Read an Excerpt
LETTERS TO CARLA
CHOOSING AND BUYING LAND
AN AGENT'S REBUTTAL
RESOURCES FOR BACK-TO-THE-LANDERS
SCHOOLS OF COUNTRY LIVING
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
MOTHERING WHEN IT GETS VERY COLD
GIVING BIRTH BY YOURSELF
CARING FOR YOUR DEAD
QUILTING, DUTCH-OVEN BAKING, AND CANDLESTICK MAKING
THREE STEPS TO PROFIT
MAKING THE MOVE
LETTERS TO CARLA
Books for Eden Seekers
The Homesteader Type
CHOOSING AND BUYING YOUR LAND
Can You Get a Job Near There? * Can You Afford
Land There? * Can You Do What You Care About
There? * How Much Land? * How Do You Know If
the Land Is Fertile?
BUYING YOUR LAND
Dealing for Land * Books on House Buying and
Fixing Up * An Agent's Rebuttal * Contingencies *
Ask! * Closing the Deal * Your Land Is a Spiritual
Your County Extension Agent * Agriculture Classes
and Clubs * State Agricultural Colleges *
Frequently Used USDA Phone Numbers * For
Information on Marketing Your Farm Product *
National Agriculture Library (NAL) * Low-Input
and Sustainable Agriculture * Sources of
BACK-TO-THE-LANDERS' BOOKS AND MAGAZINES
Inter-Library Loan * General Books about Food
Self-Sufficiency and Country Living * Back-to-the-Land
Book Dealers * Book Clubs * Magazines and
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES?
Conventional * Earth-Friendly Products
SOURCES OF ORGANICALLY GROWN FOOD AND BULK FOODS
SCHOOLS OF COUNTRY LIVING
ABOUT NONPOLLUTING ENERGY RESOURCES
National Appropriate Technology Assistance Service
(NATAS) * Sources of Private, Clean Energy Systems
* Thoughts on Clean, Renewable Energies
STORAGE IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
Vehicles * Medical * Food * Water * Emergency
LIVING SIMPLY ("PRIMITIVELY")
Books About Primitive Shelter Building
MOTHERING WHEN IT GETS VERY COLD
Clothing Children and Changing Babies * Baby
Bottles * Bathing Under Primitive Conditions *
Adjusting Hot Water Temperature * Sleeping Warm
* Bed-Wetting * Sickness
KEEPING THE HOUSE WARM
The Stove * Newspaper Uses * The Bathroom *
GIVING BIRTH BY YOURSELF
Toilet Babies * Wilderness Babies * Hospital Babies
* What to Do If You Must Deliver a Baby All Alone
HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR DEAD
Keeping Food Cool in Hot Weather * Ice Harvest *
Solar Cookers * The Campfire Kitchen * Cast-Iron
Cookware * Dutch Oven Cookery
Of Clothing and Dirt * Natural Clothing Fibers *
Washing by Hand * Flatirons
Shrunken Wool Blanket Quilt * How to Make a
Quilting Frame * Tying * Stuffing
Mail-Order Candle-Making Supplies * Dimensions
and Burning Rates * Melting Points * Stearic Acid *
Substances Suitable to Support a Wick * Wicking *
Shaping the Candle * Molding a Candle * Making
Dipped Candles * Color and Scent * Cooling and
THE THREE STEPS TO PROFIT
Producing * Processing * Selling * 14 Principles for
Making a Profit on the Farm
HOW TO PINCH A PENNY
Networking with Penny-Pinchers * How to Buy at
Auction * A 10-Step Plan to Straighten Out Your
Finances * Lee's Wisdom
Where Is Lyme? * When Is Lyme? * Lyme
Conditions * Diagnosis * Treatment * Prevention
NON-LYME (BIG) TICKS
Scorpions * Black Widow Spiders * Brown Recluse
Spider * Snakes
MEASUREMENTS: METRIC EQUIVALENTS
If you've considered moving to the country--yes! But don't move to the country in search of a notion of freedom that pictures you lying on the grass all of a fine summer's day, chewing on a succession of hay straws. True freedom doesn't mean a vacuum. In the kind of freedom I'm talking about, you work 12-hour days in the summer. Finding freedom is a strange kind of paradox, anyway--like the spiritual truths that you can actually get by giving, and that you can conquer by simply loving and having faith.
But first, a definition. What really is "country"? To me, "urban" means a place where you can't grow any of your own food. "Suburban" means you can have a garden but not food animals like chickens, pigs, or goats. Real "country living" means really having the right and opportunity to grow both food plants and animals. A block of apartments plopped into the middle of a cow pasture 10 miles from the supermarket isn't real "country." It's guaranteed commuter clog and developer's profit (buying cheap agricultural land and turning it into urban-density, perpetual-rent housing). If you can't have even a garden, you're in phony country. This book is about real country living--growing your family's food, both plant and animal.
So moving to a more rural area means being able to grow more--or most--of your own food. Homegrown food will taste better and be healthier and more affordable. And to grow your own food is to be in a very special and personal relationship with those species that feed you. When you plant seeds, you make a promise that you will be there to care for the plants as they grow. You will spread manure and till the ground before you plant those seeds. When they start to grow, you'll pull the weeds that threaten to stifle the plants and give them precious water to drink. For the animals, you promise to love them, feed them, doctor them, and forgive them the aggravations they cause you. In return, by their flesh they will help sustain you and your family The animals and plants you are possessed by give you freedom from food shortage and freedom from unwanted chemicals in your food.
There are people who can freeze or dry all the family's meat, grow their own grain, bake their own bread, and make all their own soap products. All they buy at the grocery store are spices, salt, and toilet paper. I admire such people, but please don't think I'm one of them. At one time or another I've tried to do a lot of those things, but never all at the same time. Such a person doesn't have time for much else, and I've got this book to write!
I love this life and I recommend it, but now let me do a little debunking. The rewards are largely the spiritual cultivation that work and austerity bestow. The easy way to do things is to do one thing and do it well. But if you commit yourself to this kind of life, you're committing yourself to trying to do a hundred incompatible and competitive things, and like as not, in your first year 75 of them will fizzle. It happens to me constantly. I've never yet grown a three-pound tomato. I have a friend who grows big ones, but I'm happy to get them store size.
Furthermore, the goats never give as much milk as the references say they will, nor do the hens lay as faithfully. My garden doesn't produce like anybody's magazine article, and it doesn't look like any of the photographs. I will add, however, that it does feed us.
At least some of the orchard crop usually gets attacked by some combination of animals and disease. This year  the robins took most of the cherries, the fungus got into the pears, and an early frost prevented the apricots and peaches from bearing fruit. The bees don't make as much honey as they are supposed to. Everything that eats requires more feed than you expect, and by fall you can toboggan from the house to the barn across all that manure. Nobody dares step onto the front porch barefoot, and I wouldn't even suggest having a picnic in the yard.
But if I don't let the chickens roam around the side of my organic garden, armies of insects come. Thousands of grasshoppers and potato bugs and tomato worms--long green monsters with horns and big mouths. All kinds of hungry, creeping, crawling, leaping things. And nothing that is supposed to stay confined does. We are constantly having to put some animal back in its appointed place. They go over, under, through, or--failing that--the children leave gates and cage doors wide open. In the mechanical realm, any machine that we want urgently and can manage to get started will break down later, usually after half a day. Cars and trucks are regularly subject to gas shortages, flat tires, ruined spark plugs, expired batteries, burnt-out generators, or worse.
We often have sick animals that require first aid. In the spring especially, the kitchen doubles as a veterinary hospital. Nevertheless, we invariably lose some of our crop of baby animals. The milk goats get horrible gashes on their teats from trying to jump barbed-wire fences. Cows occasionally eat nails or wire and would die of lingering indigestion if we didn't feed them a magnet. Some baby chicks always smother or drown or get trampled by a galloping old hen, run over by the car, or squeezed by the baby. Baby pigs catch cold, and goslings are the most vulnerable of all to fatal chills. Baby calves and goats are sometimes taken by diarrhea or more serious diseases. I Will add that this does not apply to kittens and puppies. They all live to grow up and reproduce themselves in cheerful abundance--providing they have no market value.
And last but not least, this ideal of rural living turns out to be pathetically dependent on city money. My husband, Mike, has to drive 28 miles each way and be away in town all day to make it. The land was so expensive.
Even with a town job, it's hard to earn enough to pay for it. And everything else costs money too: the constant mechanical repairs, the gas to commute to work, a spring supply of garden seed. And all the animals and plants require store props --buckets, medicine, machinery, housing ... Fencing is very expensive too.
We'd like to pay ourselves back by selling farm products, but it's hard to make a profit. Seems like farmers are the only people who buy retail and sell wholesale. And the job that pays for the farm also means that Mike is away every day and works long days because of commuting and overtime.
With all these things that require so much time and effort (and where you save money is by doing it yourself), the woman is the Johnny-on-the-spot when the bull goes through the fence, the pigs suddenly appear in the garden, the pickup gets a flat tire, or the house catches on fire. The homestead can be hard on a woman and a marriage. So be reminded of all these realities, and then relax. Admit you can't do everything. The most important thing is to survive! That means keeping your spiritual, mental, and physical health--and keeping your family happy and together.
MAKING THE MOVE
Letters to Carla
People who make the brave move from urban to rural are very dear to my heart, the ones I talk to in my mind when I'm writing. And they talk back. Over the years I've gotten letter after letter from readers who have done country living all their lives or for many years--or who are just beginning or just thinking about it. My readers have taught me a lot. I get a lot of "Hooray, Carla, we're on the land at last" letters, and the letter writers' routes back to the land were as individual as the people taking them.
Edith Brown, Vaughn, WA, wrote me, "Chauncey and I moved from Seattle last Valentine's Day to retire on our 40 acres that we bought for taxes 40 years ago. I had always vowed I would never live on a farm as I felt four years of homestead living in my early years were more than enough. When we came to look at our property a year and a half ago, the apple trees in the old, old orchard were in full bloom and a sight to behold. We observed that folks were preparing to move to the property across the road from our place so our dead-end road would begin to have some life. I changed my mind. Last summer, Chauncey raised a tremendous garden and we can hardly believe all the improvements made in the past year. We bought a used mobile home, an old truck, new tractor, rototiller and other equipment from sale of stock in our machine shop so we have enjoyed a very busy, but happy year."
Barbara Ingram and her husband made the move to the northern Idaho forestland in midlife: "If you are moving to an undeveloped piece of ground, there are three things you must have: 1) Groceries, six months' to a year's supply to keep you until you can get started. 2) Hand tools, all you can accumulate. 3) And all the junk you can haul. Too many people give all their stuff away, get out here, and find they could have used it--or traded it for something they could use. We came to our five undeveloped acres 2 1/2 years ago. We brought with us an 8-foot by 35-foot trailer ready to fall apart and loaded to capacity with stuff and groceries. And $20 and high hopes. The first year, bang! I got pregnant, which was impossible. We had been married for 9 years. [Several other women besides Barbara have told me that, after despairing of being able to conceive, their first year in the country or even wilderness also brought their first baby.]
"Two months ago we bought a generator. So now we have electricity for such things as a washing machine. But for two years we lived with no plumbing, no electricity, and no gas. We have a spring 300 feet from the house. We hauled water in buckets until Bob started hauling it in barrels with the jeep. With a band saw we built a large room on the trailer, a chicken house, a goat shed, rabbit hutches, and fences. Our added room on the trailer cost only $120 and it's 12 x 35 feet. (We tore down an old barn for materials.) Bob has a job now at a shake mill but the first year there was no job to be had. Thank goodness for the groceries. Now we have a pair of peacocks, 25 hens laying 60 dozen eggs a month, a nanny and billy goat, rabbits everywhere (what we don't eat, we sell), and a Jersey cow named Julie. It takes guts, hard work, and a big faith that the Lord will help you over the humps. But it can be done by middle-aged people with no money. We are stronger, healthier, and feel younger, even if we do go to bed after a 16-hour day, year-round, dead tired. It's a good tired!"
Marion Earnhart and her husband left the details of their move in God's hands: "God led us to sell or give away everything we had and take only what would fit in our VW Bug. After traveling through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, back through Wyoming and Montana, we were on our way to Canada when we ran out of food, money and things to sell. We spent the night in a little city park praying every minute. The next day my husband got a job that kept us going until we found a ranch job that included a place to live. I am now in the middle of nowhere, on a ranch, trying to figure out how they get those great big cows into those little tiny packages I'm used to buying. Amazing!!! Actually I spend most of my time chasing down the flies in my kitchen and trying to keep my husband's stomach halfway full."
Working on somebody else's farm is a good education, but Linda Lanigan and her husband wanted their own place. They told me about the long, serious road of apprenticeship they took to get there: "We are both from large cities. We left seven years ago and first went to Oklahoma, where a buddy of my husband's from Vietnam had a job for us on a large dry-land wheat farm, where they also fed out a couple hundred steers a year. We learned a lot, mainly that we didn't want to stay there, but that we definitely wanted to farm and live in the country! Next was Colorado, more experience--but Colorado is more of a resort state (and was too expensive). So we came to Idaho where we worked for a large rancher. My husband learned a lot about flood irrigation and all about cows and calves, caring for 3,000 head.
"After five years of hard-earned experience and below-poverty wages we felt we were ready to work our own place. We spent a year looking for just the right one. It had to be perfect, including an owner who would help us find financing. Working all those years for farmers and ranchers, averaging about 50 cents an hour, there wasn't any chance to save a down payment, though we did manage to collect most of the things necessary to a small homestead: a couple of milk cows and goats, chickens, rabbits, horses, a good tiller for my garden (I paid for it by custom tilling), a large pressure canner, butter churn, etc.
"Well, we found our place, got a really good deal. We went to FHA and they were willing to finance us because of our experience. But still, we will be doing everything we can in order to make payments. My husband has a full-time job working for the county. He operates the grader, plowing snow in winter and fixing roads during the summer. I drive the school bus. So we have two salaries, plus the sale of steers, plus my husband's shoeing and breaking and training a few horses each summer."
Patricia Twait, Cylinder, IA, wrote me, "I remember my mother rendering lard and making soap. She was so glad to quit doing those things and here you are telling how to do them. I loaned her the book to read and she laughed. Everything does go in cycles, doesn't it? My husband and our two sons and I moved to the country 8 years ago. It has been a very hard way to make a living. We farm 314 acres of corn and soybeans and farrow to finish about 1,000 hogs a year. I work as a school media specialist so we do have a monthly paycheck coming in."
Margie Becker of Cottonwood, CA: "Two years ago my family and I lived in a duplex in San Diego. My husband and I worked around the clock, 7 days a week, running a doughnut shop. This is no exaggeration--24- and 36-hour shifts were common. Then in February 1990, my husband's father died of cancer. My daughter, who is emotionally disabled, was really getting out of control and headed back into the hospital. Visiting my mother-in-law, I saw your book on her bookshelf and, for lack of anything better to do, I started to read it. I ended up having to share it with my husband who became as absorbed by your book as I was.
"We traded our little Toyota for a Ford van, sold all our stuff, and loaded up ourselves, 3 kids, and 2 dogs to look for our little piece of ground. We lived and traveled like that for almost 6 months until we finally found our home: 47.9 acres in Northern California's Shasta County. We view Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen from our front yard and not a neighbor for two miles in any direction, but the neighbors we do have are the greatest. We never would have made it without their help.
"We now have a herd of 26 goats (and it's growing), 5 hogs, and almost 100 chickens. We have been hauling our water for the last two years but this summer we finally have enough money to put in our own well. I cannot believe the change in my daughter since her diet was changed to natural foods without all of the sugars, dyes, and preservatives. That, combined with all of the fresh air and exercise she gets shepherding the goats, is really having an effect on her attitude and weight. We still work long, hard days and we still work 7 days a week, but it's different when I am not doing it to make some fat cat that I don't even know a little bit richer. This is for me!"
I also get letters from old-timers on the land like Cathy Peterson, Catawba, WI: "Many years ago I bought a copy of your `cookbook' at a rummage sale--a young couple of the `back to the land' era had decided to return to a more `civilized' area! We are dairy farmers. We have 8 children, 4 of them still at home. Both my husband and I have to work off the farm to pay the bills! There is a lot of work to do--but we also are active in church, 4-H, and a community food program."
Some of my readers are the children of parents like the Petersons, struggling to bring their precious memories to life again: "My name is Missy Kolb. I am 24 years old. I live in Mt. Airy, MD. I am originally from a small valley burg in the mountains of West Virginia called Burlington. We always had a big garden, canned our own peaches, tomatoes, pickles, applesauce, peas, beans, etc. We put up our own hogs, steers, deer, and turkey. I met my husband, married him, and we moved here in 1988. Then I realized that there was so much that I had been used to but never thoroughly learned how to do. I'd stirred apple butter kettles since I could hold a paddle, but never bothered to find out how much sugar, which apples are best, etc. I could clean and pack produce in jars from dawn to dusk. I could check seals and mix syrups and brines, but had no idea how to operate the pressure cooker!"
Some ex-urbanites adapt easily and happily, but for some the transition period brings real hardships of body and soul. Mike (from Idaho) and I (from Montana) both went to graduate school in New York (that's where we met) and felt very out of place there. I'm sure it can be the same agony in reverse when a city native emigrates to a rural area.
The problem I hear about most often from isolated wives newly moved from city to country is desperate loneliness. Ricky Witz, Armstrong, IL, wrote me, ... "4 1/2 months and I still didn't know even a single neighbor--the closest one lives over 1 mile away. But finally, through a series of coincidences, and as a result of prayer, I met a neighbor down the road about 1 1/2 miles!" So I urge you, plead with you: Join something! Join two or three somethings! Whatever there is around. Because they won't join you. You've got to make that first step of accepting and integrating with them. Trust me, it will turn out far better than your worst fears, though maybe not as good as your highest hopes.
The problem husbands most dread--and most often encounter--is joblessness and a shortage of money. If you give up, it will probably be because of one of those two problems--or both. A reader named Darlene wrote me, "Two and a half years ago, my husband and I decided to give up a comfortable suburban life (home and job) and move to an island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington. Island living had a lot of pros and cons. Our four children (aged 12, 13, 14, 15) loved and feared the place. We were terribly lonely. Meaningful work escaped us. We decided to leave after only 6 months."
That's how it is. Some never move to the country at all. Some go but leave after a time. Some go and like it; they put down roots and stay.
BOOKS FOR EDEN SEEKERS: How to Buy Land Cheap by Edward Preston is about buying land from county, federal, state, and city governments. Interesting but results not guaranteed (as Heinlein says, "TANSTAAFL"). How to Quit the Rat Race Successfully by John F. Edwards is a basic master guide to the decision making and process involved in relocating to rural land. Moving to the Country by Robert McGill is a collection of what-happened-then stories of those who made the big move. It follows them from the 1960s to the 1980s and was written by an extension service agent in Missouri. Good insights. The Eden Seekers Guide by William L. Seavey surveys "best" states, Western counties, small towns, Costa Rica, islands, etc. Interesting. Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country by Les Scher is a top-notch, thorough, and up-to-date book for real-world buyers. Surveying Your Land by Charles E. Lawson covers surveys, deeds, and title searches and includes a buyer's checklist. You can buy these from Eureka Resource, P.O. Box 53565, San Jose, CA 95153.
Then there's Life After the City: A Harrowsmith Guide to Rural Living by Charles Long, also about making the big move. Don Mitchell has written a series of country-living books: Moving UpCountry about making the move, Living UpCountry about being there, and Growing UpCountry about raising children there.
"Homesteading" has more than one meaning. It used to mean qualifying for free government land because you lived on it, built a house on it, and so on. Now it means living on the land and trying for at least some degree of home production of your needs, especially food. When people who were raised in cities try to accomplish that, I believe it can be every bit as much of a challenge for them as crossing the plains was for our pioneer ancestors. People go to all kinds of places to do their homesteading: the suburbs of their city, the mountains of Appalachia or the western United States, the northeastern United States, the Midwest, northern California, Alaska, Canada, Mexico. No matter where you are--or go--if you can grow a garden and raise some animals, you're a homesteader. And a fortunate human being!
THE HOMESTEADER TYPE: Who are these people? I've been getting to know them for nearly 25 years now by reading their wonderful letters. They are young, just graduated, just married, just beginning. They are in the middle years, making the massive change, starting all over. They are elderly, just retiring, free for the first time and determined to finish their years living their country dream. Are they "hippies"? "Squares"? Hippies, yes, living in communes, in all sorts of extended families. Or living alone. Or in traditional families. And conservatives, yes, folks prepared to survive a collapse of the economy or society--Latter-Day Saints preparing for a time of trials, Christians getting ready for the Last Days. Or environmentalists trying to preserve some chunk of Mother Earth, eager to practice what they preach and discover an agriculture and technology that can maintain human society on a flourishing blue-green planet for a million years rather than degrade and destroy it in a hundred.
Alternative Families and Economics. Helpful readers have made me understand that there are other ways to live on the land besides the husband-works-wife-keeps-house style of my own experience. Some are weekend farmers who can get away to their piece of earth only two days a week but still find satisfaction and a family food supply there. Some people "buy" a share in a farm and visit and work there during weekends and vacations, although the real responsibility resides with a full-time manager. I've talked to "house-husbands" such as John Herrington of Greely, CO, who manages the farm and cares for his 17-month-old baby while his wife works. "Sometimes it gets pretty hectic," he told me. "Sometimes I wish she'd come home and let me go out." Often both spouses work; often it's the only way they can hang on to their beloved land. I've also met people who buy and hold their land in common but own their homes, plants, and animals individually.
One brave lady, Martha Wells of Normangee, TX, told me about her version of country living: "Howdy, from Texas! In 1984, I finally moved to the family farm. My husband did not know anything about farm life before moving here. And, with his working off the farm, a lot of `man-things' are left to me. I want to let your readers know, a woman can do a lot more than she suspects! I knew how to string the hay baler and run the tractor, so guess who gets to do the hay baling each year! (After getting tired of having to fix the baler after the men used it, I took over that job.) I run commercial Brahma x Hereford-type cows. When they get penned and wormed, branded, or whatever, I do the penning and separating. Actually crawling in to castrate or give shots, yes, I occasionally lose my nerve and require help! I always assist in the delivery of my brood sows and castrate my own boar pigs also."
Commercial Farmers. Farmers who earn their living producing agricultural products typically have college degrees in agriculture and highly mechanized and incorporated farms. That's not a sin. Most farms are incorporated, not so much to be tax write-offs as to try to keep the farm in the family at inheritance-tax time. The dream is equally meaningful for these people, who have long-established roots in their land and a proud family tradition of farming. They are always living on the brink, always struggling to do more work than there is time for, to pay more bills than there is money for, to find ways to improve their production and their land, and they are ever conscious that a year or even just an incident of poor management could cause them to lose the farm forever.
I am concerned that chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides upset the local ecology and poison groundwater supplies that all area residents, rural or urban, depend on. I'd like to see farms progress as rapidly as possible toward nonpolluting technologies, but I understand the risk and agony of economically hard-pressed farmers wrestling with the monetary side of those choices.
CHOOSING AND BUYING YOUR LAND
This book is mainly about how to grow food. To do that, you need access to land--your own or yours to work with. You need at least enough for a garden and maybe also some animals--space for a hen house and rabbit pens, pasture, and a barn for goats or a cow. You have to think way ahead to get your piece of land. You have to make sacrifices and maybe work two jobs to boot. But you can do it if you really want to.
I've seen too many people sink all their money into a piece of land, only to discover they can't find jobs in the area, the land isn't fertile, they don't like the area after all, etc. I strongly recommend that you first rent and try to find work in the area you're interested in. Once you have commenced earning a living there, you can gradually, and more knowledgeably, shop for land while you rent.
Here are some factors to consider when choosing where to look for land.
CAN YOU GET A JOB NEAR THERE? Would some kind of special training make it more possible for you to earn a living there? Jobs in really rural areas are scarce, and openings go first to local people (and they should). Rural jobs are often highly specialized, such as logging or operating farm equipment (you have to be a skilled mechanic too). If you are city-raised, you don't know anything about these things, and potential employers understand that even better than you. You'll have to learn your way around--learn where to ask and whom to ask for. You may want to pick a spot near a university or medium-sized town--if that is a place where you'd have a marketable skill. Unless you have a large and dependable private income, stay near a place where you are sure you can find work, probably a city of some size.
CAN YOU AFFORD LAND THERE? On the other hand, land prices near the cities are high because of the heavy competition for properties, and property taxes are high too. You have to go hundreds of miles from any major metropolitan area to find land at its true agricultural value. An area receiving a flood of immigrants can change its nature very quickly. Certain very scenic and well-publicized areas are attracting so many new residents that the influx is creating problems with sewage disposal and pressure on the school system, not to mention that whole valley bottoms of fertile land are getting covered with homes. (Better to put the house on your untillable hillside and reserve the flat for garden, cropland, or pasture.) Land in that sort of too-quickly growing area is already expensive and getting more so. So if there are frequent "land for sale" signs and you see new homes left and right, consider looking elsewhere. And if you take a creek, timber, and a view of a snow-capped mountain range off your list of necessities, you'll get a better price and fewer neighbors.
CAN YOU DO WHAT YOU CARE ABOUT THERE?
Do you just want a cottage for vacation getaways? Or a full-time place where you'll live year-round, grow food in a good garden, and have a pasture for animals and a woodlot for firewood? Or do you plan to vacation there now but live there full-time after it's paid for? Do you love fishing and want access to clean trout water? Or to a good deer hunting area? Do you want an existing home on the place or the adventure of building your own? Do you want neighbors close or scarce and far away? Do you want store, school, and church close for convenience and economy? Or far away for privacy?
HOW MUCH LAND? A reader named Tom wrote and asked me, "How much land do you need for a few cows, hogs, chickens, ducks, etc." Good question. First of all, figure out the space you need for buildings, driveways, and lawns. Then add the space you want for a garden--and animals.
A Half Acre. This would allow you to keep a couple hives of bees, plant a fruit orchard, and keep a few grazing animals, such as 2 milk goats, 2 weaner pigs, 3-12 hens, and some rabbits. If you have water, you could add a few ducks or geese. Put your orchard around the perimeter of your land, so you can have a permanent grass pasture in the center of it. If you divide up the pasture with electric fence and rotate at intervals of 3 weeks or less, you can get more out of it. You'll need housing and yarding for all your animals, so they can be confined when the grass shows signs of failing under the onslaught. On just a half acre, you'll have to compromise with livestock between a confined lifestyle and some opportunities to get out on pasture. But a half acre is really very small.
An Acre. Remember, we're not counting the house, lawn, etc. An acre is twice as good, of course, as a half. You could consider keeping a breed sow in place of the two weaner pigs and profiting by her piglets. If you hate goat milk, you might keep a small breed of cow instead, although this is still rather small for a cow. You could raise a half-dozen goslings as well as chickens and rabbits. Your animals will be able to get a greater part of their diet from grazing.
Two Acres. This would be enough to comfortably pasture a cow and grow a sizable garden and orchard, if all the soil is good and there's plenty of water to irrigate it. Three, four, or five acres would be better.
Ten Acres. This is a mini-farm. You can install one or more ponds for raising fish and have numerous waterfowl too. You have enough land to have a nice grain patch or other field crop in rotation, in addition to your pasture and pond.
Twenty Acres. With twenty acres of good garden land, you could probably make your family's living by growing something.
Here we are talking about acres of fertile, irrigable ground. But they're hard to find, and costly. You're more likely to be offered wooded areas, steep hillsides, swamps, or shallow soils. But much depends on the skill of the gardener: the one before you, and the one you are. There are people who have made lush garden spots in the arctic and in the tropics, on salt soil and on bare rock, and in abandoned gravel pits.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THE LAND IS FERTILE? My friend Frank Ryset is a real estate agent. He's an honest and sincere man. I asked him that and he asked me, "How high is the sagebrush? If the sagebrush was only up to his boot tops, my dad didn't think it was worth plowing, but if it reached up to the horse's belly he judged we could make that land produce. So how deep is the grass? How tall and lush are the trees? Have the berry bushes borne fruit? Consider also that you may be able to increase the production by building up the soil. A soil testing service can be located through your Yellow Pages or county agent, or you can do it yourself using a purchased kit. Soil chemistry tests tell you in precise, technical terminology that land's potential productivity." (More on this in Chapter 2.)
Buying Your Land
Land is expensive if it's good for gardening or pasture. Turnover is slow, so you may have to wait for a piece that's in your desired location. If the demand is high, you may have to be ready to leap when your chance does come along. Prices may be high already and higher as time passes. Required down payments may be large. Or sometimes prices and down payments get into a lowering trend for a while; that's a good time to buy. Cash really talks in land deals; so does property you already own and can trade. But sometimes you can swing a deal with less money down than you might think, if you keep trying. Interest will be a heavy additional financial load on any contract you are paying off over time.
Stay within commuting distance, or bring all the city money with you that you can. Jobs are easier to find in the city, and wages are much higher. Of course, the problem with city money is that land on the edge of a town costs more than it does in a very remote or agriculturally poor area. Try to spend that money so that you get the best value for it. In general, the sooner you buy the better--now rather than twenty years from now, because land prices tend to rise over the long haul. Investing in land is a pretty safe place to put your money, because land seems to be inflation-proof (its value increases proportionate to inflation). Land does not depreciate (decrease in value with time) as do cars, mobile homes, and boats. Instead, land becomes worth more with time, because while things can be manufactured in greater numbers all the time, there is only one earth (and ever more people wanting a piece). Land is generally cheaper per acre in big hunks (by the hundred acres) than in little ones (1-5 acres), but most people can't afford a hundred acres. If you want a place to grow food, I'd suggest you get started with your house/lawn plus 3-5 acres of good, tillable, rainy-climate or irrigable land.
DEALING FOR LAND: Don't wait for a land promoter to shove a deal under your nose. Be prepared to personally work at finding and dealing for your piece of land. Watch the local newspaper's legal notices section for announcements of places being sold because of unpaid taxes, estate auctions, and mortgage foreclosures. Studying the paper will also inform you about local prices. If you want to work with a real estate agent, start by calling several of them and compare what happens. You could then choose one agent and work exclusively through that person, or you could look at properties with several of them. There is never a charge for you to be shown property by an agent.
Sale "by Owner." You could also deal directly with an owner. Some owners prefer to deal directly with you, so that they get all of your down payment, rather than work through a real estate agent. They'll advertise "by owner." Without a real estate agent in the picture, you might be able to make the purchase for somewhat less cash down. To find an owner who wants to sell, drive around and look for "sale by owner" signs, and watch the advertisements. Or put in your own ad describing how many acres you want, whether with or without buildings, what type of land, and how much money you can put down. Here's an example:
WANTED TO BUY: 15+ acres suitable for garden or pasture in Scrumptious School District. Buildings not necessary . . . [your telephone number]
Give the ad lots of time. Let it run all year if need be. It worked for us! There are also periodicals for prospective land buyers, but be cautious of the sales pitch. Montana Land Magazine, P.O. Box 30516, Billings, MT 59107-0516 lists Montana real estate. $10/year (4 issues). Rural Property Bulletin, P.O. Box 510-T, Escalante, UT 84726 is a monthly digest with listings by owners and agents of farms, ranches, acreages, rural homes, retreats in United States and Canada. $12/year, sample copy $1.
When You Visit Property That's for Sale. You'll probably be with an owner or agent, ask a lot of questions, take your time, and look at as nearly everything as you can. It's important, sooner or later, to walk every step of the property line with the owner so you'll know exactly where it is. (Then double-check that information with another source.) The more information you have, the better you can judge the property; also, if you buy the land, you'll need to know all that info.
Don't Talk Final Prices in a Hurry. If possible, get 3 good prospects before you make a deal. This will give you perspective on whats available and how much it costs. On the other hand, if you've studied the market and know what you want and what a good price is, and a bargain comes along--be prepared to move fast!
Preparing Your Offer. Don't make it for everything you have in cash, or the most you think you could pay, unless the owner is taking sealed bids. Make it for the smallest amount down and the smallest total price you think has a chance. You'll need the rest of your cash to get started on the place and to use as a cushion.
The Counteroffer. The owner may say no. He may revise his terms downward a little, though, and give them to you as his counteroffer. You may accept them or come back with your own counteroffer--somewhat better terms than you first offered, maybe a higher monthly payment. Avoid offering a higher rate of interest. Keep those interest costs as low as possible, because they will really cost you.
Interest. Calculate how much each interest point will cost you in cash. If possible, choose the deal with the lowest rate of interest. There's an old saying that you pay for a place twice: once in principal (the original price) and once in interest. But that was in the old days, when interest rates were lower. Now you might pay for it more than once over in interest.
Payments. Your contract will most likely call for a regular monthly payment for a stated number of years, such as $500 a month for 25 years. Or your payment plus all the interest due might be payable on a certain date annually or semiannually, such as $5,000 a year plus interest, payable November 1. (That's called "amortization.") large farm-type parcels are often handled on a payment-plus-interest, or amortized, basis. A November payment date assumes you have just sold your crop and have your year's cash in the bank.
Real Estate Agents. These folks get sizable fees, usually the day after the contract is signed, because their fee is paid out of the down payment. On a $30,000 deal, for example, the real estate company typically may get $3,000 cash. The agent who has been personally helping you may get $1,000 of that. So the down payment has to be $5,000 if the owner requires at least $2,000 down for himself. In most of the real estate deals I've been involved in if an agent was also involved, the majority of the down payment asked went to pay the real estate company's fee.
Radon Testing. Radon is a naturally occurring but carcinogenic gas that seeps out of certain soils. You can mail-order radon testing kits from Chem-Safe, Inc., Pullman, WA, (800) 537-7012; the Cavalier Corp, Spokane, WA, (509) 926-6214; Septech, Spokane, WA, (509) 4676274; or Westcoast Environmental Services, Seattle, WA, (206) 3240920. And that's just in the state of Washington. Look in your Yellow Pages under "Radon" for somebody local.
BOOKS ON HOUSE BUYING AND FIXING UP: On the subject of buyer brokering and agents' obligations, read Sloan Bashinsky's 115-page book, Home Buyers: Lambs to the Slaughter. For help with inspecting and estimating, read The Complete Book of Home Inspection by Norman Becker. For a reference on real estate language and law, read All America's Real Estate Book by Carolyn Janik and Ruth Rejnis, an overall, quality look at the subject that covers building and remodeling as well as buying. On the subject of the home as environment and its impact on family health, read The Healthy Home by Linda Mason Hunter, which tells what you need to know about asbestos, formaldehyde, healthy lighting, lead, noise, radon, security, and water. Housewise by Suzanne Brangham is a good book for those planning on buying and improving an old "fixer" of a house. Another guide to fixing up fixers is The Old House Journal Compendium, edited by Clem Labine and Carolyn Flaherty. Your Low-Tax Dream House by Steve Carlson, a tax assessor, focuses on property tax issues. Practical Homeowner is a good magazine for people who want to do their own building, remodeling, heating, plumbing, etc. It also carries good articles on financing, contractors, etc.: P.O. Box 50421, Boulder, CO 80321-0421, (800) 525-0643; $13.97/nine issues. And I recommend Washington Homes: Buying, Selling, and Investing in Seattle and State-wide Real Estate by Jim Stacey The book is actually suitable for self-educating buyers in any state because it's very thorough on basic buy/sell how-to for both urban and rural properties. Jim's so good that I asked him to critique the real estate section of this book, and his advice considerably enriched it!
AN AGENT'S REBUTTAL: Ninth edition, August 1992. Mary Ashby Purington, Clinton, MT, wrote me, "Having been a real estate agent, then an independent broker, for 20 years, I'd like to offer some insights."
Agent Services for the Seller. "The agent earns his or her money from the seller by screening potential buyers for credit-worthiness and ability to pay. (How many owner-sellers know how to obtain credit reports on would-be buyers?) Sellers also pay agents for explaining zoning, water rights, and covenants, etc. Informing the buyer of these things is the responsibility of the agent, legally and morally. Agents also handle important details like setting up an escrow properly. I've seen escrows set up without an agent in which a quitclaim deed from a previous buyer who had defaulted was not included, thus clouding the title. This sort of problem comes to light when a title search is made, an automatic step for a good agent."
Agent Services for the Buyer. Legally an agent works for the seller, but he or she helps the buyer by providing information on the availability of suitable property, taking the buyer to visit that property, explaining details about it, and then helping to negotiate a deal. Agents usually have access to listings of all local properties for sale by all brokerages, through what is called a multiple-listing service. Mary added, "A real estate agent or broker knows the market value of property in his/her area, thus saving you lots of time. But try to find out before you talk to agents in person what local prices are, by making lots of phone calls on ads and trying to determine for yourself the range of prices."
Split Commissions. "If a property that sounds especially attractive to you is represented by your ultimate nightmare agent, don't despair: an agent you like may be able to get it for you. Acreages are less likely to be sold by brokers belonging to a multiple-listing service, but it's common practice for them to cooperate with one another and split commissions."
Agent as Matchmaker. "An otherwise improbable deal is more likely to occur when there's a go-between to take the heat. Emotions can safely be vented on the agent without damaging the chances for an eventual deal. Think of agents as marriage brokers who'll match-make you and the land you want."
Choosing Your Agent. "You'll find many different personalities among real estate agents. Visit with as many as it takes, preferably face-to-face, until you find a person with whom you feel comfortable. But be aware that some of them will `grab on' like bulldogs if they decide you're a serious buyer, and it may take very firm rejection before you convince that person you are not going to be his/her prospect! If you're inclined to trust the `soft-sell,' easygoing type of agent, be aware that seduction can feel good--until you wake up and realize you've been had! Because in the end, you must look out for yourself." Let me add that an agent who has lived and worked in one place for a long time will be well known in a small community. Ask around and learn his or her reputation. Does the agent have a record of cheating people, of selling bad land at inflated prices to dreamy-eyed would-he city escapees?
CONTINGENCIES: "It's a good idea for a buyer to make a list of requirements and specify them--things such as a water right--as contingencies in a sales contract, especially if they are not easily researched. A contingency is saying, `I agree to buy if have first water rights to such-and-such a creek,' only the legalese `contingent on having' is used in place of `if I have.' Contingencies are useful if you fear a property may sell to someone else before you have a chance to check it out." Here are some specific aspects you should check into before buying--or make part of your deal as the "contingencies" Mary referred to.
Access Rights and Road Matters. Are there road access rights to the property, or could you be one day surrounded by people who padlock their gates and can legally prevent you from going home? Real estate agent Frank Ryset advised, "Land can be cheap and easy to buy, but if there is no road to get to it, or if the road is good only for four months out of the year, your land value is worth only one-third the value of land that you can drive to year-round." Will you have to put in a road? Find out what legal restrictions apply and how much that would cost. Even a short driveway can be expensive. Figure on 10-feet wide in all its straight places and 14 feet wide anywhere it curves.
You'll want to either pave, concrete, or gravel the surface. A gravel road needs a slight slope from the center to the edge of about 1/4 inch per foot to make it shed water. A gravel road also needs more gravel added every few years to fill in ruts and maintain traction. If your road goes over a creek, or a place where there is a creek after rain, you'll want to install a culvert there.
Water. Be especially careful to double-check whatever is said about water and septic rights. A secure--and unpolluted!--water supply is necessary unless you're going to truck it in weekly (which some homesteaders, especially desert dwellers, do!) Not all land has water underneath it, even if there is water running over or under the adjacent property The only way to know for sure is to try drilling a well before you buy. Before you buy undeveloped land, find out how much it will cost to drill a well, pipe water in, or put in an aqueduct to bring water to you. Availability of water to irrigate land and produce the crops you want to raise to live is important! The best time to check on water supply is when the weather is hot and dry; springs that run in April are often dry by August. And find out if there is a land use requirement--a condition imposed by county health boards stating that only one sewage system can be put on a 5-acre parcel, for example, depending on the percolation or absorption rate of the land. Growth management laws are causing a real tightening up on water requirements. Note: Water rights can be bought as well as sold. You could deal to buy the right to an unused spring, for example, on an adjacent piece of land.
Septic Rights. Unless your property is on a city sewer line that you could hook up to, you'll have to provide your own. That usually involves installing a septic tank and leach field. But government officials won't let you do that unless they judge the land permeable enough to absorb that water as it gradually drains out of the septic tank through the "leach lines" (long pipes with holes in them). So before you buy, get a county inspector to perform a percolation test to see if there's a spot on your land that will be okayed for percolation. If the land won't percolate, don't buy!--unless there's some truly possible and legal option. (More on water in Chapter 2.)
Assignable Lease. If you are told there is an "assignable lease," check that too. It sounds good, but it might not be true.
Electricity/Phone Costs. It could easily cost you thousands of dollars to bring in electricity and/or a phone if the property isn't already connected. The phone and electric companies will probably cooperate in getting their services to you, but you'll have to pay for it. Ask them what procedure you should follow to get their services, and how much it will cost. For either overhead or underground lines, they will charge by the foot. Compare that with how much an independent power system, such as a solar-power system ($5,000-10,000), would cost for power. You might well be ahead with private power! And consider buying some form of wireless telephone service.
Schooling. The school bus may not be willing or able to pick up your children at your prospective home. State or local school district policies or regulations might strictly forbid home schooling and militantly enforce that proscription. Frank warned, "Maybe today you don't have any desire or need to have a school bus coming by your door. But in 10 years you may have acquired some young ones. If you have to board your children out for schooling--what's life? That's 9 months of separation." On the other hand, home schooling is legal in some states, such as Montana and Washington.
Zoning and Building Codes. Frank said, "In the West, some of our counties are zoned and some are not. Or sometimes part of a county is restricted, while another portion is still clear of this type of ordinance. You can't ignore codes." I don't like zoning laws that require you to waste land in cosmetic lawns or that say you can't keep rabbits or chickens. People shouldn't have to be slaves to a standard of appearance that says everybody has to look rich and that makes it illegal to use your land to help grow your food. That's so far away from reality; it denies that we live by God's gifts of food, created by plants that grow in dirt strengthened by manure--and by dairy products stroked from animals that have given birth so they will make milk to feed their babies and ours, and that give their extra males to be our meat, nurturing us as we have nurtured them.
Furthermore, the modem concept of zoning canonizes our petroleum dependence, our society's constant and excessive driving. It has widely separated business from factory from home from farm from school and church and shopping mall. A century ago, before the automobile, cities were much smaller, and the rural countryside was dotted with hamlets every 6-12 miles. Each little town consisted of a cluster of homes, a church or two, a school, and essential stores and industrial enterprises. Outside that tiny urban center were the gardens, orchards, cultivated fields, and farms with livestock yards where much of the town's food was raised. Beyond that were often "woods," where wild animals survived.
For efficient transportation, this arrangement was ideal. People could walk to most of the places that we now drive to: children to and from school, adults to work and the store. The setup also fostered a strong social fabric: neighbors who truly looked after each other, a school that was managed by the local parents in a very positive way. The economy was sustainable and nonpolluting. Well, both cars and zoning laws are going to continue to be with us for a while.
Acreage Limitations. Frank explained, "You find this land you like and it looks like it will produce. Now go to the county zoning board to find out if in that area there are any acreage limitations, meaning how many acres per living unit is the requirement of the county? Maybe they won't let you buy less than 5 acres, for example, 5 acres per family."
Timber. "Timber utilization is another fast-approaching zoning restriction. Under these regulations you aren't able to fell trees on your property without permission of the zoning officer of the county." If you're buying in a forested area, another consideration is the possibility of a forest fire that could burn your buildings. Fire insurance is always costly, and a house in a place considered at risk for forest fire may not be insurable at all.
Owner-Built Home. You may have been dreaming of a log cabin made from the trees on your property, or a budget shelter constructed from scavenged materials. But the county zoning board might consider it illegal for you to build your own home unless you are capable of meeting every detail of a conventional building code. So find out for sure if you can do it yourself and under what limitations. Incidentally, many homesteaders bring in a cheap used trailer house, or do build their own. Use your land wisely. Don't cover up a fifth of your land with a big expensive sprawling house and another big hunk with lawn that's mostly there to look at. Keep your house small and use that land like a real farmer with a big garden and animals in a pasture.
Home-Based Business. You may have an idea for starting a business at home, but the zoning for your area may not permit that, or there may be some highly inconvenient restrictions or taxes on such businesses. Find out before you sink money into it.
Covenants. Frank advised, "When buying in a 'subdivision' or in an already laid-out area, be sure you check for covenants upon future owners to restrict what they will build. There have been covenants where only one family could occupy a building, or only one house be built per 10 acres, or even that you can't have a pig on the property."
Balloon Payment. "Read the fine print of any contract," Frank warned, "and have your own lawyer do that also. And never sign a contract that contains a balloon payment clause unless you understand it. For example, I knew a fellow who bought an apartment house for $62,000 with payments of just $500 a month. He knew it was a good deal, but it never worried him until after 8 years, when he went to his lawyer to ask what the `balloon payment' was that the contract said was coming due in 2 years. His lawyer explained that the `balloon payment' meant the entire rest of the principal and interest became due and payable on that date, 2 years from then. So he lost the apartment house and everything he had invested in it. Most of his payments had been going for interest, so he hadn't yet paid off enough principal to have acquired enough `equity' for the bank to be willing to loan him any money to make the balloon payment."
Title Search and Title Insurance. A title search determines whether there are any liens, water rights, back taxes, judgments, etc., against the property. A title company will do this search for you for a reasonable fee. Another worthwhile expenditure is for title insurance. Frank, teller of cautionary real estate tales, said: "Another friend of mine didn't worry about getting title insurance for the property he had just bought. It was a piece of land in the center of a block. He had his own private driveway; no one else came in and out of there. He lived on it for three years. Then one morning his neighbor had built a fence across his driveway. He went to the sheriff and to the county. What he discovered was that his driveway was entirely under the control of the other owner. It took a long court battle and almost as much in legal fees as he had paid for the house to secure a permanent, open easement to his property."
ASK! Asking questions, many questions of many sources, is the essence of wise buying. Be very conservative and careful in your dealing. You're going to have to live with this real estate contract a long time. Double-check everything the owner or real estate agent tells you with other sources.
1. Ask the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS); it's a government agency that gives free advice. Or ask your county extension agent if you have a choice. The agent may even be