations When Selecting Your Homestead Site

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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The Off-Grid and Free series recounts one homesteading couple’s journey to build a new homestead in Nova Scotia.Read the full series here. Find the author’s book, Off-Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, at Moon Willow Press.

Years before our move from the bush, we contemplated exactly where we would make our last stand as homesteaders. We pondered the location for our 3rd and final homestead and we wanted to make it count. We knew we wanted to be close to or on the ocean but the question was where. We considered British Columbia but property values are well above what we could afford. We looked in New Brunswick, Labrador and Newfoundland but ultimately settled on Nova Scotia.

Labrador and Newfoundland were awesome but the climate was cooler than what we sought. We had done the hard, remote access homesteading and gained valuable experience growing a garden in a sub-arctic location; but we’re not getting any younger so it was time to head to a more favorable climate. Here in Nova Scotia we still go down to zero or a tad below in the winters, but that sure beats -40°F to -50°F every winter.

You may have an interest to live off-grid or a desire to become more self-reliant. How does one begin the process? I know when I started so long ago, it was a completely foreign lifestyle than what I was accustomed to and I remember being overwhelmed but at the same time, I felt like an explorer seeing a new world for the first time. So exciting! We’ve gone through the same process for each of our three homesteads and it does get easier knowing the exact traits we seek in a property. One of the first questions to address is where do you want to live to pursue a more self-sufficient life?

Although some of the following had no bearing on our recent Nova Scotia decision, they were certainly relevant shopping points for the previous two homesteads.

Access to employment, proximity to family and reliable transportation such as bus or air travel are factors to consider. How about local pests and wild animals? Would a cloud of mosquitoes or black flies be unbearable? And don’t forget about Lyme disease and Zika associated with bugs and wildlife. One should at least be aware of the potential before settling on a homestead site. We knew in a northern climate we would have the mosquitoes and black flies to contend with and although miserable, there are far more benefits to our chosen location than there are negatives. You may need to alter your mindset if you are coming from a city environment in regards to wildlife such as bear, cougar, poisonous snakes and spiders. Not that they should deter you from a location you really like. It’s just dangers such as these should always be in the back of your mind so that there’s no surprises.

Wildlife. We’ve lived in bear country for 39 years and sustained some significant damage from them when we lived in the bush of northern Saskatchewan. When we walked out the door, we weren’t afraid, we simply were mindful that we might encounter a bear. For anybody in the bush, the vast majority of time, any bear will be just as surprised as you and will high-tail out of there in a big hurry. Even the bear that smacked my foot in the middle of the night while I slept soundly under the stars in my sleeping bag didn’t stick around when I sat bolt upright and shooed it away. (memo to self: no need to repeat that experience again)

Zoning for livestock. Other considerations are checking into zoning laws and ordinances that would prohibit you from having animals, a wind turbine or water catchment for example. And as a side note, as a general rule, I would not recommend installing a wind turbine. In some future post, I’ll expound on the topic but suffice it to say that these days, it is far more economical and reliable to install more solar panels than a mechanical device such as a wind turbine. The cost for solar panels has come way down.

Proximity to fire station, ambulance and utilities such as power and phone will need to be considered as well. Don’t forget to check into the taxation for the area. What is the mil rate and how fast are taxes rising each year?

Legality. Any property purchased must have clear title and legal access. Ideally, the property lines are surveyed so proper homestead layout can commence without worry of whether you are on your own property or not. Your homestead is not only an investment in money, but also an investment in hard but satisfying labor and the last thing you need is to be establishing yourself on the neighboring property.

Remoteness. We’re not antisocial people but we enjoy our privacy and don’t feel the need to be surrounded by people. We are comfortable being out on our own. So when we assessed our Nova Scotia property for the exact homestead location, a site that gave us the feel of isolation was perfect. Then we needed to assess the site’s soil quality. We bashed through the forest and found what looked like an old field with young forest regenerating and thought this spot might just work. We lugged in a shovel and started digging a few test holes around the old field. It was a relief to find there was actual soil to work with. That’s always a good start.

Soil. Poor or non existent soil isn’t a deal breaker but it sure makes gardening more difficult. There are gardening methods such as hay/straw bale, keyhole and raised bed gardens which can be used in the event of ledge and rock. Soil can be built over time and/or a load of topsoil can be delivered as another option. The bigger the property you have to work with, the more options you will have to find a source of soil.

Ecosystem. We are forest people and love being surrounded by trees. So for us, that was an important consideration when selecting a property. Not only for the aesthetics of our surroundings but because the forest is an integral part of our plans. We not only use the forest to provide a source of heat for our home and to cook with on our wood cook stove but we have selectively thinned the forest to provide income; we have left the forests in much better shape than when we arrived. In Maine, it was gratifying to have received a couple of awards for County Outstanding Tree Farm for our forestry efforts. The income we generated from our forestry efforts in Maine helped buy our supplies and equipment needed on our homestead so if you own a forested property, don’t overlook that as a source of income.

Solar resource. One piece of gear that we always use is a simple compass. Any property we’ve sought had to have a southern exposure and the compass set properly for the declination of our area tells us where due south is. Declination must be factored in if one is to orient the house, greenhouse and/or solar panels to the proper location. Declination takes into account the fact that geographic north, the axis on which the earth rotates, is not the same as magnetic north which is a phenomenon created by earth’s molten iron core. A compass points to magnetic north which will likely not point to true north in your location. That variation between the two is called declination and can vary by as much as plus/minus 20 degrees in North America. Hence the need to account for it.

Ideally, the solar panels, house and greenhouse face due south so using my compass gave us a good idea of where south was. Since this was forested property, knowing where south was showed how much of the forest would need to be cut in front of any proposed house to give a shadow free solar orientation.

Since we have a large acreage and the lines were not well marked at the time, I checked, double checked and then triple checked to make sure we were well within our property boundaries before commencing any clearing work.

Let’s sharpen the chainsaw and don our safety gear; we have a lot of work ahead clearing the future homestead site. Sure, we could be like normal people and have a bull dozer thrash and bash to clear our spot in a hurry, but what fun would that be?

Ron Melchiore  and his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published byMoon Willow Pressand is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are collaborating on a new, as of yet, unnamed homesteading book which should be published 2019. Connect with Ron atIn theWildernessand onFacebookand Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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