Homesteading on the Cheap, Part 1: Finding Land

Reader Contribution by Shawn And Beth Dougherty
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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.

On the Sow’s Ear, our animals drink water captured from two slow but reliable springs and three barn roofs, and our gardens receive unlimited water from two small creeks diverted through plain garden hose. Seeps (that is, slow, surface springs) and small springs may be improved at low cost; many require only a pick and shovel for digging a trench below the frost line, some inexpensive perforated pipe or “tile,” and a ton or two of gravel. Simple diagrams for spring improvement are available from most extension offices or the local Soil and Water Conservation District. These offices even have personnel who will visit your land and advise you about ways to improve or conserve your natural water sources. Your tax dollars are already paying for this service, and here’s your chance to use it; in our experience, these people are knowledgeable and helpful. Make a careful examination, however, of any government incentive programs designed to help you offset the cost of expensive improvements; the small print for these grants may commit you to restrictions on the further use of your land. Once you are enrolled in a subsidy program you may fall under state or federal jurisdiction for wetlands, for example, and lose the right to make your own decisions about draining a swampy bit of ground (in government parlance, “wetlands”), or improving a section of creek as a water crossing (“damaging riparian waterways”).

Improving springs is one way to use naturally present sources for watering stock; small creeks can provide another. Graveled creek crossings, if access is limited, can provide reliable water for livestock. A
 creek that passes through a culvert offers a sterling opportunity for low-cost, simple technology water capture. A bucket or tub plumbed at the upper rim with a hose fitting may be placed under the flow from a culvert, and water diverted through a simple garden hose to any point lower than the tub itself. Such simple means can provide fresh, constantly running water to stock tanks or gardens, or even made to fill a small pond. We are doing all three.

Everyone knows about rain barrels, but for the really determined home food producer the 55-gallon barrels that are usually employed simply don’t hold enough water. Even a modest rainfall on a small roof will fill such a barrel in no time, after which the overflow is lost. And during a dry spell of any duration, one of these small barrels is less than adequate to water the livestock or keep a medium-to-large garden from drying out. Why not buy several 300-gallon water hogs (otherwise known as “intermediate bulk containers” or IBCs) instead? Plumbed together at the spigot with PVC pipe, these can be made to fill simultaneously from a roof downspout or French drain outlet, providing hundreds of gallons of water for garden or stock. Our four-tank array stores adequate water for eight cows for 10 days, even in the hottest summer weather, and a single tank at the side of the barn allows us two weeks to water seedlings daily while they are small and need special care.

Watering systems for livestock are usually designed around pressurized water; that is, water (whether from a well or a city water system) that is delivered under high pressure like the water in your pipes at home. Pressurized water must be buried below the frost line of your area so that the pipes do not freeze and crack in the winter. Such systems are beautifully convenient but expensive and labor-intensive to install. The home food producer who practices intensive rotational grazing needs to be able to water his stock anywhere he has grass, and this may be easily and inexpensively accomplished with half-barrels, garden hose and captured water, which is free and nearly always delivered at low pressure. We are fortunate that the livestock industry has developed several excellent low-pressure valves for just such water sources: Hudson valves and jobe floats are inexpensive water flow regulators for the small-scale grazier. Plumbed to the inside of a small tank or half-barrel, they can be hooked up to a regular garden hose gravity-fed from a rain barrel or spring tank, and the array moved daily along with the animals by a single person of average strength.

Pasture is necessary, of course, if your home food production is to include ruminants, unless you are able and willing to provide your animals with ample barn space and pre-harvested grass (hay) and grain. In some ways, the non-pasture method makes for lighter chores, but the expense of feed will considerably offset, if not outweigh, any savings in meat or dairy products. And other complications (vet bills, for example, because barn-kept animals are more prone to disease, foot rot, vitamin deficiencies and other health problems) will also diminish the overall convenience. Pastured animals, on the other hand, get the food most natural to them, and rotationally grazed animals get the best of the best. For most of us, the word “pasture” evokes images of something flat, grassy and fenced; for the more experienced, it may also imply a good turf of legumes and mixed grasses. But pasture land can be expensive or even out of reach, forcing us to think creatively about what is necessary to a pasture. Soil of at least some description is a must; plants, as well; but it is permissible that the green meadow of our dreams may, like the fertility mentioned earlier, be present only in potential; it need not already exist. In fact, if it is only a potential when you purchase the land, chances are you are going to pay a lot less for it. A purchase of 4 acres of scrubby undergrowth and raspberry cane will generally cost much less than an equal area of clover and timothy. But a couple of years of judicial rotational grazing ( perhaps with goats in the beginning, graduating to cows after a year or two, with some imported hay initially to supplement the forage and add organic matter to the soil) can transform a sour, rocky vacant lot into a green pasture of great biodiversity, healthy in itself and able to give health to the ruminants that graze on it. When you think “pasture,” don’t think square, fenced, flat or green; look instead for the pasture-in-potential that may hide under an unpromising-looking but low-priced acreage.

If the piece of land you are considering has tight fences, that’s great; but if it hasn’t, you may assume that means you have to spend thousands of dollars on high-tensile, vinyl, woven-wire or board fences. Before you invest your time, labor and capital, consider this question: How much of the land needs to be fenced, and what sort of animals, and how many, are to be confined? On level land a single animal may be tethered, as we did with our first brush-clearing wether goat, Souflaki. Later our goat herd included several Saanen and Nubian does, also tethered. One day our lead doe, Ginger, tripped in a steep place and couldn’t get back on her feet. Gravity pulled her further and further down the hill until her collar was tight and her breathing compromised. Fortunately, our farm is small and we spend most of our time outdoors, so her predicament was discovered before it was too late. After that, we knew we needed to come up with some kind of fence for our little dairy flock. Nevertheless, the year or two we tethered the goats allowed us to use them to clear the land while we learned to care for them and began to learn dairying. It also gave us the opportunity to discover by experience where our fences, when we got them, would do the most good … all before we had to dig up the money for good, tight fences. 

Perimeter fences are good security, but lack of a tight perimeter does not necessarily mean you can’t begin grazing cattle. Management intensive rotational grazing is the ideal way to improve your pastures, or what will one day be your pastures, and this can be begun with one or two young dairy steers and some portable electric fencing. A few hundred dollars will buy ample polywire, a pair of reels, two or three dozen step-in posts and a two-joule charger, all that is necessary to begin repairing your turf and filling your freezers with delicious, naturally marbled, almost-free Jersey beef. Baby Jersey bulls are among the least prized of farm stock, often to be had free or for a few dollars at a commercial dairy or auction barn. These babies are frequently delicate, suffering from the endemic germs of a large confinement operation, but with care they can be raised to a butchering weight of four or five hundred pounds in eighteen months on grass alone, saving the first ten weeks or so when they will require milk or milk replacer. Their carcasses are smaller than those of beef breeds, but for the person seeking food independence this may be an advantage, because it makes home butchering and food preservation easier. Our Jersey steers are generally docile animals, especially when young, and two reels of wire allow us to leap-frog them from paddock to paddock without ever turning them loose. Naturally, care and discretion must be used when pasturing animals in proximity to a road or a neighbor’s garden, because the farmer will be liable for any damage they cause if they go wandering.

Intensive grazing generally means portable electrical fencing, which means a fence charger and a source of power, but you don’t necessarily have to spend the thousands of dollars it takes to have electricity run out to the pasture. The food producer who intends to practice managed intensive rotational grazing may charge his fences with small solar electric cells or dry cell batteries charged with house current. These sources have the additional advantage that they can be moved to different areas of the farm as needed. We may dream of a tight, six-strand, high-tensile electric perimeter fence from which our portable fences may be powered, but if the cost of installing permanent fence is beyond our reach, we can begin small with solar or battery-charged fences. If in a few years we can afford the improvement, the experience we will have acquired will help us know what configuration of fence and gates will be most convenient for our uses.

Then there are outbuildings. The classic red barn is a charming structure, but most animals can make do with something much simpler for shelter. Unfortunately, most how-to books emphasize the ideal, not the adequate. They abound in blueprints for $2,000 chicken palaces, air-conditioned horse hotels, and dairy barns with self-cleaning gutters. For the adventurer with a dream of food independence who doesn’t happen to have a small fortune, these books can be discouraging; but although cement floors, circulating fans, and hot and cold water systems are great conveniences, they are principally for the convenience of the farmer, not the animals, and if convenience is really our goal, the greatest convenience will probably be to scotch the farm and buy our food at Walmart. For those of us who want to win nourishment by the labor of our hands, however, a little inconvenience in our early years of farming is a small price to pay for finding ourselves food independent.

In most climates, ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) have little or no need for expensive housing. Some kind of shelter in extreme heat or cold may be all that is necessary, shelter being as simple as a grove of trees or a three-sided run-in shed that backs to the prevailing wind. Sheds can be made of recycled or salvaged materials, and if in a dry location may have dirt floors. If outbuildings serve multiple uses, all the better. Our first barn was a 10-by-14 pole shed sided with old roofing tin. One end was enclosed, and the floor paved with old brick, to provide the chickens with predator-proof night housing; the other side was open and served as a run-in shelter for the goats and a guard pony. As our livestock increased we built a second barn, again of salvaged materials. This rough structure, squeezed against the side of the hill, has three pens in the lower level for feeder pigs, lambing sheep, and gardening tools; the upper barn is used for hay storage, with four box stalls on one side for housing young bucket calves. Initial investment is small, the simple construction methods mean that the work can be done by beginners with little experience, and combined use saves money and space.Although the red barn and board fence farm of our dreams may be beyond our financial reach, we don’t need red barns and board fences to get started on our dreams of food independence.

A growing conviction that the present food-production systems upon which we are dependent are compromising our health and the health of our nation’s soil, is inclining more and more people to consider what we can do individually to improve our nutritional sources and contribute to the re-greening of our land. Many of us, in addition, are seeking to discover a lifestyle in which not all of our needs are provided through the medium of monetary exchange. We have an innate desire to work with our hands and with nature to provide at least some of our necessaries, to improve the piece of the earth on which we live, to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of well-tended gardens and healthy livestock. In the initial effort to make a change of lifestyle, don’t let misconceptions about what is necessary to a family-size farmstead discourage you in the search for that small rural acreage, reasonably priced, where you can begin to realize your dreams. 

In our next post, we’ll take a look at how to Foil the Feed Bill.

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