Homesteading on Marginal Land

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Don’t shy away from steep or weedy land?—?you can restore it to health.
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Mobile chicken tractors of various sizes come in handy for protecting birds from predators while they perform pest control and fertilize the soil.
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A larger chicken tractor.
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Mixed-species grazing allows each plant species time to recover after being grazed.
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Goat- and sheep-powered brush removal make use of the natural characteristics of hilly, neglected land.
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The entire farm benefits from a few cows transforming pasture into nutrient-packed milk.
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A pipe delivers a small, steady stream of water from a pasture seep to a tank.
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The stream with healthy bank vegetation after flash grazing.

Many of us share the ideal of finding a place in the country where we can grow good, clean food in an environment of our choosing — a home, and perhaps a refuge in tumultuous times. A retreat. A haven. Despite the idyllic image, high land prices and an overall lack of affordable farms can make what should be an exciting bid for independence feel like brooding defeat. But what if we were to realize that little farms can be found in practically every locale, hidden from view and just waiting for a budding farmer to adopt them? And what if these small farms were among the most reasonably priced land out there?

It may sound too good to be true, but all land is, well, land, and most of it will grow something, however abused or neglected it’s been. When we realize this, our homestead possibilities suddenly widen. Modern homesteaders can partner with their own animals to take poor, neglected, or abused land and rebuild it into a fertile, regenerative ecosystem. Any place with dirt and water, ruminants, and a farmer to manage them can be a homestead.

A Discouraging Search for Land

We didn’t know this 20 years ago. Our purchase of a small plot, designated “not suitable for agriculture” by the state of Ohio, was less an act of hope than one of desperation. Even looking for a farm had been intimidating. Real estate agents seemed unwilling to respect our desire to stay under budget — something we felt was necessary to save money for farm improvements — and they insisted on showing us properties that were out of our price range. Depressing as this was, it gave us an idea of what was out there, as did searching the classifieds, where nice places commanded astronomical prices. Anything in our ballpark was postage-stamp small or completely vertical. All the good places seemed to be taken already.

We began cruising back roads, searching for anything that looked unloved. We waded through briar-infested yards to peer through broken windows and poke into spider-haunted barns. We read bulletin boards in area grocery stores and gas stations. Our image of a picture-perfect Old MacDonald farm began to give way to something not only more affordable, but also much more realistic. We simplified our expectations and eliminated barns, fences, and stock water systems from our “must have” list — those things could be improvised, after all — and searched instead for land that wasn’t completely inaccessible, and that had some kind of house.

Still, when we picked our way down a steep, overgrown track to see an $11,000 house and 17 acres offered through a terse ad in the local classifieds, we weren’t thinking, “This is it!”. The rocky hillside was covered in trash, trees, and briars. Although the small house was structurally sound, it had unhinged doors, broken windows, and dangling fixtures. It was far from the farm of our dreams, but it would get us out of the city. We figured we could fix it up and sell it later, making enough to afford a down payment on a real farm. Little did we know, the day we started hauling away trash and drove in a picket for the goat tether, we were already beginning to build a diverse ecosystem.

Marginal Land Worth Improving

Looking back, we were lucky in several ways. In addition to two small creeks that converged on the property, our steep land would help us move captured water from one point to another. Our east-west-oriented hollow would capture more sunlight on its south-facing side than we could’ve hoped for if the valley ran north to south. And the variations in slope and aspect also meant the land had many microclimates: warm, cool, wet, dry, sunny, and shaded, in many combinations. Finally, our nearest neighbors also had a little cleared land they weren’t using — too bare, steep, and rocky to be called a pasture — and which they were willing to lend to us.

We had a lot to do, so we dove right in. It was only natural that, as the goats merrily chomped through the thorny undergrowth that sprawled over most of our property, we should find ourselves moving them almost daily to new grazing areas. A light went on when we stumbled on books and videos by Joel Salatin, Greg Judy, and Allan Savory. Moving our goats daily reduced tall top growth, added manure and urine, disturbed the soil surface, and allowed long rest periods for the land — activities that built up the topsoil and let sunlight in to encourage the growth of grasses and legumes. We’d reinvented a rudimentary form of rotational grazing!

We refined our methods according to these experts’ advice, and in a remarkably short time, the briars were in retreat. Weedy grass moved in at first, but gave way over time to rich volunteer carpets of clover and orchard grass, perennial rye, and tall bluegrass. We added a dairy cow and a calf, followed by a handful of sheep, and the different dietary needs of each species had complementary impacts on forage growth. Previously rocky and eroded slopes lost their sharp edges under this mix of hooves. Grass seeds driven into the soil were given time to germinate and establish, softening our steep hillsides with thick greenery. The neighbors, at first openly skeptical, became enthusiastic and offered us the use of their neglected field. Their field also responded quickly to the influx of carbon and manure that our animals’ periodic grazing provided.

Our thin, rocky soil made gardening in intensive raised beds almost a necessity. With all the free soil amendments we could scavenge — including piles of unwanted manure from neighbors with horses, and rotted sawdust from a local mill — our soil improvement program took off. Eventually, we added pigs to the farm workforce, and their composted bedding built up the raised beds where we grew winter greens and root vegetables year-round under low tunnels. Having initially fenced the chickens out of the garden, we began fencing them in, using our poultry to clean empty raised beds, turn deep mulch, and graze and till beds planted with green manures. In addition to their garden work, the chickens served as fertilizer spreaders in the pasture, where they scratched through manure piles looking for seeds and insects. They laid plenty of orange-yolked eggs for our breakfast table too.

Livestock Watering Without Electricity

With our animals constantly out grazing, we had to find ways to provide them water in the pasture. Carrying water in buckets to our tethered goats could be a good workout, but dairy cows require many more gallons of water per day. Our well was barely adequate for our household needs. Very short-term grazing along the sides of our two creeks — a practice called “flash grazing” — had smoothed the exposed soil and allowed grass to grow to water level, strengthening the banks and protecting them against floods. But we had pastures to graze away from the creeks, which couldn’t support year-round grazing anyway. So we installed lengths of perforated French-drain pipe in perennially damp spots in our upper pasture, and directed this captured water into inexpensive used shipping containers with 300-gallon capacities. We gravity-fed the water through ordinary garden hoses to half-barrels equipped with stock-water valves. Even our children could easily drag the half-barrels to anywhere in the pasture, and we had water everywhere on the farm without using our challenged aquifer. We could even put running water in the barn!

Sunshine to Rocket Fuel

Our goats’ milk had been a happy source of good, fresh fats and proteins to pour over our morning bowls of oatmeal, or to turn into tart feta. But Isabel, the Jersey cow, and her calf brought further revolution to the farm. Our daily allotment of sunshine was being transformed into rocket fuel.

Initially somewhat intimidated by the quantities in which it was being delivered — a grass-fed Jersey can produce multiple gallons of milk daily for much of the year — we soon discovered all the ways that milk is the premier source of high-quality, home-produced fat and protein for every appetite on the farm. Our table overflowed with butter, hard and soft cheeses, yogurt, kefir, sour cream, and more. Plus, the dairy surplus and byproducts provided invaluable farm fuel. Milk feeds the whole farm: calves; pigs, which can grow from weanling to slaughter weight on whey and grass alone; and poultry, which require no other protein supplement in their ration than clabbered raw milk, while young birds fortified with raw milk resist coccidiosis. The farm dogs and cats, our guardians and pest-control systems, benefited from milk too.

A low-level dilution of raw milk is a proven antifungal drench for the garden. Diluted whey is also excellent plant food, either as a side dressing or a foliar feed, and it gives bacterial activity in the compost pile a tremendous boost of sugars, proteins, and beneficial microorganisms.

At Long Last, Self-Sufficiency on the Farm

Our farming took on a whole new dimension with the advent of the grass-fed Jersey cow. We weren’t dabblers anymore. Our poultry and garden would have been overwhelmed by the milk our cow produced, inspiring us to purchase our first pig. Garden and food waste we’d been composting instead started to go to the pigs, where it was transformed into bacon and pork chops, as well as vast quantities of nitrogen-saturated carbon in the form of soiled bedding for the compost bins. Practically everything on our table came from our small acreage. We routinely sat down to a bountiful array of fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits, and eggs, as well as meat, butter, milk, and cheese from our exclusively grass-fed animals. And while the flavor and quality of our diet skyrocketed, our grocery and feed bills plummeted. Our land fed us with the highest-quality food we had ever eaten, and our farming practices fed the land as well, visibly building soil, fertility, diversity, and drought- and flood-resistance.

Building a local foodshed isn’t just a romantic dream. The first step is no farther than the nearest abandoned acreage, and you don’t need a degree in environmental science to apply — start with whatever’s already growing, some grazing animals, and a little daily devotion. We can restart the ecological give-and-take that grew our soil in the first place. In fact, it’s the investment tip of the century: Build prosperity and abundance straight from the earth. So, welcome, newbie farmers! Affordable farms are everywhere, right under our noses. All we have to do is begin.

The Basic Land Checklist

For those of us who’ve never owned land, knowing what to look for can be a little overwhelming. We found it helpful to make a list of priorities:

Location. Know where you want to be, based on factors from family and employment to climate and cultural conditions. If you’re thinking of producing goods for sale, where are your customers? Understand the market potential in the region you’re considering.

Accessibility. Before you submit an offer, make sure you know how you’re going to get in and out of your land. Also consider the route for any large equipment you plan to bring in or out — a wind turbine, for example, or a truckload of building materials.

Water. Before you seriously consider any piece of land, make sure it has ample water year-round. Where is it coming from — is it well, spring, surface, or city water — how good is it, and is it accessible all 12 months of the year?

Residence. Are you going to live on this land? Doing so isn’t a necessity — living within a short walk or drive of your farm can give you the privileges of small town or village residence as well as many of the benefits and pleasures of farm life. But if you do plan to live on your land, you’ll need some sort of dwelling. Know what your minimum requirements are: The simpler your needs are, the more pieces of land you can consider, and the cheaper they’ll be.

Previous use. How has the land been treated in the past? Mining can leave heavy metals in the soil; so can other kinds of land management. Commercial animal production may also nix plans to raise certain species on your land; an outbreak of hog cholera on a nearby farm left it potentially unsafe for raising pigs for more than 30 years. Old building sites may have hidden potholes or imperfectly filled cellars, as well as fiberglass or asbestos hazards. Ask as many questions as you can about the land before you make an offer.

Neighbors. Getting acquainted with potential neighbors is useful. Introduce yourself, ask questions, and listen to the answers. Neighboring land use can affect your future plans, as when you discover an avid grower of rare roses right next to where you planned your goat-grazing operation. Local knowledge of a parcel’s previous use can help with farm planning too, such as when a neighbor mentions a spot that floods every April, saving you a poorly placed spring garden bed. You might be able to exchange land care for pasture space — the bulk of our pasture actually belongs to three different sets of neighbors. Remember that you’ll be entering an established social structure wherever you buy land. Consider how your strongest opinions and most idiosyncratic behaviors will fit into the culture of the place you’re hoping to live.

Premiums. Keep an eye out for unexpected assets. Trees will provide shade, lumber, and firewood. Surface water can serve as irrigation, stock water, a fishing spot, or a swimming hole. Neighbors might give you manure, and their unused fields might be available for lease or lend. Established fruit or nut trees, berry canes, and bushes will produce years before you can expect your new plantings to do so. South-facing slopes, wind breaks, and shelterbelts are all substantial assets.

So if you’re looking for farmland, keep a weather eye out for neglected corners you can bring to life. They’re more common than you might think.

Beth and Shawn Dougherty have been farming together for more than 30 years, and have spent the last 20 years on the Sow’s Ear, the homestead described in this article. Their book The Independent Farmstead goes into greater detail on the intensive farming techniques they’ve used to manage their land. Find them online at One Cow Revolution.