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Tips for a family's 1st homestead  RSS feed

 
Posts: 10
Location: PA
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Hi all, been browsing the forum for about a year. First post! We're a young family looking for a property in PA and I am seeking any guidance on finding a homestead. Ideally I'd like at least a few acres and be able to supply all our own eggs, chicken, and vegetables within a year or two in a sustainable manner. Currently I work a day job but not against eventually leaving the rat race for a simpler, stress-free family life on a permie-ish family farm.

Any wisdom from fellow parents who are actually DOING this, not just researching it would be great. Actually, any game plans toward achieving this are helpful. My wife and I are getting fed up with inaction I guess, but I could lose my job within a year and be forced to relocate; I could probably get a similar job with very good pay but we'd be trapped in a major metro area with any hopes of land out the window. I'm sick of reading about all the great stuff I could be doing but can't (I make due, but tough with our small place and no yard).

  • Finding property? Been looking at Craiglist(s) for properties within 45 min of my work (day job). Have looked some at auctions, and LandAndFarms.com. Cheapest property is $2,500/acre and it tends to be woodland in areas with average to poor schools. Back of my mind, MAYBE would consider home schooling. Wanting to buy property/home outright with large savings I have (or a small mortgage). Should I "cold" approach older farmers in my area inquiring about their property/subsection of it?
  • What type of house? Have seen the cob thing, ferrocement, underground/wofati. Would consider RV or trailer for year or two while building structure, but that could be stressful. Not against property with a house that could use TLC. Want/need 3-4 bedrooms, 1500-2500 sqft. Wife actually LIKES cabins or at least their appearance...
  • Keep renting? I personally think real estate will get cheaper over time, or at least single-family homes without huge properties. House rentals are at least 33% more than I'm paying now, but we're also in a townhome with little/no yard.


  • Anything other tips/tricks/lessons learned/advice you can suggest would be great as well.
     
    pollinator
    Posts: 1460
    Location: Midlands, South Carolina Zone 7b/8a
    27
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    Lot of tips will come your way I’m sure.
    Here is what I look for when buying property: Note – these are my personal preferences – we will all have different ones.

    Well water – no bills for city water – see it running FULL FORCE before you buy
    Septic tank – no bills for public sewer - insist on covers removed and look at it before you buy. Respect your septic and you should not have lots of pumping bills.

    Outside of city limits – no city taxes. We are about 2 miles outside of city limits.
    No flood plains – will not be required to have flood insurance.
    No zoning restrictions.
    No Homeowners associations and/or covenants.

    Buy a fixer upper or stick a trailer on it until you make it what you want.

    Note on fixer uppers: There may be a lot of money involved in fixing up the house. But you can pay as you go and just live with the yucky stuff as long as you have a roof over your head. If you lose your income you are not stuck with a big mortgage or home equity loan; you can just live with the hole in the floor or the pink bathtub for a while – at least they belong to you.

    My mortgage was $277 per month. It is paid now. Where do I find places like this? I have had four different properties in S.C. in the last 18 years. Some in worse shape than others.

    I go check out those neighborhoods that are considered the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. I have always found people in those neighborhoods to be great neighbors and I like the price. My taxes are ridiculously low. I do what I want, and because I am lucky enough to have a great job I have plenty of extra money for fun stuff . And if it all goes south when I retire I can probably mow lawns for what it takes to pay our current bills.

    But it wasn’t always that way; during the lean years the only reason that I was able to keep a roof over my head was because my mortgage was often lower than what most people pay for rent. P.S. Never scrimp on electric. I always run that brand new (fire hazard). Everything else can wait.

    Another P.S. Welcome to Permies!!
     
    Posts: 80
    Location: NW Mass Zone 4 (5 for optomists)
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    As many a hippie found out 40 years ago: You'll be trading one form of stress for another, especially if you don't have a "real job" with income and are depending on crops for food/income.

    fer-instance: A late freeze sucks in your garden, but can be the end of a farm, if you don't have adequate reserves. In proper permaculture methodology you have many things and some make it through and you don't have the same issue a mono-crop farmer does, but it's not so uncommon for there still to be one crop you are a lot more economically dependent on than others - and you'll also have a job getting well-diversified and feeding yourselves in "a year or two" with little experience. Substitute freeze with plague of pests, drought, floods, hurricane irene, etc...or several in the same year.

    Consider a job with "not as good pay" that is still a job (preferably with benefits - no health insurance is one of the very expensive stresses of not having a normal job) that allows you to live NOT in a major metro area. That will ease the transition (and you may find that you have more money, too - major metro areas are expensive to live in, and are preventing you from growing your own food.)
     
    pollinator
    Posts: 10109
    Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
    274
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    I agree with L. Jones. Don't move to the country thinking you'll have a "simpler, stress-free life." The stresses of trying to set up a homestead can be tremendous, especially if you don't have an independent income and still have to either commute to a job or run a home business while you are doing the work to set up a farm. Nothing is "simpler" than ordering take-out. Growing your own food is not simple, in my experience! Keeping expectations realistic is important I think. It may take several years to be able to grow your own food, and some of us may never achieve food independence. Set modest goals and start small with each project; it is very easy to bite off more than you can chew. Large amounts of land may be hard to manage and if you can't manage pastures or crop fields properly, they can get out of control and grow to weeds and brush. See many threads on the board regarding serious weed problems. It's difficult to adequately plan for enough $ to pay to set up a homestead properly from the start. If you want animals, you'll have to pay for fencing and barns, which is expensive. You may have to be ok with spending all your spare money on the animals and crops while you live in the house with a hole in the floor and pink bathtub, unless you have oodles of spare $$.
     
    Posts: 159
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    LOL...Diesel...four bucks a gallon...hay...eight bucks a bale...the math sucks, but it sure is fun.
     
    Posts: 19
    Location: Northeast Tennessee
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    I have to agree with previous posters. While we are not trying to produce as much of our own food as you are hoping to do, we have been working for three years now trying to supply a good portion of our vegetables and some eggs. My husband works full time but helps tremendously on the weekends (although he has had to travel for the past nine months). I stay home with a two and six year old (and a third baby on the way), the oldest of whom I will start "officially" homeschooling soon. During this time, despite my Weston Price-type nutrition goals for our family, I cannot tell you how much we have started getting fast food and ordering pizza while working on the yard until late in the day. Since you are looking at a homestead, and we live in a semi-rural suburbs, you have different constraints than we do, but I will detail our accomplishments and setbacks here to give you an idea. In three years, we have

    1. Started a 35'x35' vegetable garden, which produces well but has suffered from some significant losses due to insect damage each year while we try to bring balance to the ecosystem. Since we have terrible soil and do not have the option to allow weeds to work for us for a few years, we have built raised beds and hauled in purchased soil, manure, etc. I don't even want to give an estimate on this cost, but it has been a lot. As I have learned more, we have been finding less expensive ways to build vegetable beds, but that right there is an important consideration - there is a learning curve, and you will might make some costly mistakes along the way.
    2. Planted two apple trees, one cherry tree, three goumi shrubs, and two nanking cherry shrubs. Of these, we have gotten a handful of goumi berries so far. We just spent $100 on more fencing to keep the deer off of the fruit trees, which keep getting severely pruned.
    3. Planted 16 blueberry bushes. The two initial plantings died due to my inexperience, and we now have eight bushes that are striving to provide a few berries this year, despite some setbacks from deer. We are now looking into more expense to fence out the deer (I don't think cooking sepp holzer's bone sauce recipe is going to work in the suburbs!).
    4. Built a chicken coop. Since we live in a neighborhood that does not allow chickens, we built a very nice chicken coop of which the neighbors would approve. This cost us $1000!! Needless to say, the chickens are not paying for themselves yet.
    5. Started canning some of our vegetables.
    6. Started gooseberry, bayberry, currant, blackberry, elderberry, and raspberry hedges. So far, we have eaten a handful of raspberries and gooseberries (there have been so few that my kids actually cut the berries in half to share .
    7. Set up a seed starting area in our basement to get an early start on the season.
    8. Planted lots of beneficial perennials all over the place.
    9. Built a small wildlife pond to attract pest-eating critters.
    10. Tediously harvested and processed back walnuts from two mature trees (existing when we moved here). Only a few of the nuts were edible. I have no idea what I did wrong, but that was a lot of time and effort!
    11. We are learning to save seeds this year.
    12. Set up a rabbit hutch and run. Unfortunately, we are not hardcore enough to raise the rabbits for meat, and they are just for fun and their manure.
    13. Set up vermicomposting bins under the rabbit hutch. I killed a bunch of the worms over the winter by following directions online that recommended half burying the bins in the soil for warmth during the winter. In our heavy clay soil and wet winters, this just created a little pond for the worms. The worms that survived were in the bin that I thankfully never buried due to pregnancy morning sickness!
    14. Spent $300-$400 to fence in our vegetable garden to keep out the deer.
    15. Considering building a root cellar in our crawl space.

    I cannot speak about the stress level of relying on ones homestead to supply the food, but I at least think that there is a lot of stress in the work to become even partially self-sufficient. In your case, it sounds like you might have two adults working on the homestead daily, and possibly have the children in school, which could speed things up tremendously while you are getting things established. You may also have the means to acquire or rent equipment that we lack, such as a pickup truck, back hoe, tractor, or tiller (for initial garden setup, perhaps). Despite our slow progress, I am very thankful that my husband makes a decent income while we work towards our goals. I think it would be incredible stressful to do this without one person earning an outside income, especially taking into account losses from natural elements and from inexperience.

    On another note, because my children have little choice but to follow me around (and slow me down while I work on the soil and plants, they are learning an incredible amount about self-sufficiency, which I believe is going to be more valuable to them than anything they will learn in K-12 school (speaking as someone who was obsessed with academics but acquired almost no practical skills until I graduated from college). Even my two year-old can identify several of the weeds in our yard (and on hikes) and knows which ones are safe for him to eat, and the two kids play Little House on the Prairie together looking for food "in the wild" for their meals, shearing pretend sheep for their clothing, "tapping" our maple trees for their syrup, and growing pretend flax for their linen. I don't *think* I am teaching them to hate gardening with all of the hard work, but time will tell! Each child has a little 4'x4' raised bed for growing some food, and even the little guy cherishes his plot.

    Have you considered buying land now so that you can plant some of the slower-growing trees for a forest garden and start building the soil while you continue your current job and townhome situation? I have heard of people doing this, although I am not sure how well this works out in practice.
     
    pollinator
    Posts: 308
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    I don't know what's available in your area, but I'd consider looking for land with at least some buildings and infrastructure for farming. If you are working a day job And building a dwelling and storage buildings And starting your garden / homestead And learning everything as you go it's going to be pretty overwhelming. And a house that already exists is probably greener than most stuff you could build.

    I would also consider re-assessing your 'need' for a 1500 to 2500 square foot house. Average USA house size in the 50's was 1000 square feet and people lived just fine. Even smaller before that, with much bigger families. It is a very simple and satisfying way to make a dwelling much more affordable, much easier and quicker to build or renovate, and much greener. And you don't have to buy a bunch of stuff to fill it. Paid-for dwelling goes a long way towards financial independence. The 2500 square foot house is a cultural artifact of a cheap energy economy that is on it's way out, it never existed before except for a handful of the nobility. I live in 144 square feet, and I think with an average size family that 700 to 1000 would be entirely comfortable and feasible.

    There will be lots of challenges and adjustments to lifestyle and expectations, but the rewards can be great. Good luck!
     
    Roger Union
    Posts: 10
    Location: PA
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    Jeanine Gurley wrote:Lot of tips will come your way I’m sure.
    Here is what I look for when buying property: Note – these are my personal preferences – we will all have different ones.

    Well water – no bills for city water – see it running FULL FORCE before you buy


    Agree. Nice to have running, though I have family who are/were well drillers so I could potentially have this done for me at near cost.

    Septic tank – no bills for public sewer - insist on covers removed and look at it before you buy. Respect your septic and you should not have lots of pumping bills.


    Cool. What about composting toilets? I feel like for $1K or so (used?) it's the way to go. One less thing to worry about?

    Outside of city limits – no city taxes. We are about 2 miles outside of city limits.


    Are you talking municipal taxes? I've always lived in towns, boroughs, or townships. I know cities like Philly have crazy taxes.

    No flood plains – will not be required to have flood insurance.
    No zoning restrictions.
    No Homeowners associations and/or covenants.


    Good ones. Zoning particularly. Seems to be a huge battle among "us" here. I wish we could actually OWN land, but that's impossible now (Google "aloidal title").

    Buy a fixer upper or stick a trailer on it until you make it what you want.


    Yeah, tough with wife being picky (white people in a trailer... you get the point). Also don't want lead paint and the like in fixer-uppers, or a money pit situation.

    Note on fixer uppers: There may be a lot of money involved in fixing up the house. But you can pay as you go and just live with the yucky stuff as long as you have a roof over your head. If you lose your income you are not stuck with a big mortgage or home equity loan; you can just live with the hole in the floor or the pink bathtub for a while – at least they belong to you.

    My mortgage was $277 per month. It is paid now. Where do I find places like this? I have had four different properties in S.C. in the last 18 years. Some in worse shape than others.

    I go check out those neighborhoods that are considered the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. I have always found people in those neighborhoods to be great neighbors and I like the price. My taxes are ridiculously low. I do what I want, and because I am lucky enough to have a great job I have plenty of extra money for fun stuff . And if it all goes south when I retire I can probably mow lawns for what it takes to pay our current bills.

    But it wasn’t always that way; during the lean years the only reason that I was able to keep a roof over my head was because my mortgage was often lower than what most people pay for rent. P.S. Never scrimp on electric. I always run that brand new (fire hazard). Everything else can wait.

    Another P.S. Welcome to Permies!!


    Thanks for a great reply. I hope to buy in full so no mortgage. Ideally owner to me directly, for cash.

    Lately I've been getting good feelings from the searches for "cabin" on Craigslist, directly from owners. Seems like I can find 13 acre wooded areas for around $45K with a small cabin and often well/septic too.
     
    Roger Union
    Posts: 10
    Location: PA
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    L. Jones wrote:As many a hippie found out 40 years ago: You'll be trading one form of stress for another, especially if you don't have a "real job" with income and are depending on crops for food/income.


    Thanks for the sobering advice. This is a big decision for me. But at worst, I'd have a "bug out" location if things got bad in a city that I had to move to in order to still work (assuming layoffs at current location; have already survived several of them but who knows).

    fer-instance: A late freeze sucks in your garden, but can be the end of a farm, if you don't have adequate reserves. In proper permaculture methodology you have many things and some make it through and you don't have the same issue a mono-crop farmer does, but it's not so uncommon for there still to be one crop you are a lot more economically dependent on than others - and you'll also have a job getting well-diversified and feeding yourselves in "a year or two" with little experience. Substitute freeze with plague of pests, drought, floods, hurricane irene, etc...or several in the same year.

    Consider a job with "not as good pay" that is still a job (preferably with benefits - no health insurance is one of the very expensive stresses of not having a normal job) that allows you to live NOT in a major metro area. That will ease the transition (and you may find that you have more money, too - major metro areas are expensive to live in, and are preventing you from growing your own food.)



    Agree, plan to still work. In fact I have my main job but also 1 or 2 side jobs already. We have 2 very small children also, FYI.
     
    pollinator
    Posts: 4437
    Location: North Central Michigan
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    the land with good soil and good water is the most important part of the deal..a house is a bonus...

    buy don't rent if you can, renting is throwing money away

    when you have the papers in your hand that you own the property, immediately plant trees of anything that CAN grow there that produces food you WILL eat.

    next get your shrubs and bushes in and vines..berry bushes, grape vines..etc..and then work on permanent plants like your asparagus, rhubarb, good king henry, mult onions, etc.
     
    gardener
    Posts: 788
    Location: Ohio, USA
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    As for the advice about well & septic working, - agreed! But I live in CA, where water is one of the most limiting resources.

    I'd check out the soil - make sure you can start out growing things, or plan on spending a lot of time, money, and energy building it up. You can look at the health of the plants already growing there and/or get a soil test and/or look at the soils online.

    Structure is also important - if you planning on living there- some codes make it difficult to build new homes, so having existing lets you get onto the whole living there part faster.

    Be a nosey neighbor when looking. See what their issues are and gain insight from those already in the area.

    And, as was already mentioned, transition slowly. Someone once told me it takes atleast 3 years for a farm to become profitable, and so far I only know one person who might prove this wrong - and she had been farming at a different location years before! I've been working on a garden that at max production should be able to support most of our vegetable needs - going on 3 years and hoping that this time I'll have figured it out! In the mean time, I'm happy that I didn't jump into a big farm, because I would have fallen flat on my face.

    Oh, and speaking of which, experiment. Plant anything that could possibly grow and you would use it. See what will actually grow for you. Then, find things that are like the things that will grow for you and try planting those too. Keep refining your plantings to get seeds/plants that like your gardening style and location rather than trying to fight to get basil to grow during a Michigan winter. When you get varieties that work for you, then begin seed saving to have those refined to plants that are really adapted to the site.

    I know I'm repeating a lot, but hope it will be a bit helpful.
     
    Posts: 21
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    Have the well water tested before you buy and regularly thereafter, especially since you live in Pennsylvania.

    Plan on everything but the land costing 20-40% more than you think it will and taking up to 2x as long as you planned. (This has been our experience.)

    As others have said, transition slowly. Buy the land as soon as possible and start planting trees and shrubs. It takes 3-5 years for berry bushes to go into full production, 5-8 years to get ANY crop out of most fruit trees, and 10-20 years to get nut trees going. We bought our land in July of 2010 and planted our first fruit trees that fall. We expect to see our first apples and pears around 2014 or 2015.

    Once you have the place, start taking weekends and vacations at the homestead and work to improve it. In the two years we've owned our land, we've transformed the bramble-filled pasture into something almost usable, planted over 50 trees and shrubs, started a poultry house, and more. We just put in an Amish-built portable building to serve as a dwelling for now and we're working to finish that out. We've done all of this and we've never stayed up there for longer than 5 days at a time -and that was just the once. We'll typically go up just for the day or an overnight trip. We don't get up there much at all during the worst of the summer and the worst of the winter.

    When you select your cash crops, try to select several different ones that ripen at different times, need different conditions, etc. Try to pick at least one that isn't dependent on the weather at all, like soap. Value added is the watch word. Most of the successful farmers I know make most of their money from value added products. A basket of cucumbers might fetch $3; a jar of pickles will fetch the same, and you can get many jars per basket.

    Get to know your neighbors and ask one of them to keep an eye on your place when you're not around. This will prevent or reduce problems with theft and partying teenagers.
     
    I can't beleive you just said that. Now I need to calm down with this tiny ad:
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