It seems like this would be a good topic to discuss publicly.
I've lived here off and on for 4+ years; I am not a farmer, but I help out as a farm-sitter on a couple places.
I hope others who've lived here longer, or who looked at more options before choosing their land, will also make some observations.
What I know:
I assume you already know that the place is gorgeous, with open landscapes, shrub-steppe, forest, and little hidden lakes and rivers.
It is kind of far from everything (we budget 6+ hours to Seattle, 4.5 to Spokane from our place in the hills).
It is one of the sunniest parts of Washington State, due to a semi-arid inland climate, which means it also gets more extreme summer and winter temperatures (and day and night temperatures in summer).
You may or may not know that our northern neighbors in BC and the southern "north county" folks in the USA spell it differently: Okanagan for the Canuckistanis, Okanogan for the county, town, and region in the USA. I have never noticed any difference in pronunciation.
Arid to semi-arid, with a lot of alternating sun and cold. You may not realize that we are similar in climate to Kazakhstan and parts of Mongolia.
If those sound exotic, you should be prepared for a steep learning curve in adapting any land-care methods from your old "normal" places.
We are a sort of weird dry spot between the "Mediterranean" climate pattern of the West coast (3 months without rain is called "summer," AKA "fire season") and the "monsoon" pattern of the American Southwest (no rain except summer thunderstorms). We get a lot of rain-shadow effects and foehn winds from our neighboring mountain ranges. We can get both summer drought and fall/winter drought in the same year, or we can get sporadic patches of localized rain that can lead to near-adequate rainfall in a few lucky spots for one lucky year. This is our "normal." Though the weather map says we get an average of about 1 inch per month, 2 in May and June, and almost none in July and August, in reality it's rare to get an "average" rain year or rain month here. Almost all crops depend on irrigation, unless they are literally native forage-type plantings that you harvest in the years they happen to produce well. Different years are better for different things.
Many parts of the Okanogan Valley and Okanogan Highlands have extremely short growing seasons for common frost-tender crops.
If you are planning to farm, garden, or even ranch and raise your own hay, it would be very smart to come out and help an existing farmer for a few weeks or a season or two, and get a sense of what's possible and where the best spots are to do it. There are a lot of microclimates, to the point where neighbors on the same road may have very different results trying to manage water, frost, heat, or wild fire. Structural and land designs need to stand up to extreme heat, dry, cold, and wild fire, and conserve moisture. Anything with less than R-30 insulation is likely to become a money trap in winter, and possibly a fire trap depending on how you improve the insulation.
Drainage and protection from moisture are not big issues, as there isn't much. But as anywhere, avoid seasonal wetlands and flash-flood-prone creeks as potential building sites. They may see significant water only one year in five, but it does sometimes happen. If you come in from the "wet side" of WA or OR, and start trying to drain some little floodplain on your property to build on it, you will make enemies, and possibly disrupt a dozen or more families' access to dependable water. Water is precious here, and it's a lot easier to break it than to restore it.
General microclimates in the region:
- Valley floor has more irrigation options; tends to get socked in with cloudy or foggy times in winter, hot and dry in summer, with occasional thunderstorms. Longer growing season but may be subject to frost drainage coming down from nearby mountains and draws. The most common crops are apple or pear orchards, with a few people growing peaches or cherries (harder to ship to distant markets, may not be just the climate), and a fair amount of annual vegetable production.
- Lower hills are often big, fast-draining glacial deposits of sand and gravel. They are coverered in sagebrush steppe for a reason - the drainage means they may not hold water even if they get it, and many areas have been badly grazed leaving mostly sagebrush and conifers. Availability of water is likely to be localized and dependent on either deep wells, irrigation pipes, or tapping into a localized water feature below the surface.
- Mid-height hills include a lot of rocky scarps, ponderosa-grassy savannah, thickets of aspen, sumac, clusters or individual fruit trees like elderberry, apricot, wild cherry, saskatoon. If you are not in a frost pocket, or can find a good solar bowl, may be very possible to grow short-season gardens or orchards up to 2700 feet or higher; Heart of the Highlands and Lone Pine are both up in this general elevation range if I remember correctly. Water availability varies.
- 3000 to 4000 feet: most hills become predominately conifer, with Doug fir, spruce, ponderosa, and sub-alpine ponds and meadows. East side of the valley seems to be mostly granite, west side has more limestone and some lakes are alkaline. If there is nothing living in the lake there's a reason. Water availability varies, many wells are tapping snow-melt aquifers and can be unreliable in dry years.
- 4000+ to 7000 feet: this is evergreen and snow country, cool in summer, not a great place to retire or farm unless you REALLY like maintaining snow equipment.
Specific microclimates: Watch for canyons and valleys with major frost drainage. Even a flat bench can become a frost pocket as the upper mountains start chilling in the fall, or in early spring frosts.
Some locals say certain areas have predictably shorter growing seasons, it pays to intern with an experienced farmer who knows the area.
Watch for differences in solar aspect or soil type, that can lead to difference in water, frost, growing season.
We can have both too much dry heat, and too much frost, for common garden annuals. Instead of full-sun gardening, even for full-sun plants, consider including some shade trees for windbreaks, shade, and radiant frost protection, or prepare to use row covers, cloches, or hoop houses for early & late crops, and remove or convert to shade cloth in summer, or spend a few seasons iteratively developing specific micro-climates in the TEFA style. Leaping Sheep has a designated "shade garden" with a lot of tall cottonwood and poplar-type trees around it to give it a break in the summer; not a lot of other ways to grow salad greens into the hot season.
Water: Water is a big limiting factor on many sites. The average annual rainfall in the valley is something like 12 inches per year, on the edge between arid and semi-arid, one of the driest places in the state (or any neighboring state). The "average" rainfall may not occur in any given month or year; it could be 3 months or more between rain events in some places, while others get a thunderstorm and flash flood somewhere in there.
Some locals in the valley floor have spent thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to drill deep wells and not found water, even below the level of the river. Some have shallow wells that produce great, probably from "perched aquifers" cupped in a bedrock or old-lake clay layer. Some have wells that produce well in season, but may fail or slow down in late summer. Irrigation water is of variable quality, generally contains algae and needs filtering for any water-thrifty distribution like drip lines, and may also be delayed in spring or shut off early in fall for current weather (winter freezing) or maintenance/repairs. The state of Washington owns the rainwater and surface waters down to about 35 feet depth (according to Mariah's 10 years of struggling to establish and understand her lands' water rights).
There are some specific questions you may want to ask, and perhaps verify with a third party such as the County or the company that last worked on the well:
- whether the site has existing well water (there is a domestic-use exemption, I believe it's 5000 gallons per day), and the age, gallons per minute, depth, maintenance needs, and any seasonal variations in flow or refill times for the well
- whether it is already on, or nearby to, the piped irrigation systems for seasonal agricultural irrigation
- what is the closest year-round source for water in case yours fails or gets contaminated - how much would it cost to get municipal water extended to your location? Are you near a fire hydrant line?
- whether the land comes with water rights, and for what purposes (livestock, agriculture, commercial, fire protection)
- if there is surface water, and you have or can get water rights to use it, may still need to find out whether the creek, spring, or other source is still active, seasonal, or has dried up (Mariah had rights to something like 17 marked springs and creeks on her place, only 2 of which can currently be found or show indications of actually producing water; old springs are not guaranteed to produce in new conditions.)
If the site does not have a good-producing well, or an existing water right, then you should be fully prepared for it to remain in its current condition. This may be fine for camping or hunting, but is pretty hard if you want to live there, especially since rainwater harvest is both unreliable and may be illegal in this state.
Glacial till, volcanic silts, and some limestone on the west side of the valley. It is rare to find extensive clay deposits, but does happen in a few places. The landscape is relatively young, steep, and subject to ongoing erosion and frost cracking.
There have been multiple flood and volcanic events, leaving very diverse pockets of different slopes, drainages, and soil types, often in close proximity. Land here is far from equal, and the current owner may have no real idea of its true value depending on whether they farmed it, built a vacation home, or just frittered around for a while.
If you are lucky enough to have an existing pond, or good soils with organic matter that will hold moisture, be careful of disturbing the site as erosion and drainage straight down into the loose sub-soils is very easy to start, and hard to repair.
Ask potential neighbors about the reliability of roads and road maintenance, observations about frost season, and any other important issues. Get multiple opinions.
The whole area is fire-aspected, as Ernie puts it: most native species are adapted to periodic wild fire. Most modern farms and buildings aren't, and this region has seen a lot of turnover in property owners from other places who do have much experience here.
There are good model properties where the owners have done fire-wise landscaping, and consequently have survived through one or more fires that threatened their homes.
Other places, previous owners apparently ignored the fire risk in favor of "good views," locating buildings directly uphill from one or more slopes covered in highly flammable sage brush, creosote bush, and grasses. (and exposing both house and access roads to cold winter winds, erosion and ice problems, and other unpleasantness).
You do not want to be mowing on a hillside every year, and once the fire season starts, you can't safely mow without specialized equipment anyway.
There are often ambulance calls for heart attacks, bad asthma, and other problems when fire season is particularly smoky. The dry air here can be good for some kinds of respiratory conditions, but if you are sensitive to smoke, you will have a lot of bad days here. Winter wood-stoves, spring agricultural burning, summer wild fires which often continue into the fall, followed by wood stove season starting up again.
At a minimum, contact your local fire department to learn about the available protection, and collect the relevant websites, apps, or phone contacts for burn ban and fire warnings.
Fire insurance may not be available, or if available (more common within 5 minutes of certain fire departments), may still be very expensive. And rumors say some insured owners have had trouble collecting payments if there is a large wild fire; fires may be considered "acts of God," negligence, or arson, and there may be different loopholes for each.
[/img](Photo Credit: Barbara Greene and neighbors- a combination of good prior design and landscaping and prompt attention from local fire fighters and neighbors saved this house, although a shed and tractor across the driveway were melted to slag (not shown due to being melted to slag).)
If you live outside of town, GPS won't necessarily tell you whether your road is a plowed county school bus route, or an easement road "maintained" by owners and users.
If you live outside of town, plan on obtaining and operating your own snow plow, or hiring it done, throughout the 6-month winter season.
If you don't want to bother with plowing, and your lifestyle allows you to just hunker down for the winter and not drive anywhere, you may still be obliged to pay for plowing to allow emergency vehicles and neighbors their due access. Those who heat with propane or wood, or want to provision their pantry with food, should consider laying in about double the usual supplies, as the intensity and length of the winter weather varies from year to year.
(this could be two week's backup for someone who normally goes into town a couple times a week, up to two winter's worth of fire wood for those who heat with wood.)
The snow is a large part of our annual moisture deposit, and I've been experimenting with capturing it in "hugel glacier" structures to extend the thaw-moisture later into the frost-free growing season.
Ernie has observed that at our elevation, the snow does not reliably melt off between snow-deposits, which it used to do more often. So we can get the full year's accumulation stacked to 4 feet or higher some winters, and snow-plow berms over 8 feet tall in places. This takes some planning ahead when plowing, just to have a place to put the additional snow once the roads are bermed in. Ernie's dad wants to get a snow-blower.
Many areas have "moondust" light volcanic silts, which are highly subject to wind and wheel erosion. In a few cases, locals claim that roads developed such bad sink holes that people lost small cars into them, and the current road is "metaled" with the carcases of those lost cars under the surface.
The dust on our place is a prime example of moondust. In my observations and the neighbors', it is an expansive silt, (which can cause people to mistake it for clay if they see surface cracking in pictures, but it breaks up into dust if disturbed, does not hold together like clay). Sprinkled water on dry mineral silt may bead up, or create a crust that further water runs off of; the water that does penetrate can be drained downward quickly to well below the plants' root zone.
Other areas may have "caliche" (hard pan below the topsoil, where minerals are left by evaporation), or different distributions of rock, clay, sand, and gravel. The moon dust is mostly on top, almost light enough to be like a loess, except volcanic not sedimentary before it went airborne.
These are typically young soils in need of extensive development with organic matter. This is common in almost all areas of the hills and valley here, unless you are in bedrock, or a historic swamp or slough that has been a dumping ground for soils eroded from the rest of the region. The climate does not make it easy to develop organic matter - compost must be watered in summer, insulated if you want to get any progress during the deeply-cold winter. I have come to look on the mice and ants as "stewards" of bacteria that probably don't survive well in the rest of the soil. We get a lot of "driftwood" where 20-year-old slash piles are barely silver-weathered at the surface. Soils may also be damaged or made shallower by previous fires, and there's a controversial balance between enough organic matter to develop the soil, and limiting the thickness of mulch or pine bedding that might itself be fuel for a future fire.
My personal take would be to use the mulch, it beats plastic if you're fire-fighting. If you'd like to be able to create fire barriers quickly, maintain some mulched or graveled paths, or access roads, that can be quickly cleared down to mineral soil with a hoe or rake to become fire barriers when needed. The compaction from being used as a path will help to create a natural barrier with fewer roots and plants. Mow access roads before fire season for safety.
There is a wide variety in the kinds of people who live here. You may meet 5th-generation ranch families, members of the Okanogan-Colville tribes, different waves of the Back to the Land movements, ingenious artists in mechanics and metalwork, and veterans from every war who moved out here to enjoy the hunting, fishing, and less-crowded rural life. You also see more cross-over; people wear many hats, and do not define themselves by a single political identity or group. Liberals and libertarians get along here better than in most places I've seen. We have influential permacultural and recycling advocates who are also Army or Navy veterans. Police, fire, ambulance, churches, and county fairgrounds seem to have a number of overlapping staff members. Some families run multiple businesses. Antique and second-hand stores are excessively popular (there were a dozen in Tonasket at last count); but only a few good restaurants seem to thrive; others struggle. People are generally friendly, helpful, and hard-working.
However, there are also definitely people who move out here as part of a pattern of bad decisions, maybe involving crime, drugs, or not being able to get along with other people. I have heard rumors of theft, auto-insurance fraud, and seasonal crime (winter can be hard, and some types are tempted to take advantage of absent neighbors during winter or even during fire evacuations).
A general attitude of mutual respect, resourcefulness, and consideration goes a long way.
The biggest values I would suggest include:
- Reciprocity: If you yell at the guy who plows in your driveway, there is a distinct chance that he will stop plowing the road altogether. Nobody owes you anything; and you may owe others consideration that you don't even realize (such as not spoiling their water, or plowing your own section of long rural roads). The freedom of country life comes with a lot of responsibility and work. The default situation in this climate can get ugly if you don't build some credit with your neighbors to draw on in case of trouble. It is a nice gesture to offer gas money when hitching or asking the snowplow guy to do you a favor; baked goods go a long way for many favors. If it's your first time in rural life, you may not realize that many rural folks are brought up not to ask for help. They just offer help, and expect some recognition when they do a favor. And they will eventually stop helping you if you don't offer anything in return.
- Privacy/Networking: Conversely, a lot of folks move here for privacy, and they may not respond well to a stranger approaching their home. On quiet roads, you can do pretty well by stopping the car and rolling down the window to talk, or by giving a shout-out from the gate. In town, people are more sociable. There are some very good opportunities to get involved and meet good folks, from the food bank, to the Farmer's Market, to local fire and rescue services; once you establish a few good relationships, you can get introductions to others. Okanogan-Permaculture-Study-Group is a good resource for permie networking; the list often sees forwarded requests from folks seeking like-minded living arrangements (renting a room, interning with a farmer, etc).
- Self-Reliance: Nobody is "self-sufficient" in reality - too many things can go wrong. But realistically, we are at the end of the road for US markets, it's an unforgiving climate, and you may need to fall back on your own resources. Are you prepared to survive if you get snowed in, the fire cuts off the phone lines, or your job falls through? Self-reliance means being resilient, resourceful, enjoying hard work and lifelong learning, and having a sense of humor about the inevitability of setbacks. You may not know exactly what to prepare for, but if you over-prepare on some of the things you can forsee, you will be in a better position to bargain for help or improvise a plan B.
Note that the number of questions I've suggested asking will take time to get good and accurate answers.
You will be sort of a pain in the butt to your future neighbors if you are doing your homework before making an informed decision.
We appreciate it when folks who visit while checking out the valley follow the conventions of hospitality: bringing some treats, chipping in on lasagna ingredients or taking us out to dinner.
If you want to quiz a local farmer on the detailed planning of your future farm, consider putting in at least a couple weeks' reliable help on their farm, or maybe even offer to hire them for a consultation or second-opinion on the property you're looking at in their off season.
There are also local agencies where someone is paid to know these things on behalf of the public; they may or may not have the same info as your future neighbors, but they do get to count the time as on the clock.
Natural Resource Conservation Service, Forest Service, local visitor centers, and local government offices can provide good details like land maps, site assessments, climate details, native species or agricultural crop options, and maybe some local history if they've been here a while.
People here seem to feel a chronic shortage of money; it's the lowest income per-capita county in the state of Washington. So it is somewhat optimistic to expect to find a full-time job quickly unless you have specialized skills. There is always work to be done, but you may have to volunteer, barter, or show yourself worthy of your hire through some part-time or temporary gigs, in order to hear the word of mouth when there's a serious job opening. Some agencies and businesses post job openings; I saw some options through AmeriCorps and various land-management agencies when I was looking a few years back.
There is also room for starting your own business, but look closely into relevant laws and taxes before you get too far invested in the business plans. The state of WA is very friendly to big businesses, but it has to make up for all those tax cuts somewhere. The state is not necessarily excited about supporting self-employed or very small businesses in any appreciable way. Rumor has it they often audit smaller start-up businesses ("it's a friendly audit," says one bookkeeper) because the tax laws are not simple or user-friendly. There are a lot of online resources for specific permaculture businesses, like micro-dairy, farm-raised eggs, etc. which can help you look over the relevant laws.
Any small town can have small-town politics where particular families dominate the Chamber of Commerce or choose exactly the worst time to call the health inspectors on rivals. As a new arrival in a small town, you will find this one friendlier than average, and sometimes incredibly supportive. But occasionally, things may not go the way you'd hope or expect.
My experience here has been that there are some incredible, caring, conscientious, dedicated folks who give 110% to keep the place protected, functioning, and special. Some will encourage you and start helping you right away; though with many others, it may take time and a lot of hard work to truly earn their trust or respect. If you want to be part of this community, start finding ways to be helpful as soon as possible.
Photos are from our blog (ErnieAndErica.blogspot.com), mostly by us with one guest photo from Barbara Green's house after the Okanogan Complex.
Here's my advice for what it's worth regarding searching for land in the Okanogan:
"Dirt cheap dirt " was THE site I lived on 24/7 for about a year.
But we found our land by driving around back roads and calling a number scrawled onto a metal sign the said for sale and looked to be about 30 years old.
DO come in winter so you know what access roads are plowed by county and which ones YOU will need to plow.
Come back at least in high summer so you know just how dry the land will get.
Get to know as many locals as possible. Go to as many meetings as possible.
Tell everyone you meet that you are looking for land. Having a clear idea of what you want to use it for will help.
Talk to Peter James.
Understand that being really remote 20-30 miles from town equals cheaper land but higher fuel bills and vehicle wear. Unless you only want solitude.
North facing: wetter, more trees, less sun, shorter growing season, cold longer but cooler longer too. May use more fuel to heat.
South facing: drier, fewer trees more grass or bare soil, solar aspect better, warmer sooner, hotter longer, longer growing season, may use less fuel to heat but require more cooling strategies.
It all depends upon what you want.
Ask locals about the various "neighborhoods" if they will tell you.
Remember down in the valley. All soils have been exposed to decades of heavy metal sprays for the 100+ year old fruit tree industry. That stuff is still in the soil. And they still do loads of spraying of orchards in spring mostly.
But the valley does have irrigation district access ( you must pay $)
Get a soil test or hire Mariah for a quick assessment of your potential land purchase.
Same with well drilling get a driller to witch it to understand the water potential.
Save a bunch of your cash for initial infrastructure. If at all possible. Getting income producing work here is difficult. And not having a cash cushion will certainly slow down your progress of even permaculture broad acre "development" or healing.
There are good people here. They are from many different and varied "tribes". Spend time contributing to the community by volunteering and you will build good friendships.
- Barbara Greene
Notes on the above:
Peter James is a grown-up local boy who was on about 13 boards of directors at one point - he's involved with veteran's advocacy, permaculture, recycling, food, local political events, and that's just the ones that I know about.
Mariah Cornwoman - that's a great idea. She is the "Heart of the Highlands" seed producer, who has been farming here for something like 20+ years, and who has experience as an organic certifier/inspector and ag researcher. She knows about micro-climates for specific things, is like a bloodhound for pesticides, and other useful stuff. If you want to farm here, I would imagine hiring her to pre-inspect your land could save you hundreds to thousands of dollars within the first 2 years, and possibly make the difference between success and failure.
You could probably get some of the same info from asking around, but Mariah would be able to give you a systematic and thorough work-up, and her commitment to chemical-free land care is so intense that I can't imagine her hiding or misleading someone as to the real dirt on something. She can also talk details on well and power systems well beyond what I can follow.
I am the one who emailed you recently. I will be getting land over there sometime this year, just a matter of finding the right piece of property for the right price. I am likely going to head over to check out mainly one 40 acre property soon, and likely try visiting other properties while over there. Sucks being over on the Western side of things while looking for land on the Eastern side, but my brother is giving me rent free living over here so I can't complain too much.
I have been frequenting the High Desert Reality site AKA Dirt Cheap Dirt for many years as I always sort of knew I would be looking for land in the area so wanted to stay aware of what is out there. I have wondered a bit about other sources of land and that was one of the reasons I emailed Erica, so nice to hear that just driving around the area might turn up some signs from owners selling. I sort of had a feeling that might be the case, tends to be pretty common in rural areas, and helps keep sales more local instead of selling off all the best land to "Coasties" or out of state vacationers. Sounds like I really need to take a week or two and drive around the area a bunch looking for some signs as well as picking up a local paper to look through the ads in it.
This was a great post from Erica and thanks to Barbra too for her input. Quite helpful and well put together.
Congratulations on knowing a place so well ... and thank you for applying such clarity and intelligence to the task.
I will point others to this post as an example of "new native" intelligence expressed by a thorough understanding of their place and surrounds.
Well done ... well done indeed
But I don't really know it well. I still feel like a newbie after two years on the fire department... still a novice caretaker on my in-laws' property, poking around a few square yards at a time trying to figure out how to work together with the patch I'm on. Buying and killing a few trees a year, puttering around trying to learn and cultivate climate-tolerant plants.
Bulrushes tolerate transplanting... cattails don't... thistles thrive under black plastic... blueberries are NOT happy here, though they seem tentatively appreciative of my efforts to pile on the pine duff and fence out the deer. Horses may do more damage than deer to new trees. Also, you can eat horseradish leaves, and rhubarb and onions are tough under the sagging bits, and about 40% of the smelly plants are medicinal if you know where to look.
The original was mostly aimed at people who do have some on-the-land experience, or at least extensive homework for permaculture land care, but may not realize what kind of climate they are in for.
(We know a LOT of people who fell in love with their first place here without checking on water rights... or health care access ... or winter driving ... or the many other reasons the bare-land price is "so cheap." If you aren't comfortable living in a tent in all weather, you will probably put 2x to 4x the price of the land into improvements, maintenance, utilities, and repairs.)
The county posted this info page, with a lot of good tips for people coming from other lifestyles (especially urban or suburban):