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Breaking Ground

 
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So this is the second in what I suspect will be a long string of questions over the next 10 months, but its one of the most important.

My wife and I are planning to move and begin a homestead net year, and neither of us has any real experience growing, homesteading, or farming. We are going to be on a tight budget and not likley have a lot of money for this, but  the first thing concern I have is basically soil management. I'm breaking it into the three following basic questions and I would REALLY appreciate tips, advice, knowledge and stores about how other successful homesteaders have managed the following, particularly if it was done on a budget.

1)  Clearing land. How to do it? Assuming we get a property that isn't already cultivated; whats the best way to clear and prepare land for growing? Or are there other ways to get overgrown land, or praries, etc, converted into homestead farms?

2) Soil Improvement. Without buying tons of chemical fertilizers and farm equipment, how do do we cultivate good soil? This is the most important thing I need to know, and I know its going to take some time. How have you folks cultivated and improved the soil on your land? Where can I go for really good in-depth guidance on this?

3) Earth moving. This one is probably less important but also the most difficult to solve. I want to be able to shape my land at least a minimal amount to manage water and build a good permaculture "skeleton" for the homestead. But I absoultey do not have a budget to buy an excavator, or likely to hire a contractor. Would renting be an affordable option? What are some other options? Is this even something I need to worry about? What are your stories?

Thanks for the help folks!
 
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Nikolai,

Wow, big project ahead.  I have a few ideas, but first, a few basics from you.  How much land do you have?  How much do you want to clear?  Where are you located?  These things are helpful to get an understanding of what tasks lay ahead of you.  I and numerous others on this site would gladly help out, but we do need that bit of information first,

Looking forward to your response,

Eric
 
Nikolai Stepanovitch
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Hi Eric, thanks for your reply.

I don't have the land yet; we plan to make our move around January next year (providing we can find the right property for us). That said, based on what we do know you can assume the following:

1) We will be in northern Indiana/northwest Ohio USA.

2) I'm hoping to have about 10 acres. I'd like 20-30 if I could manage it, but I expect 10 will be more likley. Lowest I would go is 5, but again, 10 is more likley.

3) I'm hoping to have some woods on the property, but I don't know how likley that is where we will be. Either way, I want to eventually cultivate/utilize pretty much the entire thing (some prarie space will be needed, to keep bees fed and happy. How much depends on how much land we get. I'd say all in all I hope to clear and cultivate 65-75% of whatever we have>  Maybe as much as 90% if we end up in a very flat, open area.

Hipoe this help you help me!

Thanks

-Nikolai
 
Eric Hanson
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Nikolai,

So basically we are just talking in general terms here as you don’t actually have the land yet, but you do have an idea of where you will be and approximately how much you are looking for.

I think I can only really address point three (equipment) and maybe touch on points 1 & 2.

If you really think you will need an excavator, I would definitely think about renting one.  These are terribly expensive to buy and an operator does not come cheap.  If you do rent one, I would try as much as possible to save your projects for a time when you have the excavator.  Sometimes you can get a discounted weekly rate if you really save up your projects.  That being said, I suggest two other approaches to take:

1). Go slow.  I have a problem of trying too many projects all at once and then get unmotivated to keep at them when they hit a slow spot (think drying time).  If you delve into too many projects all at once, it is easy to get overwhelmed and make minimal/no progress.  Better to pick a couple specific goals and tackle them before moving on to another.  This may mean not clearing all the land you intend to eventually clear.

2). Have you considered a compact tractor?  These can range from a subcompact tractor up to a 60hp tractor with a cab.  I personally would stay on the smaller end since you are just starting out and even the smallest subcompact tractor can be worth it’s weight in gold.  Especially consider getting one with a loader.  I have owned two tractors in the 15 years I have owned my 9 acres and I can’t imagine not having one.  I started with a subcompact and it is powerful beyond its size and did all sorts of tasks that would have been laborious to impossible by hand.  It is a true time saver and I strongly suspect that your most precious commodity will be time.  You don’t have to buy new, and in fact there are great deals on used equipment but I strongly suggest that you stick with a Diesel model with hydraulics.

So I would love to know your thoughts on my thoughts.  Does going slow make sense and could you see a small tractor in your future?

Eric
 
Nikolai Stepanovitch
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Eric,

Yes, exactly. I'm still prospecting, as it were, for land in the area. I'm also trying to learn about agricultural loans and good financing options to get started when we find it, if you happen to know anything helpful there.

As far as a tractor, I could definitely see that. In fact I've kind of assumed that at some point I'm going to need to get one. I'd rather have one to begin with, but again part of my issue is money. My wife will have a decently well-paid job, but we still have two kds to care for and the last vestiges of her student loans (those will be gone in 5 years, max, however). So part of my concern is basically "front-loading" the work and expense. I'd love to get a tractor when we actually move and just have it ready to go, because that would make it so much easier to break ground for the first time and start doing real cultivation. I'm just not sure how we would go about getting it.

I guess that touches on your "go slow" advice, which I agree with. My original plan actually still had me working at first (outside the home), but that changed when our location changed to Ft. Wayne and my wife finally got me to admit that this is really what I want to do with my life anyways. No more office. I'd planned on getting the land and then starting with maybe just 1/2 an acre of growing. Then if that's going well go to 1-2. Then maybe add bees. Etc.   Plan has changed a bit; I will no longer be working outside the home, and as such I will have more time to devote to the homestead. I will also want enough work to keep me busy. So that's part of what I'm trying to gauge; how much can I do in the first and second year? But it will be a gradual ramping up.

As far as an excavator, I guess I want to ask; do you think that would actually be necessary? I thought I was going to need one after doing my initial research into homesteading and permaculture design in order to handle water management. I won't be buying tons of irrigation equipment or getting (probably) pre-irrigated farmland. So I thought I was going to need a small excavator at some point to dig basins and so forth. But do you think that's actually necessary? Or would you skip the excavator worries unless something else comes up.  Not going to lie, I had kinda planned on using one while I could to also build up a small shooting range...but that's not a critical project. Just fun.
 
Eric Hanson
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Nikolai,

It’s hard to speculate about the excavator as you don’t have land yet but I am inclined to say that you likely don’t need it.  If you can get even a small tractor, most of your earthmoving tasks can be done with that.  

Speaking of tractors again, I once was just starting out on my land so I know how tight money can be.  I actually wished I had my tractor earlier, but I am not complaining (I bought it the second year on our property).

Since you are talking about 10 acres and are considering going slow, I do have a thought for you for starting beds.  If you have a place where you want to have a garden bed but can’t get to yet, consider piling up a bunch of vegetation and letting it rot in place.  The pile will smother out the plants below but the rot will feed the soil.

Eric
 
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Have you seen this soil series? Excellent info about building soil. Good luck & welcome to permies.
 
pollinator
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So you mention clearing and cultivating around 6.5+ acres.

That is a modest pasture, a solid food forest, or a REALLY BIG market garden!

And, the level of clearing and terrain modification is wildly different depending on your goals.. and of course the starting point!

Do you mean cultivate as in intensive annual cropping, or as in remake into a loosely managed food forest, or...?
 
pollinator
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It would help to know what you are wanting to clear land for. Market gardening? Whole field planting? Woodland to pasture? The best method will differ for all of these.

One effective and commonly used approach to prepare blocks for market gardening is to use livestock to do the work, and simultaneously fertilise the soil. Justin Rhodes has good videos on YouTube of using chickens and mobile electric netting. Others use pigs. The advantage of combining pigs and chickens, for example, is that the combination together can till the soil and destroy the perennial root systems of grasses etc. If you focus on doing a block at a time thoroughly you will do better than over stretching yourself.

People even use pigs effectively to turn forest to pasture. Fence the area with electro net and pen the pigs there. As they root around they will clear the smaller material in the understory, then you can come through and manually clear anything they missed. Move them on, then over seed with grass etc...
 
Nikolai Stepanovitch
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D Nikolls wrote:So you mention clearing and cultivating around 6.5+ acres.

That is a modest pasture, a solid food forest, or a REALLY BIG market garden!

And, the level of clearing and terrain modification is wildly different depending on your goals.. and of course the starting point!

Do you mean cultivate as in intensive annual cropping, or as in remake into a loosely managed food forest, or...?



Kinda still figuring that. I don't plan to do much pasturing, wife doesn't want livestock (I'm insisting on some chickens, quail, and maybe rabbits). I do want some managed praire, mainly to provide fod for bees and whatever other edibles I can grow for us in there, with minimal intervention and disturbance. I would also really like a small food forest, but that will depend on if I can get land with forest at all.

I can say for sure that we plan to have a small fruit orchard (maybe 1/2 acre) and that the majority of what I want will be for market garden. That said, I'm open to many ways of going about the "cultivation". If there is a permaculture method of growing the amounts and varieties of veggies, grains, herbs, and fruits we want with minimal cultivation and management necessary, I'm all for it.

SO I guess its safe to say .5 acres of orchard, 1.5 acres of grains, .5 to 1 acres of prairie, and the rest of that 6.5 being market garden. And hopefully some additional acreage that is forest.
 
Nikolai Stepanovitch
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Michael Cox wrote:It would help to know what you are wanting to clear land for. Market gardening? Whole field planting? Woodland to pasture? The best method will differ for all of these.

One effective and commonly used approach to prepare blocks for market gardening is to use livestock to do the work, and simultaneously fertilise the soil. Justin Rhodes has good videos on YouTube of using chickens and mobile electric netting. Others use pigs. The advantage of combining pigs and chickens, for example, is that the combination together can till the soil and destroy the perennial root systems of grasses etc. If you focus on doing a block at a time thoroughly you will do better than over stretching yourself.

People even use pigs effectively to turn forest to pasture. Fence the area with electro net and pen the pigs there. As they root around they will clear the smaller material in the under story, then you can come through and manually clear anything they missed. Move them on, then over seed with grass etc...



So you can probably see in my other reply above that my wife is dead set against livestock, such as pigs and cows. Is this method possible using smaller animals like chickens and rabbits, or will larger animals be necessary to do it this way?
 
Eric Hanson
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Nikolai,

I was looking at your proposed land allotments and 6.5 acres is a LOT of market garden.  As in I personally could not come close to planting, maintaining and harvesting 6.5 acres.  In my personal opinion, the largest garden I could ever imagine would be about 1/2 acre and that by itself would be huge.  I am not saying you can’t do it by any means, I am simply saying that 5+ acres of market garden is truly enormous.

A thought might be to try 1/4 acre garden to start (or smaller) and work up to what you can do.  When gardening it is easy for one’s reach to extend one’s grasp—I am kinda dealing with that issue right now and I have a mere fraction of what you are describing.  Maybe start small and as you get established, increase your cultivated land.

Actually, for this sort of work load, a tractor will be enormously helpful.

Great thread and I hope to hear more!

Eric
 
Mike Barkley
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How does she feel about goats? Those will help clear the undergrowth. They taste mighty fine too!
 
Michael Cox
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With smaller animals there will be less impact, and more work for you to do yourselves. Chickens are commonly used.
 
D Nikolls
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Eric Hanson wrote:Nikolai,

I was looking at your proposed land allotments and 6.5 acres is a LOT of market garden.  As in I personally could not come close to planting, maintaining and harvesting 6.5 acres.  In my personal opinion, the largest garden I could ever imagine would be about 1/2 acre and that by itself would be huge.  I am not saying you can’t do it by any means, I am simply saying that 5+ acres of market garden is truly enormous.

A thought might be to try 1/4 acre garden to start (or smaller) and work up to what you can do.  When gardening it is easy for one’s reach to extend one’s grasp—I am kinda dealing with that issue right now and I have a mere fraction of what you are describing.  Maybe start small and as you get established, increase your cultivated land.

Actually, for this sort of work load, a tractor will be enormously helpful.

Great thread and I hope to hear more!

Eric



I have heard that a rule of thumb for labour for a market garden is at least 1 fulltime worker per acre.. obviously this will vary with level of mechanization, intensiveness, crop choices...

Are you planning on enployees? If you are really set on this much garden, is buying land near a good farmers market or major highway for customer access high on your list, or is the produce meant for some other use..?



As far as the excavator goes... it depends.

I have a tractor, 50hp; the smallest engine available for the frame, it goes up to 85HP I believe.

Right now I am reclearing about 0.4 acres to plant for pig forage. This land was logged and stumped, but they used a dozer, and ended up with all the topsoil concentrated in one area mixed up with rocks, limbs, and chunks of wood, then they burned the piles of wood waste atop this, but not very thoroughly.

I went through the resulting mess once with the excavator(150 size) last year, then several times with a breaking blade on the tractor. Picked rocks between each step. Rough leveled and sowed it with a cover crop for the winter, which was defeated by deer so it all went to weeds. Chop & dropped the weeds before much could bear seed.. now I am back using the tractor.


Aaand, despite all the work already done, I found a buried chunk of wood strong.enough that I sheared an implement pin on the breaking blade clean off and bent the top link.

So, it got *another* pass with the excavator, which I guesstimate costs something like 8-10x as much to operate as the tractor. Then I picked rocks and sticks by hand for about 50 hours, and tonight I started roughly leveling it again. Will finish that tomorrow, and pick rocks again. Then another grade, pick rocks one last time, and scramble to get a deer fence up so I can sow some stuff.


The tractor is a great, versatile tool, but I'd hate to be without a heavier piece of equipment for the really heavy work. And this was already stumped; I see no way to remove the stump of a 36" doug fir in a timely fashion using a tractor like mine or smaller.

A 60 size strikes me as quite capable for the clearing part. When I am digging a pond or tackling a big tree I really wish I had a 200 or larger.
 
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Slow down think things thru first . I would get a tractor four wheel drive and a loaded buy a name brand parts will be easier and cheaper exemplar starter for a mahindra 900$ plus oh a week away one for a new holland 250$ in stock don't think your saving money it will bite you eventually myself I have a John Deere and a kubota but the pest part is you can add implements as you go like a 3 point hitch back hoe box blade with teeth you'd be amazed at what you can do just remember go slow so not to break things I wouldn't undertake this with out a tractor .just a thought tho a part time job would cover the cost of a tractor you'd get more done in the long run auctions craigslist great ways to pick up equipment don't have to be new just work well .as for clearing land pigs will do the best job and tasty don't have to keep raising them their a tool maybe the wife will come around
 
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5 acres for a garden? Ack slow down! If you are thinking of an intensive market garden with 30inch beds that amount of land will require about 15 people. If you want to go all mechanised with a tractor pulling a plough, rotovator, various cultivators and seeders I would say you need 1 person to do the sowing/maintinence and 3 people to wash and pack twice a week, but you will need a lot of start up capital.  I'm not pulling these figures out of the air, they are what we and our family use. I personally manage 1/2 acre with occasional help, in high season that's 10 hour days.
 
Nikolai Stepanovitch
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Thanks for all this guys, you've all been very helpful! TO reassure everyone, I am planning on starting slow and small and building gradually as I am able. The 5-6 acre idea is where I'd eventually like to be; basically doing small farming to produce enough to be doing farmer's markets and making donations to food banks or shelters (using our homestead to give to charity is another very important goal to us). With your input and some reading I've done, I'm thinking best way t start is with some small animals to prep land ahead of time (and try to acquire a decent tractor when we buy the place).  Barring pigs, cattle, or horses, what are some smaller, easier animals you guy would recommend for the task? Goats? Rabbits? Chickens? Something I've never thought of?
 
Eric Hanson
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Nikolai,

Glad that you are going the slow route as that is the easiest way to get into homesteading.  

As far animals, I think the easiest to start would be chickens.  I once knew a man who owned 5 acres in Missouri and he sorta homesteaded the place.  He kept about 100 chickens, farmed about 1.5 acres, had a large garden and kept 2 pigs.  The pigs were the most interesting.

He bought the piglets at auction, but they were always pigs that had hip displasia.  He would typically get the two for under $5.  Basically they were given away.  He would raise them for a year and have them butchered, which was always paid for by a portion of the meat, not cash.  The pigs were entirely fed from on site food.  He had awesome bacon.

But if pigs are not for you, goats can give meat, milk or both and can live on almost anything.  Sheep can also be a good bet.

I like the sounds of your plan as it develops.  

Eric
 
D Nikolls
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If you are absolutely against pig, chickens or goats are your best bets.


But I honestly think pigs are easier. They don't jump fences, they don't get eaten by raptors or weasels etc. They are pretty darn robust compared to chickens, and for the same impact you are dealing with maybe 1/10th? of the headcount...

IMO they are also certainly easier than goats in the containment department, as well as much less likely to be cougar, bear, or dog prey.

And they go great with chickens. I do think starting with just one species is best though.


Running goats to knock down the brush followed by chickens to clear the ground would be a great combo. Pigs will do both, to a degree.


I did 7 pigs in year 1. There were only a couple snags, despite the mad scramble to be ready.

One was the need for a floored shelter; I trusted a variety of literature/sources that said this was unnecessary, and they were wrong, for my climate. So my pigs started to get pneumonia. I caught it early as I was taking time to observe them 3x a day; I got a second opinion from someone more experienced, and moved them inside a building with a pallet/plywood shelter in a corner with lots of straw, gave them garlic and electrolytes, and they all recovered in a couple days.

The other issue was getting that pork sold in a saturated market where local pork prices often hover a bit below the cost of raising them. A couple of my friends saved me there, finding 90% of my customers. I would have been screwed without them.


I was expecting more clearing than I got, from my lot. They were really not interested in my scotch broom, so progress was slow.
 
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I would seriously recommend living on your land for a year to watch what happens each season, how the rainfall runoff runs, where the water stands, where it is dry.  Pay attention to the plants and weeds because they are telling you what's in the soil and what's below the soil.  Watch where the sun is on it, where the shade is on it in each season.  Watch how the wind blows, if it's cold or drying or constant.

How to buy land should be your first concern at this point.  Be sure there's a really good year-round source of drinkable water.  Wells must be tested for how fast a well refills and whether the water is drinkable.  If the water needs filtering/sanitizing or isn't there all year, walk away!  Never mind the great price, walk away.  

If any part of a house was done without permits, walk away!!  Unless you have a ton of money to redo it all.

Ask about buried tanks, previous usage, how the neighbor's septic tanks or cesspits drain onto your land, possibly contaminating your fresh water.  Check for landslides or too-rocky soil.  Can you afford to fence in 10 acres, or repair at least half of a fence?  All 4 sides added up could equal a mile or more.

How far away is the nearest hardware store/home improvement store/propane/gasoline/groceries.  Being a road warrior is only fun for the first year, after that it takes up too much time and money and wear and tear on vehicles.

Housing questions like does it have central heating or does it require a woodstove with a year's supply of wood?  That's expensive if you buy wood, and it's time consuming if you use a chainsaw to create your own.  And where would you store it?  How would you keep a fire going all night?

These questions are a drop in the bucket compared to what is important in buying a house on rural land.  

The goal in buying property is not to have any scary surprises after it's yours.  Be skeptical, and believe that there are several great pieces of land that would work for you, not just one.  If you find yourself trying to make it work, needing to make a huge effort just to get it back to a starting point, it's going to take a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of stress on a relationship.  LIving the rural life is not easy, even when things are going well.  

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