Learning and doing first.
Before we started looking at properties we read a lot of books, Salatin’s “You Can Farm”, Coleman’s “The Winter Harvest Handbook”, Helen and Scott Nearing’s “The Good Life”, my personal favorite “10 Acres Enough” and many more. We attended classes, read, and started to practice self-sufficiency on a micro scale. Growing food, canning, building, making great compost, raising chickens, helping friends process an entire flock, milking, making cheese and cured meats, and even beginning to market our eggs and baked goods to co-workers gave us a taste of what we might be in for. All this was hobby farming but it helped us arrive at a handful of possible outcomes that we both found desirable.
In a perfect world we wanted to grow fruit and vegetables and use season extension. Build in permaculture concepts to make things more disease and pest resistant, rotate livestock and gardening, and grow our own feed. Those requirements indicated a minimum of 15 acres. We wanted to offer value-adds like canning, baking, even offering classes so we researched commercial kitchen regulations. We also weren’t averse to building our own home, if we had to. In some ways it seemed preferable to using the housing available on sites we could afford.
All of this pointed to two possible models, the Hermitage and the Market Farm.
Hermitage for us is akin to the traditional idea of a homestead. This is self-sufficiency without much of an income stream. Properties in this category are generally smaller, much more remote, and often subject to temperature extremes. Price is king for properties in this category. We need to have as much capital left over as possible for a slow spend out. Insurance, fuel, services like phone and internet, and property taxes add up when tallied annually or across a decade or two. Trips to the market would be irregular so establishing a customer base would be tricky. Raising a few extra pigs and chickens might be doable. Selling timber or specialty items might work as well. Advertising as a destination and playing B&B seems like a good way to earn extra income and offset costs.
The Market Farm
This is a small working farm in a traditional sense. The key is providing a consistent and excellent product. To us that means showing up like clockwork to the Farmer’s Markets and staying visible. It means finding customers to subscribe to a CSA. For a market farm there needs to be a market. The closer the better. A healthy market for us means a population willing to pay a little more for our product. Education and income numbers seem like good indicators to us. Economic growth also has been informative. In other words where education and income numbers were low but there were growth indicators we felt properties seemed like a good risk. Interestingly this gave us a clear chunk of country in the I-5 corridor. We’ve stuck to a three hundred mile range from our current place with searches near urban centers and colleges. The farther from home we look the more infrastructure we want however. Like any long distance relationship everything gets harder, managing road building and getting perennials established really requires feet on the ground.
Each property we looked at had different potential, but we asked the same questions as they related to our interests. Could we grow vegetables, grain, and small livestock? Were there trees to use for lumber, firewood, and shady edges for pigs? Was the property a “destination” was it attractive for promoting farm stays? How much rainfall was there?
Rainfall is an important factor by itself and one we used as our first filter when evaluating properties. In the Pacific NW rainfall falls into three categories, more than 60 inches annually, less than 30 inches, and what we thought we could handle. Ideally we wanted less than what we have at our house, but more than 30. This means poring over rainfall maps and understanding rain shadows. LeFemme seems to have these memorized at this point. Her list of bookmarks covers every county south of our home.
Tools and evaluation in the next installment…