So you want to be a homesteader…
I get that. The longing to live on your own land, grow your own food and learn a lifestyle of self-reliance and simplicity. It’s one of the reasons we moved our family half way across the country just to find the right place to settle our roots.
Whatever the motivation, whatever your dream may be, there are several things to consider before taking the plunge and buying that piece of acreage you’ve had your eye on.
My wife and I had been pining for our own piece of land for many years. It was simple for us, this dream. We wanted to grow food for our community, explore the way our grandparents lived and provide an environment for our kids that would allow them to experience a healthy balance of life. We didn’t really know what we were getting into. Dream big, I say! But it also helps to know what it will take to turn that dream into a reality.
Here are a few things we’ve learned through our adventure. Things I wish that I would have known, or had been better prepared for, before we bought our acreage. Knowing these things probably wouldn’t have altered our course. We love our country life! We love our land and all the nuances that have come along with it. But understanding some of the challenges we were to face certainly would have helped make the path a little smoother.
1. Research state and county restrictions.
Start with an understanding of what you will do with the land, and then get to know your local laws and regulations regarding acreage usage.
After deciding to move to Iowa, we fell in love with a small farmstead that came up for sale by the owner. The old farmhouse needed work, but it was something we could mold into our home over time. The property came with 12 acres, outbuildings, an old brick barn and plenty of room to stretch our dreams. We were motivated and went all in with a sense of blind enthusiasm and adventure and signed a contract with the seller.
We learned quickly that none of the lenders we spoke to would touch an acreage like ours. It’s because part of the property was deemed tillable farmland. In other words, it could be used for agriculture, which eliminated a traditional conventional loan. It was suggested that we have the seller subdivide the acreage and only sell us the property the house sat on. But it was land we were buying! The house was just coming along for the ride.
We were eventually instructed to look into a USDA farm loan. This gave us a little glimpse of hope. But it didn’t take very long before we were to find out that our acreage was too small, and our income out of line, to qualify for a USDA farm loan. Another deflating moment.
So back to the bank. We finally found a local bank willing to work with us. Keep in mind, we had a 20% down payment. Our credit standing was strong. And did I say that we were motivated buyers? By this time, several months had passed. The people selling the property were being so patient, but they wanted to move on, and we could sense that our time was running out. Even after finding a local banker willing to get creative with our loan, creativity takes time and it would be another several months before we officially closed.
Taking the time to research these things will save you a lot of time and frustration in the process.
Know what you want to do with the land. Will you raise animals? Will you sell meat or eggs? Will you grow your own produce, or will you sell it at the farmer’s market? Do you want to experiment living off the grid?
Sit down and write out a basic plan. You don’t have to have all the answers. But putting a little structure to your dream, and talking with the right people, will go a long way in getting to where you want to be.
2. Know what you’re getting into
Our choice to buy was simple and probably a little premature. It was the old brick barn that really caught my eye first. It was love at first sight really. I had never seen a barn made from brick before, and I immediately thought about how majestic it would look fully restored.
It’s easy for me to be visionary, to see the potential in things. Maybe you’re like that too. Anything can be restored with a little effort and a little money, right? But sometimes I forget just how little time and money we often have to do all the things I can dream up.
Having outbuildings on your acreage can be a blessing. It can also be a curse. Take a cold hard look at how much effort those buildings will take to make them useful, and even if its worth it. Even tearing them down costs something.
What about the rest of the property? This is where its important to have an idea of what it is you want to do with your acreage. Are there trees that need to be removed? What about fencing? If you plan to grow food, do you have a well or some other means to irrigate?
We had a well that was used once upon a time for drinking water. Little did we know that it would require a new pump and new electricity before it would work. That only cost us $6000, plus several stressful weeks irrigating our crops with 7 hoses attached to our house water.
Repairs. Replacements. New additions. All of these things add up to serious money. Envisioning the potential of the acreage is important, but knowing what you’re getting into before taking the plunge is just plain smart.
3. Learn the history of the land
This is particularly important if you plan on growing food on the land you want to buy. What was the land used for in the past? What kind of soil will you have to work with?
It’s easy to get starry-eyed when you find what looks like, at least on the surface, to be the perfect plot of land. But there are a lot of things going on underneath the surface that could cause you heartache if you don’t at least do a little digging, so to speak.
If there is pasture on the property, it may be tempting to till all that grass under and plant a giant garden. You can do this, but consider that if there was livestock there at one time that you’ll likely have compaction in the soil. Maybe there’s pasture because the ground is particularly rocky, or heavy clay. It might be worth doing a soil test before you buy. Also, tilling all that grass over will result in a serious cutworm issue that you’ll need to be prepared for if growing veggies. All these things can be overcome, but better to know before you try to grow.
Our ground had been conventionally farmed for many years. Where we’re at, that means corn and soybeans. It was plowed, cultivated heavily and sprayed year after year, all farming practices that take a toll on soil structure and health. For an organic farm, these are important things to know. We also learned that our 6 acre plot at the back of the property has a big sand hill in the middle of it, limiting what we’ll be able to grow back there. Something that could have easily been discovered with a little more probing of the property.
Again, these are all things that can be overcome. But you don’t want to buy an acreage thinking you’re going to raise strawberries, only to find out that you’re soil only grows rocks.
4. Do you have the tools you need?
What kind of tools will be necessary to take care of your acreage?
Will you need a tractor to mow or work your field? Chainsaws to manage your trees? Do you have the skills necessary to keep up with the outbuildings or the house?
It’s easy to say that you’ll acquire the necessary things along the way, and you don’t have to have everything before you buy your acreage. But it’s also very easy to get overwhelmed. Land requires constant upkeep, and it will chew up a lot of your time.
We spent our first summer in Iowa mowing 2 acres of lawn with a push mower. It was great exercise! But I swear the grass grows back overnight in our humidity.
We strive for efficiency on our small farm. Working hard is good, but working smart is better. Having the right tools, the right plan and the right mindset will help keep you from spinning your wheels, getting frustrated and ultimately losing the desire to fulfill your dream.
5. You will be challenged
Whether you’re buying 3 acres or 40, know that you will be challenged in so many ways. Aspiring to the simple life isn’t always simple. It will require a lifestyle change that will push every limit.
It’s worth it though. I say that from the bottom of my heart. Nothing worthwhile in this life comes without challenge. That’s how we grow. And this homesteading, farmsteading, country simple life is worth everything we put into it.
We made it our mission to start small. We dream big, but know our limitations. We started with our 3 acre marketgarden (we only planted half of it our first year), and shelved the idea of adding animals until we could get a handle on what we could grow. We rented out the rest of the acreage to a local guy who grows alfalfa on it (which fits into our soil conservation ideas and allows us several options on how to use the ground down the road). We added chickens, but kept the flock small.
This year we’ve tripled our flock and will be adding goats. And believe me, the dreams are still big!
Working your own land will require many things from you. Time. Energy. Courage. You’ll have to make sacrifices. But the payoff is greater than any of those things.