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Re-homesteading in the Dust Bowl  RSS feed

 
pollinator
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Location: Western OK, avg rain 23" hazards: drought, tornado, wildfire
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Hello All,

I am “re-homesteading” my great-grandparents Okie Dust Bowl land. It is a couple of hundred acres of fenced pasture which is leased out for ‘cow farming.’ According to the extension agent (EA) the pastures consist of some native grasses and some improved grasses -- Old World Bluestems, WW Spar, Spar, etc.  – whatever that all means. The EA says the pastures look good compared to the neighbors, that is because the lessee has taken his cattle and horses off the land when the grass was gone, or else fed them with hay. When I walked the land, there is space between the plants that shows the thin orange ‘dirt’. There is a well that pumps gypsum (calcium + sulfur) water that is good enough for the cows, an old corral, and a pond that goes dry in multi-year droughts (2011-2014). The pond is fed from the neighbor’s gully. The gullies are prominent on the land and deep, perhaps original before the Dust Bowls of the 30s, 50s, 60s, etc. There is perhaps 20 acres of flat, accessible land for ‘farming’ and living on. Those are the pros to the property.

The cons are tornadoes, wildfires, chiggers, invasive eastern red cedar (100-200 at 7-10’ tall), no buildings of any kind, no farm implements, and soil that is not currently farmable. Within a few years, this place needs to pay for any improvements it needs. I’m not young, moneyed, overly energetic but I can labor four to six hours a day on the place. I’m considering using the lessee’s cattle for high-density rotational grazing with hay supplementation for mulch beginning 2019 if the current drought breaks before then and the pastures recover. I have no experience with cattle but am confident I can manage to erect temporary electric fence and let them move themselves. I would need to bring in rural water and create tanks for them. Rural water would also give me a source of household water, but I don’t have the costs on that yet.

As for housing, I’m aiming to begin with a tornado shelter, preferably underground – built of? I’m not sure how deep the soil goes, and I can’t find out for a few months. The neighbor on the south side lost his barn twice to tornadoes in just a few years, so tornadoes are an issue for me, especially as there is no warning system for such a rural area. If the tornado shelter can also be fire-proof for humans that would be a plus. Dewey County in Western OK just had a 250,000- acre fire which burned up half the county.

What I would appreciate hearing from pragmatic and practical permies is the order in which I need to tackle the issues at hand and the methods that have worked for you. To summarize what I think is needed – tornado shelter, improve soil for whatever the future holds, remove the cedars as they increase fire risk, get Scotch Thistle under control, some enterprise which will pay for improvements to the property, don't go bankrupt.

As to why I would bother with all this, the land deserves whatever care I can give it to prepare it for whatever climate is coming down the pipe.

Further thoughts on digging in the ground and building underground -- there is at least one oil/gas pipeline cutting through the property. Of course, they are supposed to be buried to a certain depth but that is not always the case. If you have experience locating O&G pipelines, specifically depth, please share your method.

I've attached a photo (I think). Thanks,
denise
Bare-Soil.jpg
[Thumbnail for Bare-Soil.jpg]
 
pollinator
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This sounds like an amazing undertaking.
I'm wondering if a Sep Holder style earth bermed barn could be built using those cedar trees.
Maybe a still would let you turn gypsum water into potable water?
Check with the state, there are agencies that give away trees,or sel them for cheap.
 
denise ra
pollinator
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William,  I will look up the barns you mention. The cedar trees are fence post size.
Thanks,  denise
 
garden master
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You are fortunate to be able to take over your grandparents place.

Like William mentioned for the barn, do you have any hills that you could build a shelter into?  Ones like these are becoming more popular:






You would want the berm to be in the direction of the wind so that the tornado would go up the berm not against the structure.




At our other place we had a tornado shelter installed like this one:





We used it for storage.  It is large enough that four adult would have room to sit among the food we had stored their.

Two people might be able to use it as a bedroom with cooking area outside.  There are also "safe rooms" that are above ground that a house or cabin could be built around.

I also have heard of people who cut holes in the floor to access the crawl space beneath the house.  


To me the peace of mind was well worth the expense of the shelter.
 
pollinator
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Sounds like there is a lot of promise on that land!  Gullies mean you get large amounts of rain every now and then, which means the land can be restored by restoring the hydrology.  I recommend the work of Brad Lancaster  https://www.harvestingrainwater.com/

Your cedars are a tremendous resource - avoid the tradition of cutting and burning them in piles.  They are valuable for making brush dams to heal your gullies.  https://permies.com/t/51421/Creek-repair-brush-dams
 
denise ra
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Anne Miller,
There are some hills but I'm not sure if they are soil or rock. I like the look of those houses, are they called earth-sheltered and is there a particular website or builder you follow?
What are the temperatures in your shelter daytime and nighttime, and how much airflow is there? Yes, I would sleep there and have a screen house for cooking and living.
Thanks!
denise
 
denise ra
pollinator
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Tyler Ludens,
Great resources, thank you. I've ordered volume one from the library. What keeps the material from washing away? That could be hazardous for anything/anyone downstream.
Thank you,
denise
Gullying1.jpg
[Thumbnail for Gullying1.jpg]
 
Tyler Ludens
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The brush dams have to be braced on existing trees/stumps or stakes driven into the earth.  We have mostly rock so have to anchor on existing trees, but your place looks like it has deep soil to anchor in.  Here's a document describing anchored constructions to induce meandering and de-energize the water:  http://altarvalleyconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/75-Induced_Meandering_Field_Guide.pdf
 
Anne Miller
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Denise, several years ago a friend was planning to build one of these.  This was before many people had the internet.  She showed me several books on the subject.  I lost track of my friend so I don't know if they ever built theirs. Since then I have seen several of these structure in both Okla. and Texas.

The basic idea is to slice into the hill and build there.  It is not an underground home.  Others I have seen that were not built into a hill had the backside like a basement with the earth covering up to and maybe over the roof.


Permies has a forum for wofati and earth berm building:

https://permies.com/f/75/wofati-earth-berm

This thread might help:

https://permies.com/t/44935/Easiest-method-bermed-house


I could not find a company website either though it seem there are some doing ICF which are maybe preformed concrete walls.


According to this Mother Earth News   ...  into a hillside so at least one wall is completely encapsulated by the earth

https://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/5-tips-for-building-a-partially-earth-sheltered-home-zbcz1704
 
William Bronson
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There is a tradition of basement homes,that is homes that start as a basement, with a traditional roof on top.
Later, the roof is raised and a first and second floor are added.

A walk out basement with the walkout side facing south would be a conventional description of an earthbermed home.
I'm not a fan of the added engineering needed to cover a roof in earth.
I would rather spend those resources on a metal roof,insulation,etc.
A roof fed rainwater tank could give water independence  and thermal mass.

For hand built homes, berming can be a structural and earth moving challenge.

 
denise ra
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Tyler Ludens,
I will study further but the Induced Meandering looks like it is for actual stream channels so I'm not sure how applicable it is to gullies caused by water erosion. However, there is a seasonal streambed on the land which might well benefit from these methods. One concern about using the cedar trees which are growing in the gullies as bracing is that I believe if they are not cut to the ground they will resprout.
Thanks for this useful info. I love the idea of repairing watersheds.
denise
 
gardener
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hau Denise, I added this thread to Homesteading, I hope you don't mind. I think it is a good fit there too.

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
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In the west of Ok, you are definitely in the lower great plains region (tornado alley) so the idea of starting out with a storm/tornado shelter is definitely wise.
I would think about the size of this underground structure, Ours is going to be large enough for 2 humans and three dogs and it is also going to be the root cellar.
In the old days in OK, root cellars were quite valuable since they did those three functions, food storage area, shelter from tornadoes and wild fire protection.
You should find deep enough soil so the whole structure can be under soil, with a recessed door with side berms. If it isn't then you can sink it as far as possible and use that soil to cover that portion that is above the soil surface.

The cellar we designed is pretty large by tornado shelter conventions but since it is multi-purpose, it has to be larger.
Ours is going to have an 8 foot celling, and interior of 10'x12', that will give plenty of room for food storage shelves, water storage and seating for us.
Where we live there have been two tornados three years apart (2014 was the last one) and the town in smack in the middle of a 150 year tornado track according to the records and satellite imagery that you can see this track on fairly clearly.

For those gullies, gullies are erosion, the easiest way to control erosion is to direct the water so it doesn't have the opportunity to cause the erosion.
When gullies are already there, coffer dams are a good way to slow the water down by creating a series of "lakes", this also reclaims any newly eroded soil, depositing it behind the coffer dams, this method eventually fills in the gully and allows planting to prevent recurrence of erosion.
If your land lays on gentle sloping, you can use swales and berms to move the water along so if it does spill over the berm it sheets instead of forming a creek channel.

Others have also put forth great ideas, Tyler and Anne have provided wonderful links to great resources for the work ahead of you.

Redhawk
 
Tyler Ludens
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denise ra wrote:One concern about using the cedar trees which are growing in the gullies as bracing is that I believe if they are not cut to the ground they will resprout.



Very few of our cedar trees resprout if all green material is removed from the stump.  They just die.
 
denise ra
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Anne,
Thanks for the links. The wofati looks interesting, I will keep reading up on it. I am hoping to avoid using lots of concrete as the environmental cost is so high.
denise
 
denise ra
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William,
I like the idea of starting with a basement and expanding the house as I can afford and need. I wonder if basements have to be concrete? The environmental cost of concrete is high. As for metal roofs, they are a no-go in tornado country. Light wood frame houses can be built to resist tornadoes up to EF3, and the roof and its connections are integral to achieving that end. There is some evidence that concrete stabilized earth blocks can be used to build a tornado-resistant house also, there have been a number of papers written on the topic but I don't know of any houses that have been built using this info.
As for a water tank on the roof in tornado country, it seems like a bad idea.
Thank you,
denise
 
denise ra
pollinator
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Redhawk,
Do you build the cofferdam IN the gully so that future flooding causes eroding soil to fill in the gully?
Thanks,
denise
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Denise, yes that is how you build them, they slow the flow of water and filter out the solids (soil).
This is just part of a full water control system, but with gullies already there, it is a good place to start the works with.
 
denise ra
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So much information out there!!! And I have been taking the first half of a Permaculture Design Course. So at this point, it seems to me that a "hole in the ground" for shelter is the first thing and observation is the other big item on my to-do list. For my homework, I am going to the farm for a week or so and fill out a sector analysis, design concept brief, and zone planning plan. Mollison says, and I'm paraphrasing loosely here, the reason for a plan is to keep me from freaking out and running in circles which seems more likely to happen the closer I get to moving to the farm.  
                                                                                                                                                                                                   
 
denise ra
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I'm heading to the farm to spend some time observing for the site and sector analysis and design and while there I will get some samples. What tools do you recommend I take?
I'll probably get a refractometer to start playing with. Can I get the kind used for wine? I want to measure soil temperatures. Will a compost thermometer work? I was thinking of a thermometer to set on the soil surface. What is that called on Amazon? A soil sampler probe, a long one, though I wonder if the extension agent has one I can borrow this time. I wonder if I will be able to get it into the soil and out again. I'm taking a saw and a hatchet though maybe I should purchase an ax as I plan to cut down a few of the small (10' max) cedars to protect a fence corner from collapsing where the animals have worn the soil next to it down 3'. Will a saw work to cut down a 4" diameter tree? Sulfur to cover my clothes with to repel chiggers. I have a short shovel for 4-wheeling but probably need a sharp-shooter for digging holes? I may not get back to the farm again for months, so need to get things done this trip. What are the ramps called that are put in water tanks so small animals can get out? Does anyone recommend a type that the cattle won't detach? What else?
Thank you!!
denise
 
Bryant RedHawk
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There is really only one type of refractometer, some are hand held some are bench type, some of the bench types are autoloaders. One you buy from a wine supply shop is perfect for establishing brix numbers.

For a thermometer the hand held laser type is much easier to carry and use, they are accurate enough too and you only need one for most places.
The compost thermometer is nice for testing heat in the center of a heap or deep in the soil, but that soil needs to be easy to push the probe in or it will bend or break.
For a soil probe you can use rigid conduit and a push stick that just fits the ID., you can make several of different lengths that way and even fit a T handle should you so desire.
An actual soil probe is great to own but they are not very inexpensive since most are made of stainless steel, if your extension service has one they will loan, definitely do that.

For tree felling with a carpentry type saw you need some wedges to prevent saw binding, If you have a cross cut (loggers saw) then you can cut trees up to 3-4 feet in diameter.
I have two sharp shooters, post hole diggers, square and point shovels. For rocky ground you can not beat a sharp shooter shovel (except for a back hoe, or gas auger).

I don't know what those are called, I only use fully enclosed tanks. For the water troughs (that always attract lizards and toads) I use a notched to fit the rim 2x2.
 
denise ra
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What soil tests are recommended for permanent pasture? Would I take different tests for areas where I may plant herbs for income?
Thank you.
d
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Soil tests will show you the basic water soluble minerals and nitrogen currently available and give you the pH,  and their recommended fertilizer content.
If you order a full set of tests you will also get the ions (electrically charged salts) and more of the water soluble minerals.
Keep in mind that soil tests are designed for using chemicals to beef up the soil with the bare basic plant nutrients, not a comprehensive soil make up and not the best way to grow nutrient dense plants.

Do get the basic test just so you have a fairly decent base line to work from.
If you want to spend the money you can request the comprehensive biological tests, this  will give you the organisms in your soil but it tends to be rather expensive.
Either is good to have at the start of building your land, but they are not really designed for the organic or better than organic grower, these tests are designed for the chemical using commercial farm growing standard row crops.

The first year should be spent making compost heaps that will grow the microorganisms we really want in our soils so we can  make teas and add humus to the ground.
This is also a great time to get those cover crop plants and pastures seeded so roots are going into the soil and you have mulch and compost materials coming off.


For a great herb soil you will want around 7% humus, 25% bacteria, 45% fungi or as close to those numbers as is practical for the startup.
While the plants are growing you can make additions through compost teas to bring the organism numbers up and mulches will bring the humus levels up.

When we started Buzzard's Roost, the soil had been recovering from a house fire and the subsequent contaminations caused by the fire for seven years.
I did some sampling and testing in my lab and set up a five year plan to get the soil fungi dominant, we are in year 4 now and there have been a few set backs so the five year plan is now going to take seven years.
The lesson there is make a good plan, stick to it but expect things to change that will extend the plan, emergencies and contingencies do happen all the time on a farm, and they usually mean changes or delays of what you intended to do.

 
denise ra
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I have seen previous years hay in the area and when I am there soon I will keep my eyes open to see what else might go into compost. I have been wondering if mulching with spoiled hay would do the pastures any good? If you go back and look at my two photos near the beginning of this post you will see that the pastures have grasses and forbs but not full soil coverage. I would have to buy a tractor and make huge windrows of compost for the area of pasture there is, so I'm not sure that is very practical. That's why I was thinking of mulch, though that too is probably not practical for the majority of the pastures. Perhaps the one area that is pretty flat would be wise to focus on. The soil survey says it is eroded there.
 
denise ra
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The soil survey says there is zero clay in the soil. I will find out how true this is next week. I am reading through "Bryant RedHawk's Epic Soil Series" in the Soil Forum.
 
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Denise, The pictures do not show very many cedar trees. I think that "invasive" species, like weeds, are natures way of trying to restore the land. I think I would leave any and all trees that are currently growing. I think that planting more trees in windbreaks and in the gullies would help stabilize the soil.  One of the reasons for the dust bowl was that we uncovered the soil, one of the solutions was to plant trees.  I also wonder if a yeoman's plow used on contour might help retain and spread water? I would definitely build underground in tornado country!
 
denise ra
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Miles, you can't see the Cedars, there are probably a hundred and fifty on the property. I will leave the stumps in the gullies for the stabilization they are giving. They are a fire hazard otherwise as they burn so hot. Wind brakes don't look so hot on the plains nowadays, many of them are pretty destroyed. Which is not to say I won't plant anything for Windbreak. I am definitely leaning towards the yeoman's plow, however I don't own a tractor. I would have to hire someone in the general area that has the plow and a tractor. I am heading there soon to see how deep the soil is.
 
denise ra
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So many gullys!!! They are all over the property. Some are so huge there is no point in thinking about them. Some are only 12 -20 feet deep at the headcut. Many are shallower. Yikes. The soil is apparently easy to wash away. So far I have only found one rock outcrop which is probably gypsum. I did see some quartz outcrops along the road a few miles away. There are sand and gravel pits in the county. All this by way of saying I would have to bring in rock to make Zuni Bowls ala Bill Zeedyk. If they are even appropriate. Many of the headcuts are very wide - 12' or more. I worry that building check dams with the local soil would just cause more erosion.
 
Without subsidies, chem-ag food costs four times more than organic. Or this tiny ad:
3 Plant Types You Need to Know: Perennial, Biennial, and Annual
https://permies.com/t/96847/Pros-cons-perennial-biennial-annual
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