Living on Marginal Land

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Keeping livestock might be possible if you have a plateau on your land.
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You can even have a bike if you want, though riding downhill will be easier than riding up.
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Living on marginal land, you'll have to build a platform if you want a home with more or less horizontal floors.
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A wooden track can help move this up or down a hillside.

If you’ve been following rural land prices over the past
few years, you’ve probably been amazed at how rapidly the
value of acreage has increased in many parts of the
country. If you’re salting away money to buy your own
homestead, in fact, the growth of your savings may only
just be matching the rising price for the type of land you
want. Then, if you do buy, the interest rates you’ll pay
are exploitative and sometimes prohibitive, particularly
if you move onto your place right away and try to make a
living off it.

What to do? Well, you could save your money and wait for a
possible recession or depression. Or you could forsake the
dreams of owning property in your favorite area–which
is becoming flooded by retirement homes, with a resulting
drastic increase in land values–and move to one of
this country’s poorer rural sections where prices are still
relatively low. Or you could consider yet another
possibility: Buy sloping land.

Over five years ago (June 1969), our group–which now
numbers eight adults and one infant–purchased 40
acres of hillside in southern Oregon. At the time, livable
tracts of this kind were selling at about one-fourth to
one-fifth the cost of flat, tillable acreage. Today the
local price of land similar to ours has almost doubled, but
level farmland has skyrocketed too.

Why live do a slope? [1] We preferred to purchase our place
outright rather than hassle with payments, [2] we wanted a
lot of land (so it had to be cheap by the acre), [3] we had
no desire to do any more than subsistence food growing and
[4] we were looking for isolation.

After much experience with hillside living, we’d like to
share our feelings and knowledge with others who are
interested in buying what’s commonly called “marginal”
land. A tract so described can be gently sloping to steep
and may include small patches of relatively flat ground.
The term may also, of course, apply to part of a parcel
which is mainly farm acreage. No matter what portion of the
land is hilly, it will be cheaper per acre than flat,
cleared property in the same area. But price is only one
factor to consider before you buy.

Slope Management

Let’s think first about the slope of the land and how it
will affect your life. Obviously, the less grade the
better: You’ll spend a lot of your time walking up and
down, which can be a drag (particularly in wet, muddy
weather). Still, that activity does put you in shape and
you’ll notice the hills less the longer you live on such a

Another disadvantage to a slope is that–unless you
own a four-wheel-drive vehicle–you’ll have limited
access to the steeper portions when you’re hauling
construction materials, manure, firewood, or anything else
that’s heavy and bulky. It’s possible to pull some building
supplies and logs fairly easily, downhill, but not up.

One way to get manure to gardens and orchards, and fire
wood to houses, is to rig up a cart or trailer which can be
lowered with a strong rope or cable attached to a trucks on
your road. We’ve also used trams and slides with success.
Just be sure you have plenty of access for motor transport,
and that most of your acreage is below the road.

Of course, a four-wheel-drive vehicle solves those problems
for most of the year. The best strategy is to make sure
you’ve got enough money left over to buy one after
you’ve bought the land!

Water Access 

Flatland folks usually have to pump the water they use for
irrigation and in their homes from wells or some abovegroud
source. This entails the initial expense of the necessary
machinery plus its maintenance and the cost of the energy
to run it. People on marginal property, however, can make
use of inexpensive, pollution-free gravity-flow supplies.

Near the top of the slope on our place we have a small dam
which collects water and empties it into a 600-gallon
storage tank located just below the dam and off to the
side. At the bottom of this reinforced concrete reservoir
(cost of constructiontion: only $50.00) are outlet pipes
that distribute the water to several buildings and to our
garden and orchard.

Some friends of ours a few miles away live on sloping land
with a sizable creek. Since they have no need to store
water, their pipes for irrigation and home use are simply
placed in the stream at the top of their property. (Of
course, surface water must always be checked for
contamination before it’s used for drinking and bathing.)

Speaking of water, it’s good to know that–as the
owner of marginal land–you’ll be high and safe during
floods. And in more normal times you’ll have good drainage
around your buildings and in your orchard … where this
factor can be very important to the health of your tree.

Growing Food 

Before you buy a hillside spread, you should consider the
several pros and cons of growing food on it. First,
remember that marginal land is the last to be developed for
farming (it’s generally wooded, large machinery doesn’t
work it well and–in any case–the pioneers were
attracted to the more fertile soil of the valley below).
Therefore, you’re probably going to have to clear your
garden and orchard area, and clearing land,
particularly by hand, is hard work. One consolation: The
process at least gives you poles for building and firewood.

On the plus side, marginal property is often separated by
some distance from valley land, which reduces the risk of
entrenched harmful pests on your cultivated food plants and
trees. Then, too, those woods around your garden and
orchard make a nice windbreak and cut down on the chances
of frost. And, since you’re probably located above a
valley, you’ll realize yet another plus for your crops: At
night, warm air from the land below rises and creeps up the
surrounding slopes. This increases the ground-level
temperature and stretches the growing season. We reckon
ours to be one to two months longer than that in the
valley, thanks to earlier last frosts in the spring and
later first autumn frosts.

One more point: If possible, get sloping land that has a
southern exposure. You’ll be a lot happier in the long run.
We didn’t think about this when we bought our place, and
settled for a north-facing hillside. The result is less
light for our crops in the spring and fall, and a winter
with lots of cold winds and little sun to keep up our

Coping With Isolation

Since marginal acreage has been much less popular for
development than flat tracts (especially in the West),
you’re likely to be somewhat isolated–maybe miles
from the nearest neighbor. Your place might border on
public lands, and could even be virgin. Such a life, of
course, can be very peaceful. When you’re really off in the
woods–alone or with good friends–your pace is
slower, you won’t hear much traffic (unless there’s logging
nearby!) and it’ll be a lot easier to commune with nature.
Still, this condition does have its negative aspects which become obvious fairly soon.

One problem is that roads to marginal areas are often
primitive and poorly maintained. This probably means you’ll
be stuck a lot in mud and snow. Also–although getting
away from it all sounds good now–you might find later
that electricity for blenders, power tools, etc., would be
a real blessing, and that a phone sure would eliminate a
lot of hassles. Unfortunately, the farther back you are,
the less chance there is that these hookups will be
available on your land. The nearest powerlines are two
miles from our place and the cost of bringing them up here
would be thousands of dollars. Since our stream isn’t large
enough for a small hydroelectric system, our only option is
a noisy, polluting gas generator.

Another drawback of isolation is that we have many more
wild animals around than there are down in the more
populated valley. We have to elevate our hives on platforms
or surround them with electrified wire to keep the bears
from robbing them. Coyotes, mountain lions, and the like
endanger our goats and chickens, and deer will go on
nibbling our garden and orchard until we have the time and
money to fence them out. Also, where there are deer and
bear, you can expect lots of hunters in season. Although
this problem diminishes over the years as people learn
where you are, it’s still no fun to confront every
sportsman who trespasses on your land.

Making Money

Another thought has probably crossed your mind by now: What
about making money on marginal land? As I’ve already
mentioned, farming is out of the question in most
instances. It’s hard enough for a small operator to make a
profit on good flat acreage and almost impossible if
you’re working a slope.

One alternative is to take advantage of your woods.
Depending on what kind of trees you have, you could log,
cut firewood, grow nursery stock, or harvest Christmas
trees. In some states, wooded land which will be used for
commercial purposes is given a special “timberland” tax
status. Such laws were really developed for the benefit of
the large timber interests, but you should still apply for
this classification if you can. Here in Oregon we declare
38 of our 40 acres as timberland, which is assessed at
one-eighth of the ordinary evaluation while the remainder
(space for houses, outbuildings, garden and orchard) is
assessed at the full figure, giving us a substantial
reduction on our tax bill.

Crafts–which don’t usually require flat terrain or a
lot of space–are another possibility. Or you could
raise goats, or rabbits and earthworms in conjunction. We’d
also like to recommend beekeeping as a reasonable way to
bring in money with relatively little expense and work. A
number of hives and a honey house take up only a small
amount of land, and isolation is an advantage because
there’s less chance of competition from other apiaries.
Since you’re also less likely to have to worry about
contamination from pesticides, you’ll be able to produce an
organic honey which is in great demand both economically
and nutritionally.

And Finally… 

Even if you do have the money and the inclination for good
farm acreage, you’ll be wise to consider a tract which
includes some marginal land. You could then situate some of
your buildings on slopes, where they’d be protected from
flooding and wouldn’t use space in the more valuable
fertile portions. The marginal area could also be a good
source of wood and gravity-fed water. Make the best use of
the hilly and flat areas on your place, and you’ll have a
sensibly arranged homestead that eliminates the drawbacks
of both.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368