Farming the Right-of-Ways: Cultivable Land

Right-of-ways underneath power lines are often low rent and very cultivable for small-scale farming.

| March/April 1978

  • Children_Gardening_Righ-of-Ways
    Children and an adult farming in the right-of-ways near Fairfield, Ala.

  • Children_Gardening_Righ-of-Ways

Our family lives on the outskirts of metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, underneath the smokestacks of U.S. Steel's Fairfield plants. Our backyard consists of fill dirt and a rock garden, and because of the poor soil quality (and the abundance of shade trees), the cultivation of food crops on this land is out of the question.

About four years ago, our taxidermy business began to feel the economic crunch, and we watched nervously as food prices soared. "This is it," I told Denise (my wife) one day. "We have no choice. We've got to start raising our own vegetables." The only question was where.

Up until the time I was 10, gardening (which for me meant "weed-pulling") was a regular part of life since my father had always had a backyard garden in the city. But with my own family, I had no place to raise food or to pass on the gardening tradition that had been handed down through my father's family to me. Spurred on by the pressures of inflation, I began to look around for a place to make our "survival garden."

An Abundance of Unused Land: Right-of-Ways

In this search for cultivable land, I quickly discovered that most of the suitable acreage within reasonable driving distance from my home is owned by large corporations ... corporations that prefer to leave the acreage "as is" — or planted in pine forests — rather than lease it out to farmers. Late one afternoon, however as I was driving down the highway, I noticed that the land underneath the poles that carry the power company's high-tension lines was — for the most part — cleared and needed only to be bush-hogged and denuded of small trees and stumps to be made ready for gardening. Right then, I decided to look into the possibility of growing a garden on "right-of-way" land.

As I investigated this idea, I learned several important (and interesting) facts: [1] During the Great Depression, many power (and other) companies allowed their employees and friends to farm the right-of-ways for free. [2] Even today, a good many firms that own right-of-way land are happy to let people farm their holdings since the companies then aren't stuck with the burden of clearing trees and brush from beneath their lines. [3] The road access to right-of-way land is nearly always good. [4] Right-of-ways may be fenced parallel to (and — if the fence is made of wood — at right angles to) the powerlines. [5] Although some companies that have right-of-ways use herbicides under their lines (in which case the area is definitely NOT SUITABLE for farming), right-of-way acreage — as a rule — is very fertile and rich in soil nutrients, since in many cases, the ground has never been cultivated before. [6] One disadvantage of right-of-way land is that it often is not very flat.

Armed with this information, I went straight to the offices of a nearby steel company that owned a right-of-way just five minutes from my front doorstep. I talked for a few minutes with someone in the firm's Land Department and — with no trouble at all — arranged to lease 13 acres of right-of-way (with a good access road in and out and a gate to keep out vandals) for less than $8.00 per acre per year.

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