By Lauren Arcuri. Small Farms Expert
Lauren Arcuri lives on 25 acres in rural Vermont, where she has a small, diversified homestead. Read more
If you're starting a small farm or homestead, chances are that you're looking to buy land and/or a farm that already exists. Many people choose to buy raw land and build their own house on it, especially those whose goals are homesteading versus starting a small farm business .
Start a new word processing document or take out a piece of paper and start answering some of these questions as you go along.
How Much Land?
Deciding how many acres of land you are looking for - and how much you can afford - is one of the first things to consider. For either goal - homesteading or small-scale farming - you could go as small as an acre or two, or as big as many hundreds of acres. Here, you'll need to go back to your goals to figure out what amount of land will allow you to achieve those goals.
For example, if you're homesteading, plan to use wood heat and be totally energy self-sufficient, you may need to add wooded acreage to your list of must-haves, so that you can provide for your own energy needs by managing a woodlot. Obviously, if you're planning to homestead in the Southwest and put up solar panels, that's a different story altogether - you don't need that extra acreage to provide for your energy needs.
Similarly, if your goal is to start a small grassfed beef operation, you'll need to consider what size herd you are possibly going to have eventually, and look for a parcel of land that can support those animals.
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How close do you want to be to town? Do you care if you're an hour's drive from a town with any kind of cultural amenities? Might you want to homestead or farm in an area that is closer to a city center for your kids' sake? These are more factors to consider.
The Internet gives you a lot more flexibility these days in terms of ordering food and supplies to remote outposts (living where I do before Amazon Prime was very different than it is now!). But culturally, you're giving up quite a lot by living in a very remote area, especially if you consider your kids' need for a social life, your own desire for community and friends, and even safety and health. (How far are you from a hospital? What emergency medical care is available?) Even things like whether you will have neighbors within walking distance should be considered when you look at where to purchase land.
Oh, and let's not forget road maintenance. It was a big wake-up call to me personally when we began looking at land and houses in the country, that not all land is on town- or county-maintained roads. Here the remote, privately maintained roads are called "class IV" roads. If you're looking at land on such a road, be sure to price the following services as well: gravel, grading, and other maintenance costs like plowing if you're in a snowy area.
Some places are remote enough that they don't have access to a phone line or broadband Internet, and you may have to pay to have power run to them if you aren't going to be off the grid right away. These are all things to consider as you look at land location.
Separate from how much acreage, the type of land is also something to consider in light of
your goals. Pasture for cows is different from land used to grow vegetables. An orchard requires a certain type of land. Poultry can do well almost anywhere. These are all factors to list out on your piece of paper.
You will also want to consider factors such as natural wind breaks, drainage, local wildlife, flooding potential, and more. You may want to hire an environmental engineer to help you assess a piece of land for these types of factors.
Consider also whether there are restrictions or covenants on what you can use the land for. Can you raise any farm animal you want? Is an outhouse acceptable or must you put in a septic system for your home?
South-facing, cleared land that receives at least 5 hours of direct sunlight every day is needed for growing vegetables for food. You will want level or gently sloping land. unless you want to put in terraced gardens. You'll want more acreage than you think for growing all your own food as a homesteader, as you may need to rotate in cover crops to build soil fertility. If you're a small farmer who will grow vegetables for money, your land needs can vary widely depending on the type and quantity of plants you plan to grow.
An orchard, if you want to start one, requires some acreage, but can start as small as one-half acre. For a family, a dozen or more fruit trees seems to be a rough guideline for homesteading, but this varies depending on your climate and your fruit consumption.
The quality of the soil you're buying is another thing to consider. Often, farms are abandoned because the soil was of poor quality. But, quality can be improved - it just takes time. Having the soil tested is a smart idea when you have found a piece of property that meets all your other requirements.
Alternative Energy Needs
Wind, water (micro-hydroelectric) and solar are all possible alternative energy systems you may want to use on your small farm or homestead. What kind of land will support the type of alternative energy most suited to your climate? Will you be able to use any of these methods to generate energy with the land you're considering?
If you're looking at raw land, you will probably want to have a well drilled for water. Existing farms may be using a shallow dug well from decades ago, and those can sometimes dry up. Consider the cost of well drilling - sometimes it can be significantly more expensive than you think, depending on the type of land.
And if you're going to raise livestock, you may want to look at ponds, brooks, streams - anything that can be used to provide water for your animals.
You will, of course, also want to consider how high the water table is and if the land is prone to flooding. A seasonally flooded area can't be used for livestock for a significant portion of the year.
As mentioned above, you'll need to consider how you will access your property - is it on a maintained road? And even if the property is on a maintained road, how long of a driveway or road will you need to the spot where you want to or can build a house? Who will plow the driveway in winter?
Also look at whether there is a right of way or any other access rights going through the property.
Consider how easily a propane or oil truck can access the house, as well, if needed to provide these things for heating and cooking.