Finding A Farm: Taking a Closer Look

First the good news – we are now the proud owners of 23.7 beautiful acres!  WooHoo!  It took awhile to get here, but we made it and now the real work begins.  It has about 12 or so acres of woodlot, a creek and the rest is gently sloping pasture with some flat areas for building and row crops.  No infrastructure or buildings – just raw land.  But wait – I’m getting ahead of myself – we need to finish up our posts about the process of finding a farm.  So without further adieu, let’s talk about making the offer and conducting the feasibility study.  This is what we came across in dealing with our property (Yippee!  did you catch that – it’s ours!)

Site Layout
Before planning anything we had to know where we intended to live. Whiteboard time! M and I spent two solid days mapping out where the house would sit, where the workshop would be, etc… Looking at Google Maps and large hand drawn diagrams helped but there was a lot of give and take. Orientation of the house, workshop and greenhouse and figuring out where trees uphill (south) would cast shadows took time. M is a spacial and visual guy who has this stuff in his head, I needed to see it… so he drew and explained while I drew some more and asked questions. By the end of the experience the kitchen table was covered in drawings and printouts of potential house plans, the whiteboard was drawn on and we even projected Photoshop drawings on the TV so we could get a good idea of scale and placement. We ended up with a hub and spoke layout with the main buildings in the center of the working part of the property. From there we had a good idea where the road would go, and it’s water shedding swale, and some ideas for septic placement, but neither of us knew where to site a well.

You Gotta Have Water
Water is the most important resource for a farm and although the PNW is pretty wet, you’d be surprised at how hard it can be to get water.  I had searched all of the well logs for the neighboring properties and it was pretty consistent that people in the valley were drilling less than 50 ft and those on higher elevations seem to be in the 150 – 200 ft range.  The bad news was 3 gpm seemed to be the average flow rate.  I called a well drilling company  recommended by the septic designer who also happened to be the guy that drilled the closest and most recent well with the best flow rate in the area – a whopping 22 gpm.  Turns out that was an anomaly, but this is where it began to get ugly.  The well guy was so negative.  He told me it would be best if I didn’t buy that property as finding a well in that area was next to impossible.  Although I appreciate him being concerned? Honest? I thought it was very odd, and it was very upsetting.  Talk about knocking the wind out of your sails.  But if it were true, it would be terrible to buy a piece of property, drop several thousand dollars drilling a bunch of holes that turned up dry, and be stuck with a place with no water.

I have to say that I find it disconcerting that drilling for a well is still such a crap shoot.  With all of the technology available these days, you’d think they could drill with a little more certainty.  I decided to get online and educate myself as to the whole well drilling process.  In the midst of my research I stumbled upon a company that uses electric pulse and sonar technology to help locate suitable sites for well drilling.  As luck would have it there was a groundwater surveying company less than an hour from the property.  We decided to give them a call and see what they were all about.

Long story short, we really liked the guy and had read a kazillion positive testimonials from people in the same area, so decided what the heck – let’s try it.  Better to spend a few dollars up front to find out whether there is any hope at all of hitting water, then having a drilling company come out and drill a couple hundred feet in several spots and come up with nothing.  We also felt better about doing this when we learned that the groundwater surveyor had lived a mile from this property about ten years ago, and that he had also worked on some of the wells in the area – including the next door neighbor’s well –  so was completely familiar with the existing wells and geology.

He studied geology maps and data available about the landforms in addition to the well logs for the neighboring properties.  He then spent quite a bit of time discussing everything with us and helped us to decide on four locations to run the tests.  After the tests were run, the data was sent to a geologist (as is required by the state government) to review and a report was issued.  One of the locations indicated we should find water at around 55 ft and the gpm would be in the 3 – 7 gpm range.  At $35 a foot for drilling, 55 ft sounds a whole lot better than 200 ft.  Armed with this information, we felt comfortable enough to move forward with our feasibility study.  We will see how this all plays out after we get the road in and can get a well drilling company in to drill, but we are hopeful…

Slippery When Wet…
There were no identified wetlands on the property, but county maps showed a little bit of hydric soils near the northeastern property line where we need to build a road.  While I was investigating the permitting and zoning process to get a house, pole barn, well, septic, power and road put in – the county raised a red flag.  In this state, any time you want to get a permit to build anything, hydric soils in the vicinity require a Wetland Delineation.  You have to hire a Wetland Specialist to investigate the area and make a determination as to whether or not there are wetlands.  If there are you either have to change your plans and build elsewhere, or, if there is no reasonable alternative, you can submit a Wetland Mitigation Plan.

We hired a Wetland Specialist to come out to advise us as to the extent this could affect our plans.  He determined by assessing existing plant life, a visual on the soil (using a probe and some charts) and a professional guesstimate that the soils would more than likely remain wet during the dry months (this can be determined by taking soil temperatures), that it would most definitely be classified as a wetland.

Because there is no other reasonable way to get onto this property it looks like we will be able to build our road but we will have to submit a Wetland Mitigation plan along with the Wetland Delineation report when we file our permit to build it.  Depending on how the wetland is classified, we will have to enhance other wetlands (either on or off the property) at anywhere from a 3:1 to a 7:1 ratio.  He was guessing we’d probably be in the middle at 5:1, so the approximately 1/2 acre of road that will go through the “soon to be classified” wetland will require us to enhance and protect about 2.5 additional wetland acres.

Enhancing a wetland means we will need to plant the area with suitable native plants at a specified density (i.e. 6′ x 6′ or 8′ x 8′) and will be required to submit annual reports (with pictures) showing that it is being managed properly.  I think the county may also do onsite inspections from time to time.  There happens to be about that much acreage along the northern border of the property between the proposed road and the creek that are already wetlands, so we are hoping that will satisfy the mitigation requirements.  Most of our plans for the property are above this area, so the impact is not as bad as it could have been, but the cost to deal with issue could run about $5000.  Luckily for us, the seller of the property was extremely understanding and generously adjusted the sales price to ease that burden.

With roads over water saturated soils some special precautions also need to be made so our rock won’t just sink into the clay. Geo fabric is an added cost up front, but hopefully will mean less maintenance over time.

But Will It Perc?
We were a little concerned about what a septic system was going to cost after talking to he neighbor who turns out to be a septic installer.  He said the soils were awful for septic and we’d probably need to do a pod system which would run about $18k!  Holy cow!  We had only budgeted $8k for a septic.  Our realtor recommended a friend of his who designs septic systems and he met us onsite to dig some preliminary perc test holes.  It turns out he specializes in DIY systems.  He shared his portfolio of pictures and diagrams outlining the process and assured us that anyone could do it – after all his own wife installed theirs.  He convinced me I could install our system.  I was even excited about the idea – he was that good.   Oh, yeah, I  almost forgot – I hate digging!  The good news is that a DIY system like this will cost about half of what a conventional septic would cost.

Power to the People
Power is at the main road, about 900 feet down hill from where we want to build.  I talked to the local power company about the costs involved in bringing power up.  The gentleman I talked to was very helpful and gave me a pretty good idea of the cost per foot to bring in power.  We would be responsible for trenching and purchasing the conduit (yea – more digging!), and the quotes seemed reasonable enough.  I found out later it was for underground power lines, which I would never have expected in a rural area, but I am thrilled to know it is affordable.  I am tired of power lines falling down around my ears.  I was also happy to learn that if we put in a well and had an approved septic desigb first, the power company would not charge for putting in the transformer.  We plan to incorporate alternative energy as we build, but having power at a reasonable distance will help and a grid-tied system is easier to manage.

So that’s the reality check.  We added up the potential costs (aiming high as always), and compared them to properties we had looked at with exisitng infrastructure and buildings and still felt it was in the ballpark.  After tossing some numbers back and forth with the sellers, we met them in person and that sure changed the whole dynamic.  We hit it off immediately and now it’s like we already have a ready made community in our soon to be new community.

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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5 Responses to Finding A Farm: Taking a Closer Look

  1. Miss. Zoe says:

    Congrats! My family is looking for land right now! Only about 10acres though, it’s still very exciting!

  2. LouiseM says:

    What exciting news! I’m left breathless (but not wordless!) at the amount and extent of your research. The whole well-drilling “thing” sounds challenging (even in the PNW!) but I’m sure you will sort it out.

    As far as the septic tank part goes, did you look at creating a septic “reed bed”? I don’t know how better to describe it but it’s an open “wetlands” area that also filters the waste. Prince Charles has one at Highgrove (doncha’ know!) and I’ve read about more normal people using them too. Sure there’s a lot of work involved in creating one (doubtless digging!) but it might also function as the “wetland” replacement too. Just my ill-informed 2 cents worth.

    Anyway, thrilled to bits for you both and so happy to hear your wonderful news.

    • Thanks Louise! We couldn’t be happier. This is why I’ve been so remiss in my folian duties… Now I have to figure out how to take care of my garden at home while getting a farm going that’s almost 2.5 hours away.
      Yes – I’m familiar with the septic system you mentioned and we are looking into whether or not the county will accept it. I’ve thought about submitting our septic design with a copy of the Prince Charles interview at Highgrove!! If it works for the Prince, surely it should work for them! Even if the county won’t accept it, I think we will be planting those types of plants in the vicinity anyway. Every little bit we can do to improve the environment is worth the extra effort even if we don’t get credit for it.
      Speaking of Highgrove, ever since I watched the interview I”m dying to have a Stumpery! The land next door on the southern border was recently logged and their slash piles are still sitting around. Bet I could find some nice pieces for it.
      Great to hear from you – take care!

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