Homesteading on the Cheap, Part 1: Finding Land

| 6/26/2014 4:06:00 PM

Whether our desire to raise our own food stems from a growing concern about food additives, a passion for social justice, an aspiration to promote the humane treatment of animals, or a yearning to protest the way commercial foods are grown and processed, the obstacles we face are daunting. The intricacies of organic gardening and animal husbandry are a mystery to the beginner, and the learning curve for the truly determined dairyman or woman is steep. A primary difficulty lies in finding suitable land for the little farm of our dreams; and the price of such land when we find it is often considerable. So are the costs of outbuildings, fencing and watering systems, animals, feeds, fuel and fertilizers. Any one of these issues might be enough to discourage the would-be homesteader. There is hope, however; these obstacles may not be as great as they appear. At the Sow’s Ear, nearly 30 years of home food production have seen us go from growing some tomatoes in the backyard garden to overseeing a large, four-season organic garden, pastured poultry, a small intensively grazed Jersey herd for meat and dairy, home butchering, food preservation and cheesemaking. Those years have altered our opinion of what is actually necessary to begin a small, sustainable organic farmstead. It is our goal to dispel some common myths.

We’ll begin with finding suitable land. What constitutes “suitable” land for a small farmstead depends, of course, on what you plan to do with it. You may envision a permaculture paradise, a battalion of chicken tractors or a herd of miniature Jerseys. The difficulty is in finding any land at all that promises hope to your projected endeavor, and once you find it, in finding a piece that is for sale. Good farm land is accessible, cleared of rocks and superfluous trees, and with soil that is deep and fertile … and is precious, mostly held by people who, far from wanting to part with it, are holding on like grim death and looking to buy more. Rich, fertile farm land with a modest house, fences, outbuildings and stock water systems are occasionally to be found on the market, but the vast majority of these have price tags that would make Bill Gates stop and think, let alone us plain farmer types. Determined though we were to exchange our city rental home for a place in the country, after five years looking for just such an acreage we were still in the city, with a couple dozen tomato plants in the backyard but no nearer to our little farmstead.

Year six found us desperate to get out of town. When 17 acres of clayey, rocky trees-up-the-side-of-a-hill and a derelict house for just 11,000 dollars came to our attention, although it looked nothing like the farm of our dreams, we took a deep breath and jumped. Despite the extremely rough appearance of the house, inspection showed that it was essentially sound. The land was labeled “not suitable for agriculture” on state plat maps, and it wasn’t; at least, not the kind of mechanized agriculture the state recognizes. There wasn’t a flat spot on the place, the topsoil was thin to nonexistent, and most of the land was approaching the vertical. But 17 years later, our little piece of hillside is the heart of a small farm where we raise most of our own food and most of what our animals eat, without expensive equipment, outbuildings or inputs of feed, fuel or fertilizer. This land, which seemed to have no potential as a homestead, is bursting with life and fertility, producing enormous amounts of nutrition and hosting tremendous genetic diversity.

As homestead hunters, our first mistake had been overlooking the great potential in almost any piece of land. We were searching for fertility as though it were a mineral deposit, like gold or oil, something that either was there or was not, failing to recognize that fertility, in land, is a condition, something that can be changed with time and effort. Our steep, rocky acres were sour, infertile and completely unsuitable for mechanized agriculture, yes, but it was perfectly possible for determined people with hand tools, a chainsaw and a garden fork to clear the underbrush, let in some sunlight, and start adding organic matter to the soil. We did this, and 17 years later our garden soil is rich, light and full of worms, enabling us to raise virtually all our vegetables (we confess to a taste for avocadoes and oranges, which we cannot grow in eastern Ohio) for 10 people, year-round.  Our home pasture consisted of 5 acres of steep hillside that had been logged, compacted and then stripped of topsoil, but after only three years of intensive rotational grazing, it allowed us to graze two lactating Jerseys for nine months of the year with a minimum of grain and no additional hay. Today the forage in this pasture is a dense turf of mixed legumes and bunch grasses, deep-rooted to hold moisture in even prolonged dry periods; and this change was effected not with expensive permanent fencing, elaborate watering systems, commercial pasture grass seed mixes or fancy outbuildings, but with grazing animals, portable electric fence reels, captured water, low-pressure water valves and a simple shed. Obviously this land “not suitable for agriculture” was entirely suitable for growing a family’s food.

We venture to surmise that in most rural areas there are similar pockets of land, places that for a variety of reasons do not recommend themselves for methods of commercial farming or as conventional home sites with level yards and direct road access. For these reasons such sites may have low, even remarkably low, cash value; but in the hands of a creative person pursuing home food production, such a site has potential to become a flourishing smallholding, perhaps even more potential than would a flat, cleared parcel. One hidden advantage of such a place is the presence in it of a variety of microclimates, each susceptible to a different sort of culture. Wooded acres may contain nut or fruit trees, and lumber for building or firewood. South-facing slopes favor the gardener, while north-facing slopes, where fruit trees blossom later in the year, may be preferable for a small orchard (as the location discourages premature fruit set). A broad creek bottom in an east-west valley can mean fertile, well-watered soil with a long sun exposure, while marshy areas provide cover for wild birds that eat garden pests; and against a rocky outcropping, late vegetables may be buffered from frost damage by solar energy stored in the stones. What may look to the average buyer like a useless piece of land can be wealth to the small-scale food grower. 

There are certain qualities that are necessary to any farm place. Water, that without which there is no life, is a must, but water does not have to mean a generous well with water enough for domestic and farm use, or access to city water. Does the piece of land you are interested in have a stream or pond? Look at it, smell it: It may be of adequate quality for watering stock or gardens. Ask a neighbor about it: Where does it come from, does it flow all year, is the water clean? Your local Soil and Water Conservation office may have a circular to help you identify native animals and plants in your waterway that can indicate the purity of its source. (Caddis flies, for example, those little spidery insects that live in tubular houses of cemented sand and gravel, indicate a clean waterway.) If you are in any doubt, get it tested, by all means, especially if the area in which you are searching has a known source of contamination, such as a mine, dump or processing plant. The value of free captured water for your farm will quickly repay the expense of having it tested.

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