Choosing Land for Homestead Living
Is it your dream to buy land for a self-sufficient homestead? Here are some things to consider…Posted Apr 22, 2009
While the term “homestead” is broadly defined, from small urban homesteads to remote acreages in forests, prairies or deserts, the common ground all homesteaders seem to share is a desire for independent, self-sufficient living.
How much land it takes to homestead varies with the visions of the homesteader and the nature of the terrain one wishes to inhabit. Even small acreages of 2 – 4 acres can sustain a small family if managed well. Larger homesteads in the range of 20 – 40 acres can provide a greater degree of self-sufficiency by setting aside much of the land as a woodlot, and providing room for orchards, ponds, poultry and livestock.
If you are looking to buy land suitable for developing your own sustainable homestead, here are some tips and suggestions to consider as you look at land parcels available for sale.
How isolated do you and your family really want to be? The classic image of the homesteader living miles from the last civilized outpost is dated. Today, many people are developing self-sufficient (relatively speaking) homesteads in cities and towns as well as in more rural locations. While small plots in residential areas are more limiting due to size and zoning restrictions, having neighbours close by can promote bartering and sharing of tools and resources. On the other hand, many rural acreages today have power and phone, water, internet, mail and emergency services. With modern advancements in communication, being remote does not necessarily mean being isolated. So when envisioning your ideal homestead, here are some thoughts about remoteness you may want to consider:
Planning a family?
You can provide for their education by home-schooling, but as they grow your children will need friends within easy reach.
Community of like-minded people
Being located near other small farms and homesteads will bring friends with shared interests, opportunities for bartering, resources, knowledge and support.
Distance from nearest neighbour
Independence is great, but good neighbours are a wonderful complement to anyone trying to develop a homestead. If you live further than a 20 – 30 minute walk from neighbours, drop-by visitors will be rare. And it’s a longer way to go when you need to borrow that cup of sugar or canning lid.
Distance from hospital, medical care
Determine what services are available for emergency medical care, and how long they take to arrive. In our location, for example, it can take an hour for a helicopter to arrive, weather permitting.
Access to phone line, broadband
Find out if the land can be served by phone via ground line, and if internet service is available. The internet has become a valued resource for gardening information, access to homesteading forums, and a gateway to income opportunities. The ability to make an income through the internet is enabling more people to homestead in rural and remote areas.
A general understanding of the prevailing weather patterns in the region will help you assess the land for practical features such as natural wind breaks and drainage courses. Also, learn about the local wildlife species to get an idea what you’re up against in gardening and raising poultry or livestock. Once you visit the property, here are a few things to consider:
Are there restrictions or covenants on the land?
Check also to see if the land is zoned for raising poultry or farm animals, rain catchment systems, outhouses or the style of building you plan. Ask about mineral or water rights, and any access rights which may apply to the land. Research the laws and tax situations in the states or provinces of interest to you.
Are there any signs of contamination, wetlands or flooding?
A search of a property’s environmental history through web sites such as Environmental Data Resources will help you avoid potentially contaminated well water, leaking underground tanks and other potential hazards.
Is there clear south-facing land for gardening?
The plants in your garden will want to face south, and will require a minimum of 5 hours of direct sunlight per day. Observe the path of shadows during the day from any trees, natural features, or tall objects. The area of maximum continuous light will likely be the best location for your garden. The gardening land should preferably be level to gently sloping. and large enough to include room for storage crops like squash, potatoes, onions. In determining the space needs for your garden, allow extra space for green manure crops, especially if you have a shortage of easy-to-access organic fertilizer.
Poor soil and inadequate water supply are often the reasons old farms are abandoned. Frequently, a small plot of poor soil can be improved with proper management so that it will serve nicely as a garden. If you’re unsure how to judge soil quality, soil surveys are a handy tool to assess the fertility of soil. Here you can find online soil maps and data for more than 95 percent of the counties in the US.
Is there clear land for an orchard?
Growing your own fruit can yield the highest value return on effort of all the crops you may grow. And surplus fruit has ready value in barter. Orchards do not have to be very large. Even a ½ acre can provide ground for enough fruit trees for a family’s needs. In our homestead, we usually have 12 – 15 fruit trees. Any more surpasses our usage, wastes over-winter storage space and creates too much maintenance in pruning and general tree care.
Availability of wood
If you plan to heat with wood, look for easy access to a steady supply of firewood. You’ll also need plenty of wood available for building log buildings, home-sawn dimensional lumber, fencing, and outbuildings. If you have a 10 acre woodlot on your property, you could be set for life as far as fencing, building and firewood goes. Take a general inventory of standing timber on the property and see if there’s enough to develop a managed woodlot.
Access to fertilizer
The most valuable asset in any homestead is the soil. As a homesteader, you will always need fertilizer because soil for gardening has to be continually restored, and there’s never enough compost. If you can drive into your land, then you can bring in fertilizer. If you have a neighbour with cows, you can strike a deal for cow-pies. But if ready access to fertilizer is difficult (as it is for us), then you may need extra growing space for green manures. (Read: Can organic farming feed the world? for information on green manure as an organic substitute for chemical fertilizers.)
Can the land support livestock?
If livestock are in your plans, the land needs enough ground for grazing as well as enough to grow the hay needed to feed it through the winter.
Potential for alternate energy system?
Sun, water, and wind each have the potential to supplement or provide your home energy needs. Evaluate the land with respect to its potential for producing alternate energy.
Access to municipal services?
Consider the cost of utilities to your house site if you plan on accessing municipal services. You may also have to buy a meter and install the lines at your own cost. Installing lines may cost about $10 per foot, depending on terrain and location.
Natural disaster potential?
A little research will reveal the historical patterns for natural disasters such as floods, wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes. For example, you wouldn’t want to build a root cellar in areas prone to flooding. And you wouldn’t want to build on a flood plain.
Envision the impact of your planned homestead on the nearest neighbours. For example, are they downwind of your planned pigpen? Will you keep goats for milk and meat? If so, you’ll likely need to fence the entire property. Establishing good relations with neighbours is important for the homesteader.
In addition, consider the effects adjacent properties can have on your plans:
- Are adjacent properties up for development? Are they zoned industrial?
- If farmland, does the upwind or uphill farm use herbicides or pesticides?
- If farmland, are GMO crops being raised? Is your property downwind of GMO farmland?
- Is adjacent land used for hunting?
- Does your water source run through these properties?
Access to a year-round supply of clean water is essential to homesteading. Study the water course and water table of the immediate area.
- Is water served from a municipal service, creek, lake, well, or catchment system?
- If there is creek or stream water, does it run year-round?
- Will you need a water filtration system? If the land has a well, there should be a filter at the source.
- Don’t depend on a well unless there are other fairly shallow wells nearby, as especially in the mountains water can be uncertain.
- Is there potential for micro-hydro? If there is a stream which has the flow and drop required for a small micro-hydro, this may be an asset you want to use. If you are considering this, remember to check the downstream effects on the local environment and other water users.
A road to your homesite makes living easier at the cost of privacy. The more ambitious your building plans, the more likely you’ll want a road all the way to your home. Bear in mind the cost of maintaining a private stretch of road is considerable.
- Will the road be snow covered in winter? You may need a tractor and plow, or a neighbour with one.
- Are there any access rights going through the property?
- Will you need to bring in fuel for heating and cooking (e.g. propane)?
If you find a place you like, talk to people living in the general area. Your future neighbours are likely to be generous with information, as it is also in their interest to have compatible new neighbours.
In our area, we have often seen new people move on to the land only to leave in a year or two, discouraged by the unexpected challenges, the workload or the relative social isolation. We usually suggest that potential new landholders rent a place in the country for a while (through the winter) to get a feel for the homestead life before making a commitment to buy land. In any case, doing the research to ensure the land’s compatibility with your homestead needs is a vital first step in the successful transition to a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
Greg Seaman is the editor of Eartheasy. He and his wife Lindsay moved to a remote location in coastal British Columbia in 1980, and raised two children, Ben and Aran, in a homestead setting. To read our story, click here.