Hunting For Your Dream Place

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

I have a hunch that at no previous time in modern history have there been more people getting ready for their long planned-for move to a garden farm than right now. For one thing there is a good chance that a dip in farmland prices, if not a nosedive, might be coming soon, like in the housing market, making land more affordable for those who have been saving for just that purpose. But whether that is true or not, there’s a vast discontent with the high standard of living we’re supposed to be enjoying. We are at the end of the era of unbelievably wasteful consumption and many people are realizing that the old adage is again appropriate: “Root, hog, or die.”

The perfect place for a garden farm probably doesn’t exist, but in hunting for one, you should be aware of some practical assets that you may not have considered. I am referring mainly to those priceless attributes that can come with a piece of property, often at no  extra cost, but which you can’t supply on your own or can only add over a long period of time. There is also land that comes with negative assets that make it sell cheaper but which you can take advantage of or change for the better. I call it paying attention to the W’s:  water, woods, and would-be wasteland.

1. Obviously, the first thing you want to look for is fertile ground. The soil on the perfect garden farm would be a deep rich loam over a naturally well-drained, mineral-rich subsoil, have an organic matter content of over 3% and a pH rating of around 6.5 but most of that kind of land isn’t for sale except in small nooks and crannies not easily accessible to big farm machinery.  In most counties, you can consult soil survey maps that have been developed by the Soil Conservation Service to help you find where the better land is located in any given area. When you scout for good soil by doing windshield surveys, observe the crops and gardens growing in the area you are traversing. Not even the most skillful farmer or gardener can grow good crops on poor land. Note the state of farmhouses and barns. Fine, well-kept farmsteads bespeak good soil, and obviously, good places to put down roots— literally and figuratively.

2. A mature woodlot on your garden farm is invaluable for keeping a house warm and for cooking, at least in emergencies or when other fuels become prohibitively expensive. Five acres of well-managed mature forest will supply you with at least four cords of wood every year, and with some lumber for building too. If you’ve purchased any boards from a lumber yard lately you know you can carry a hundred bucks’ worth out to your truck under one arm. Woodlots make wonderful windbreaks and air conditioners too.

3. A spring, even a seep spring that you can dig out and develop into a little pool, is a priceless gift on the garden farm as a water supply for livestock or, with precautions, for your own home use, or to fill a pond. In bygone times, springs were funneled into spring houses to keep milk and other foods cool or apples from shriveling in storage.

4.  An ever-running creek is an asset to a farm especially one where livestock will be grazed. From the standpoint of the garden farmer a smaller one is better than a larger one or a river, although the latter two have their good points too. Just remember that the larger the creek, the more prone it will be to flooding, the more work you will incur keeping up the gates across the waterway and the fences along the creek banks.  Where springs or creeks are not available, choose land that has proper terrain for a runoff pond.  Many books can help you in this regard including my own, The Pond Lovers. And don’t forget that a deep well with sweet, potable drinking water is a priceless asset too. Put a windmill over it and you have your own independent source of pure water whatever the future brings.

5. The most overlooked factor in hunting for a good garden farm location is soil drainage. There is a tendency to favor level land over sloping land for farming because level land appears to be more fertile, especially river-bottom or creek-side land. But very often, level land especially in the eastern half of the country “lays wet,” as farmers say, and becomes productive only with lots of underground drainage tile or surface draining ditches, both of which can be expensive to install. Even with tile, lowland soil is more prone to flooding or ponding after heavy rains. Ponding especially drowns out growing crops, or delays planting and harvesting significantly. The garden farmer should always prefer gently sloping upland, or even hilly land, especially for growing legumes for hay or pasture, or fruits and early vegetables. The wonderfully fertile Amish dairy farms in Holmes County, Ohio are almost all on hill land. Upland fields may not be as naturally fertile as low ground, but can be made fertile with rotational grazing and good organic farming practices or, on smaller plots, with regular applications of animal manures and compost. Erosion will not be critical for garden farmers on sloping land because they will not be managing large, bare, annually cultivated fields. Very often hilly land sells for less because it is less desirable for large-scale grain farming.

6. Sometimes a piece of land looks like wasteland, or is considered such, but has definite possibilities for garden farming. You have seen my story on this website about reclaiming strip mine lands. Another example I recount in All Flesh Is Grass, page 51, about a young couple who bought hill land that the seller was glad to get rid of at a low price because it was covered with multi-flora rose. They stocked the thorny pastures with sheep and attacked the bristling bushes with a rotary mower. In a few years, grass replaced the thorns and good rotational grazing practices plus lime turned the hillsides into verdant pastures.

Rocky land can be used to advantage by garden farmers. Large scale farmers with huge equipment tend to avoid such land (one small rock can tear up a $300,000 combine in about ten seconds) so the price is often lower. But those rocks have many uses. New England was once fenced almost entirely with stones gathered from the fields and many gardens can, like Scott Nearing did,  be fenced against wild predators with stone walls. In Minnesota, many barn foundations and walls were made of field stone. Yet another example: so-called ghetto parts of the cities are being transformed into wondrously beautiful little garden farms.

7,  Geographic location is perhaps not as crucial as soil drainage in selecting a good place for a garden farm. You should be aware, however, that some climates are riskier than others. A great amount of land along the Gulf Coast has been almost ruined for farming because of the salt water driven inland by hurricanes. Luther Burbank chose California for his garden farming because more different kinds of plants can be grown there nearly year-round. But much of California is short on water and now, short on affordable farmland. If you have a choice, it is better to seek a place where the rainfall averages 35 to 40 inches per year, and temperatures do not reach very hot or cold extremes.

I am forever puzzled  by the attitude of many new garden farmers who tend to shun the midwest and midsouth in favor of settling in New England or California. They often believe that the corn belt, the largest expanse of fertile soil and favorable climate in the temperate world, is agribusiness country or red state conservative country, both of which they view uneasily. Please be assured. There is as much political, religious, and economic diversity in the midwest as anywhere else. Yes, this land is best for duo-cropped corn and soybeans, but for that very reason it is best for everything else that grows in a temperate climate. And redneck conservatives also have a wealth of knowledge you can benefit from when it comes to farming and rural life.

The notion, dearly held by east and west coasters, that the breadbasket of America is “flyover” country, is a big mistake for anyone looking for good land at affordable prices. Not that we who live there mind being called flyovers. We even boast about it because we know we are less likely to be inundated by tourism or urban development. It is great that many garden farmers welcome this kind of development as a ready market for their produce, but too much of it can overwhelm life on the ramparts that many of us prefer. Ask the Amish.
~
See also Gene’s The Anatomy of a Homestead Landscape
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Image Credit: © Valentinodebiasi | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org
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14 Comments

A few more thoughts…

The MidWest and MidSouth get some pretty nasty weather extremes with arctic air rushing down in the winter and nasty humidity and heat in the summer.

The guy who wrote ‘Surviving Peak Oil’ says that the Cuba success story with permaculture is due to their year round growing climate and those of us with only a small window every year will not be able to grow enough food to be self sustaining. I had come across this in my research. It seems there is a ‘myth of the self sufficient homestead’ that existed because they were really not growing all their own food, but also hunting and collecting wild fruits and vegetables.

I think the guy from Australia was not talking about solar cells. Passive solar, when compared to wood heat, usually means building a structure so that it is heated by the suns rays, and retained with thermal mass, in the winter, and kept cool by the overall insulative design of the structure and placement of deciduous trees in the summer.

I searched for the perfect area and came up with Western North Carolina. That is where the British sent the first colony because they figured it would be easier there to grow food than anywhere else on the continent. I did a recon trip from Idaho and looked at about 10 different cities, staying in each for a day or two and making notes.

I then went back to my chosen city and rented a condo for a month before heading back to Idaho on a family emergency. I planned to return to NC.

Since my stay in NC 2 years ago, they have gone into extreme drought conditions. I am thinking it was pretty lucky I didn’t buy a place down there.

This is what I wondered about when reading this article. Wouldn’t a lot of the area Gene mentioned be in the area of extreme drought? What about the Ogallala aquifer becoming unuseable due to low levels that make pumping water out very energy intensive? The book ‘Ogallala Blue’ pretty much says that the entire breadbasket of America sits over a aquifer that will not replenish in geologic time, (for maybe thousands of years) and will largely be abandoned in coming years.

I interpreted “root, hog, or die” in a somewhat darker way: “dig in, hoard, or die.”

A lot of people are preparing for coming hard times by hoarding. Except hoarding is only useful as a strategy if you believe the hard times are going to end.

To me, “digging in” means acknowledging the coming energy decline (and related financial decline) as a predicament without a solution. It means developing coping strategies, rather than seeking (or waiting for) solutions. It means growing your own food and producing your own energy — hopefully, with an excess to trade with neighbours and the greater community.

The hoarder’s sacks of beans and freeze-dried foods are going to get used up. What you put in your head cannot get “used up.”

Nathan, I hope you get some help! You, with a practice to establish and maintain, and a Brazilian wife, are not going to make much headway on 88 acres by yourselves.

And I don’t mean hiring help, either. I mean having long-term workers on the land. And to be fair, that means a certain degree of equity-sharing. What tenant farmer is going to plant nut trees when he could be kicked off at the whim of a landlord?

There’s a whole spectrum of things you can do to equitably get the help you need. You can put the land under co-operative ownership, selling shares to others who will help you with the “wetware” of decision-making on a peer basis. You can put it into a non-profit land trust, with long-term leases to habitants. If you feel you need conventional levels of control, you can even put it under corporate ownership, and maintain a controlling interest.

We’ve been working on a similar project: http://www.EcoReality.org .

Kerri, yes “root, hog, or die” is the same as “adapt, migrate, or die.” In the process, change it not the only thing that can happen, which reminds me of another saying you used to see on T shirts. Gene

Nathan, sounds like you found the almost perfect place. I would think a doctor/farmer could have the best of all worlds. I bet you are a fan of the Herriot novels. Interesting thought: can a doctor sub as a veterinarian? Gene

Gene

just purchased an 88 acre farm in s.w. wisconsin. Old barn(red)with amazingly good straight timbers, Freshwater spring pouring out enough fresh water to fill 4 inch pipe with continuous flow, 30 acres of valley land, 60 acres of forested hills with trout stream running through the valley. I counted many mature walnut trees and about 8 old growth massive walnut trees. There is an original settlers cabin from the 1850’s on the property that I am restoring.

I am an anesthesiologist but have dreams of moving to property and becoming part time farmer and part time doctor. I have wanted to be a farmer as long as I can remember. most of my moms family farm in Minn. I just never thought I would be able to afford the purchase of a farm. The valley tends to dampness and I am not sure I could dry out a clover hay as suggested in one of your articles. I am planting fruit trees and have a solar powered well cistern combo for house water.

My wife is from brazil, I hope she likes wisconin

Nathan

To: Australian
Of course what you say is mostly true and pertains to parts of the U.S. too. One is not able to address the whole issue in one little blog. You can actually make a nice garden on a cement pad and it has been done. But it is quicker and cheaper to do what I suggest when you have choices. As far as the “toxic” exhausts from woodburning stoves, we could argue that forever. A good stove meets air quality standards. And using solar panels etc. is wonderful where they will work but they are still fairly expensive and their manufacturing causes “toxic” pollution too. Sounds to me you just like to argue. Gene Logsdon

“Root, hog, or die.”

Can’t say as I’ve ever heard this particular saying in the past but, if I’m correct, it’s very similar to one a friend of mine emblazoned on some t-shirts she gave out:

Change happens: Adapt, migrate or die

While I completely agree with all the attributes listed as being important in the search for the perfect (or as near to perfect as you can get in this world) chunk of land, I would also like to gently point out that some of us will have no choice at all. We will end up living where we are. And where I’m living is a somewhat dingy, transient urban neighborhood where practically all my neighbors are one paycheck from disaster.

Given the three choices above (adapt, migrate or die), I’m going with adaptation. I do have a “the world is coming to an end so it’s time to circle up the wagons” plan to head to Florida and what’s left of my blood kin but really that’s only one step away from my least favorite choice, dying, and, well, we’ll all end up there someday without having to work at it very much anyway. So adaptation is it for me.

In my case, adaptation is using the somewhat small yard to produce food. Adaptation means making the building more energy efficient and learning to use less heat, water and energy in general. Adaptation is finding out about the vacant lots nearby (at LAST, I have a name and home of the owners of the corner lot that a couple of older fellows were farming a few years ago. I was told by a long time resident that the owner would be hanging on to it until they were all dead and gone. No problem. I’ll go ask her about leasing the land next spring. If not next spring, the spring after. I’m not going anywhere. I can be patient). Adaptation is learning who my neighbors are and building relationships.

Biologically speaking, adaptation is not instantaneous. Well, I certainly hope it doesn’t take several generations for it to take with me and the group I share a building with. The process has already started and little victories abound. And, yeah, the setbacks happen, too (anyone for some frozen collards? Still on the plant?).

While I find the dream of owning my own little piece of heaven a pleasant one, what’s there to say that what I’ve got isn’t heaven in disguise? God created the Garden of Eden rather quickly; it’s going to take me longer and lot more effort but it will come. And, of course, there will be an apple tree (or three).

Kerri in AK

To John Sherck: it all comes down to price in the end, doesn’t it. We were limited severely by the amount of money we had to spend, and decided we would go for smaller acreage than we really wanted, if we had to. We were able to find 22 acres affordable for us, but I would have spent the same amount of money readily on five acres properly situated if I would have had to. Five acres can be a lot when you really start paying attention and diligence to every square foot. In fact two acres used to its fullest capacity, can make a wonderful garden farm, except for the woodlot. When we had two acres, we put in a small pond and kept it full of water with runnoff from the chicken coop roof. Gene Logsdon

There are many errors in this article for those living outside the USA, such as:
1) for small scale food growing (for a small family), not much space is needed, and on this scale almost any soil, even plain sand such as we have in Western Australia, can be made productive with mulching and composting over a few years.
2) Water: you can gather a lot of water from rainfall, enough to keep a decent food garden alive in the dry months here. Rivers/streams not required.
3) Mature woodlots are hardly a requirement for independence. Solar passive design in many climates replaces toxic wood burning …
I could go on.

Thanks for the good advice about what to look for in a future homestead. My wife and I are still looking. We’d like to find our dream place in western PA, the northern half of Ohio, or a particular town in south-central upstate NY. From some of your books and other things we’ve read or heard, we had an idea of what to look for that was exactly in line with what you’re saying. Our problem, as much as anything, is that we’re not sure where to look.

The town in upstate NY has seemed the most promising, I think in part because we have such a narrow scope: if we’re going to be in NY, we know within roughly a 15-mile radius where we want to be. We’ve met with realtors who now know the parameters of our search and are keeping an eye out for us. There’s also a seemingly-good website for finding places in NY (www.homesteadnet.com).

Our search in western PA (where we currently live) and Ohio (where our families are from) has been less promising. Internet searches for land in either state turn up only very expensive places ($4000/acre and up). I suspect (or hope?) that there’s some reason why the internet listings select for high-priced land, and that either area might have better prices listed with local agents or “for sale by owner,” but if so they’re going to be inherently more difficult for us to find from the distance we’re at.

Gene (or any readers), do you have any advice for our situation? Are we expecting prices to be too low?

My wife and I moved two years ago from the Chicago Suburbs to a farm that meets all of the points above! The farm is in Western Illinois and the land was really cheap! 22 acres with a house, barn, sheds was about 1/3 the price of an average house and lot in a blue coller suburb of Chicago.

I second the comment that redneck conservatives also have a wealth of knowledge you can benefit from when it comes to farming! : )

I think the art of gardening was lost on the current generation, and as we get “back to basics” it is important to revive the lost art.

It will be interesting to see if people take advantage of the land that will be selling for “dirt” cheap.

Come check out our blog, LandTalk, at http://www.southernlandexchange.com/blog. I think you’ll find this post particularly interesting: http://www.southernlandexchange.com/blog/2008/10/looking-for-georgia-land-sale-what-to.html

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