Editor’s note: This article was updated in 2017.
The future seems uncertain, and trust in the systems in place to ensure our welfare seems to be eroding.
My wife and I felt this way when we were young, even though times were better back then, and so in 1980 we moved to a rural area to try our hand at homesteading. It turned out to be a great move for us. We’ve raised a family and found security and independence which, in today’s economic climate, seem especially appealing. I would think many young people today might benefit similarly.
Since the 1920’s there has been a trend of people migrating from rural areas to cities in search of job opportunities and living standards which feature convenience, access to educational opportunities, more diverse economic activity, and more social alternatives. For nearly a century this migration has served peoples’ needs, and even today many rural communities are seeing an exodus of residents in search of a better life.
Today, many rural communities are looking for ways to reverse the trend in depopulation. The intention of bringing residents back to rural communities is to stimulate and help sustain local economies and institutions, and in some parts of the country, free land is offered as an enticement to prospective new residents.
Homestead Living has Changed
Modern homesteaders have more lifestyle choices and income opportunities than their pioneer forebears. There is a wealth of information available today to help people experience the benefits of self-reliance without suffering the setbacks of greenhorn homesteading mistakes. Gardening and farming know-how is easy to come by thanks to rural agricultural extension services, library-by-mail programs and of course the internet.
Job opportunities in remote areas, thanks to the internet, have improved greatly. Online businesses can be inexpensive to set up, and since the cost of living in rural areas is lower than living in town, the requirements for a successful online business are lower. One of my neighbors, for example, has a small website which provides information about wood cookstoves, with a link to suppliers who provide referral fees on sales. The business may only bring in a few thousand dollars per year, but this covers about half of the annual homestead fixed expenses.
The isolation of rural living is also mitigated by internet access to social networks. Whatever niche captures your interest, there will be a forum online with like-minded individuals sharing ideas and providing social stimulation. Online friends are no substitute for a close neighbor, but modern homesteaders can maintain a social discourse, and good mental balance, thanks to modern wireless technology.
So where is the free land?
The Department of Natural Resources is directed by the state constitution to sell land for settlement and private ownership. There is a Remote Recreational Cabin Sites program where an applicant is allowed to stake a parcel of land in a designated remote staking area for recreational use. The parcels are leased for a limited length of time and purchased at fair market value after the completion of a survey and appraisal. There are no building or “prove-up” requirements required with this program, but applicants must be residents of Alaska.
The Manilla Economic Development Corporation offers new single family lots in the New Sunrise Addition Phase II at no cost to qualified individuals or entities that build a new single family residence subject to certain conditions. For more information, visit the Living in Manilla page.
Marne, Iowa, also has a free land program. Located just 45 minutes east of Omaha and one hour west of Des Moines, the town is offering free lots averaging 80 by 120 feet. Apply via their website.
Several communities in Kansas are offering free land and other incentives to attract new residents. The goal is to help rural areas sustain and grow economically. In most cases, the free land is in the form of serviced municipal lots, perfect for gardening but not enough for a full-scale farm. The land also comes with restrictions in terms of house size and how long you have to finish building, though in some locations, development and hook-up costs are also waived. Look for opportunities in Tescot, Lincoln, Mankato, and Marquette. Osborne also has a free land program that includes land for residential or commercial purposes.
New Richland is offering lots in its Homestake subdivision sized 86 by 130 feet to anyone interested in building a new home within one year. Development costs apply. For more information, visit the town’s free land website.
Beatrice – The city of Beatrice has passed “the Homestead Act of 2010,” a plan to give away city land to anyone willing to build a home there and live in it for three years. This has been a successful program, and the last free lot of this initial offering was given away in January of this year. However, if this region interests you, it may be worth contacting municipal authorities in Beatrice to learn of future offerings, or if any of the assigned parcels have fallen through and are up for offer. Other towns in Nebraska offering free land and incentives for new residents include Central City, Curtis, Elwood, Giltner, Juaniata, Kenesaw and Loup City. Contact municipal offices in these towns for details or visit NebraskAccess for up to date listings.
In the past five years, many Canadian municipalities have run programs similar to those listed above, offering free lots (or land at a nominal cost) to anyone committing to building a home within 12 to 15 months. Locations include Pipestone, Manitoba; Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Quebec; and Rosemary, Alberta. While some of these locations have sold out, others will continue with expanded offerings in the coming years.
The only place in Canada offering crown land for larger scale agriculture is the Yukon Territory through its Agriculture Land Program. Interested applicants must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents and can apply for land by developing a farm plan for consideration. Plans must be for soil-based agriculture (such as hay or market gardening) and land parcels must be between 6 and 65 hectares. Applicants pay for land survey and development costs.
Where else is there free land?
Opportunities for free land are available to those willing to think ‘outside the box’ and take a chance on an adventurous new lifestyle. If you can narrow down your search to a specific region that appeals to you, here are a few suggestions which may yield good results:
Look for care-taking opportunities.
As any homesteader knows, rural homes and properties need to be lived in or they will deteriorate rapidly. Roofs need frequent repair, homes need to be heated in winter to prevent mould and rot taking over, fences need attention, water lines need draining in freeze-ups, and the list goes on. But the life situations of many rural landholders may change. People get old and move to assisted living, but may want to retain their homestead for future occupants.
One of my friends care-takes a magnificent waterfront property with garden and orchard, and is even paid $1500 per month for his efforts. The owner, due to financial misdeeds, will be spending the next 15 years in prison. My friend was thinking out of the box when he found this opportunity!
Care-taking someone else’s property has the secondary advantage of letting you try out the homesteading lifestyle to see if it suits you. When a homestead is already developed, you can learn what works and what mistakes to avoid, and apply this knowledge to your future homestead as it develops.
Look for cooperative opportunities
The mention of the word ‘cooperative’ may stir anti-socialism sentiments among the paranoid and uninformed, but I have been living in a land co-op for 31 years and the experience has been most rewarding. In fact, I owe my homestead lifestyle to the co-op model, since my wife and I could never have afforded the collective land we share with others.
Cooperative living arrangements are nothing new, although land co-ops are not as common as housing co-ops which proliferate in cities and towns. But friends can pool their resources and look for land which can accommodate multiple dwellings. Shared orchard and garden space can make food production practical when more hands are available. In our co-op, some of us specialize in growing certain crops which we share with others in exchange for a share of their specialty crop. It makes the gardening process much easier when you can focus on a few crops rather than trying to produce the many crops which provide a varied diet.
Perhaps the biggest concern in land co-ops is the matter of equity. Homes built on co-ops do not build equity the way homes on private lots do. (Or used to!) It is not easy to sell a home on co-op land, since the buyer needs to be accepted by the other group members. You won’t be able to take out a home equity loan. This can be a good thing though, looking back over the past few years, since these loans have put many people financially “under water”.
Approach holders of large parcels
A group of 6 friends in Oregon approached an older man with 160 acres of land, and made a proposition to him. If he would let them put an organic garden on a piece of his land, they would share the harvest with him. After the first season, the owner grew fond of the company of young people, and offered to let them park their bus beside the garden. The relationship grew and blossomed, and today the landowner has given 5 acres to the young group to build their homestead cooperatively. The landowner benefits by feeling a part of the sustainability movement, and by sharing ideas and knowledge with young people. The young people benefit by having free land, of course, but they also enjoy the benefit of an older person’s experience and perspective.
People’s life situations change over time, and opportunities arise for those who seek them out. If you’re feeling insecure living in the city, or if the notion of self-reliance appeals to you, homesteading can provide a feeling of independence and some measure of control over your life.
Homesteading may seem old-fashioned to many, but we think there’s going to be a lot more interest in this way of living as the global economy continues to unwind.