Soliciting advise since I see so much expertise and great out-of-the-box thinking here, even while just starting to lurk on the forum. All input welcome, even if just idle speculation.
I recently picked up 4+ acres of what early soil surveys rank as some of the best farmland in Montana. Zone 4b/5. Looking to build a house and let my kids sink roots here. Permie homestead fits our vision for the land and their upbringing, though I'm a newbie and have not even mapped zones yet. Shaped like a face-planted L, with three 1-acre squares running W-E and a 1-acre thumb shooting south off the east end of the main tract. Just moved family into old house in the thumb. Planning to build new place and garden at the elbow, and develop the western 2 acres into rotational paddocks for a few sheep and goats with birds, plus a modest food forest/windbreak. Depending on how this old house shapes up, will either turn it into a rental or burn it down and re-purpose the thumb. Will be posting separately to solicit advice on plans for how to plant and develop all that.
Soil is silty clay loam; heavy but very friable in the top foot everywhere I've sunk a spade. Well records show alluvium goes down at least 25'. Haven't gotten soil testing done yet, but will get going on jar tests today and send samples off to the lab as well. I broadcast a 7-seed cover crop blend this spring just to get a headstart on eventually establishing diverse pasture while having to focus on other things first. Surface is virtually flat all across except for a low swale at the elbow that trees are planted on. Permeable enough that heavy spring rains didn't pool or sheet-flow much at all despite the lack of relief, yet heavy enough to hold shallow moisture after days of dry winds. Three waste ditches run through for neighboring irrigation systems: all run N-S, two bracket the N-S road easement on the E boundary line, and one transects the planned pasture. Strong, frequent prevailing winds from the W-NW-N
Well water reportedly of very good quality and virtually unlimited quantity available for the pumping from a shallow aquifer (seems to vary from 5'-10' in the surrounding mile radius; my wells pump from 25'). I have no ditch water rights, but the main ditch for irrigating this widened Yellowstone River valley is 300 yards up gradient and recharges the fluvial surface aquifer so effectively that I expect deep-rooted crops are essentially sub-irrigated. There are two wells already dug on the property, and neighbors say they never have issues with drawdown on theirs despite extensive watering.
Only about 20 trees here, all fairly young (2-15 yo?) and all clustered on the north side of the thumb, above the old house. Neighbors say the previous owner disk-harrowed the field about 5x/yr to deal with weeds, but didn't seem to spray much, as the weeds are not the noxious ones. The long leg of the L has about 30% bare soil, 20% grass, 50% weeds. Worms not abundant, but there are 2-5 brought up in every spadeful, so at least the soil is not entirely sterile. My understanding is that it has been out of ag production for 20-30 years.
Surrounded on 3 sides by intensive ag operations that will start spraying more herbicides/fungicides/pesticides than usual this year. Part of what attracted me to this plot was that adjacent fields had been in wheat for most of recent history, and produced well without being sprayed much. Last night I learned the fields to the W & N are going into alfalfa, with heavy spraying. "Some pretty nasty stuff" in the words of one of the farmers, who asked for my phone number so he could call before spraying, "so you know when to keep the kids inside." He meant well. I'm in the process of finding out if anyone still does areal spraying here; all I've seen is tractor-mounted. Exposure to spraying from the east will be buffered by a 75' road & ditch easement on my property as well as favorable winds, which gives some comfort. The east side will be planted with willow cuttings soon. But west and north sides concern me, as the fields are planted right up to my fence on those sides. I have young kids, some of whom already manifest chemical sensitivities as chronic eczema and asthma. We hope to eat a lot of what we grow and raise, so even residues are a concern. We also breed expensive dogs and were considering to aim for organic certs with a small market farming/breeding enterprise, so the spray concerns are both personal and commercial.
MT law seems to acknowledge ag spray drift as chemical trespass, so if push comes to shove I could probably document and litigate. But in reality, I know most of the "regulation" is by self-policing, which essentially amounts to toothless recommendations. I do want to be respectful of the existing traditions in this farming community, even if I think there are better ways. I had a previous neighbor who moved into our MT ranching valley from California and immediately began circulating a petition to outlaw running cattle. Because he didn't like them. What the heck did you move here for??? Not going to be the ag-spray equivalent of that guy.
Already underway with baseline water and soil lab testing in case I need that for documentation, and will probably set up cameras to monitor/document W-N-E boundary spraying operations. One neighbor mentioned the previous owner here "was good about letting me spray over your fence so his weed patch didn't overtake my field." He seemed to genuinely feel his own offer to continue doing this was charity on his part, which I understand and don't hold against him. He has reconciled himself to the risks of the chemicals to make his living, so he probably sincerely considers spraying my land a generous and neighborly donation of his own time and money.
I am inclined to settle such things with respectful straight talk over a cup of coffee while seeking common interests, rather than getting confrontational. Yesterday evening I had walked over to the W & N neighbor and the landowner that he leases the field from, carrying a representative suite of unfamiliar weeds for their review, so I could ask if anything was of particular concern to them so that I could focus on controlling it while I begin to swing the flora in the direction I want it. Both asserted that they appreciated the gesture but that there was nothing noxious on my plot. When I asked about the thistle, they laughed, acknowledged that everyone
had thistle in this valley, and suggested the amount I had was so minor it may have come from them rather than the other way around.
This morning that neighbor dropped the friendliness and is singing a new tune after I went out and asked him to stop spraying herbicide over the fence with his boom tractor. He started to ad-lib claims of me spreading noxious weeds (corrected to "Well, I
consider Mallow to be noxious anyways..."), and said he would resume spraying 4' over the fence if I didn't hoe and Roundup my side of the fenceline regularly. "For now I'll just let it drift in a little as long as I see you doing that." He then complained for a while about the inadequacy of the previous owner's disking with minimal spraying, and demonstrated his conviction that the entire burden for whether we will become good neighbors depends upon my weed control and has nothing to do with his spraying. Two realtors had already warned me (after purchase) that he had a reputation locally for bullheaded selfishness. He put the exclamation point on that characterization this morning. I mostly just listened and reiterated my intent to respect his desire to grow a cash crop and that I would make efforts for our shared boundary not to become burdensome for him, but that he did not have my permission to spray or drift over the fence.
I'll be consulting with an ag attorney to make sure I understand the legal context correctly and have my bases covered if things go south. I'm pretty comfortable I can demonstrate reasonable efforts to be a good neighbor, which I expect will be enough to win most hearts and minds (especially compared to the previous owner who seemed to have pissed off all the surrounding neighbors in every way imaginable). But I'm not shy about going on the offensive to escalate things if that is not good enough for anyone.
But enough with the long-winded background/context...
I see most of what I need to do for now as defensive in nature. I'm looking at modifying my fencing and windrow plans in that context. The current boundary of concern (W & N) is 3' of woven wire capped with barbed and torn up by the neighbor tractoring every last inch, right up to the fenceline. That fence was going to get upgraded anyhow before I can get any animals running. I was expecting to need 2-4 yrs to establish good pasture before getting back into sheep and goats, but now will be prioritizing fencing of the perimeter so I can mitigate spray drift and get going planting windrows right away. I now don't expect to have fence-building access from the other side if I plant the windrow first on my side, as originally planned, so fencing will now come first. A thousand feet of new 5' board fence would probably be cost prohibitive, but I have access to other cheap fencing solutions. I can do heavy steel posts/rails with 5' chainlink for ~$1/ft. The cheap local lumbermill's rounded outer slabs might also be an option, mounted on steel post and rail to make a cheap, rough board-and-batten fence; I'll be looking into that. Also can do t-posts and two courses of woven wire to reach 5' for about $0.10/ft, so I'm considering that option. These are material costs only for good used material, using my own backhoe and labor.
I was previously planning to do either 5' chain link or 5' of woven wire on the perimeter and leave it at that. Now with the spray/drift issue I'm considering to either do board fence or run silt fence fabric over the chain link or woven wire, up to 5'. In both cases, I fear that might make wind load on the fence an issue, so I suspect I'll need to go with the 2 3/8" steel posts on 8' centers with welded top rails rather than using t-bars. A localized blowout of a neighboring field dumped 6-8" of silt on all ten neighboring residential yards to the S & W last year, so it evidently gets blowing good around here at times, perhaps enough to bring an impervious 5' fence down if not built very tight, maybe even buttressed. I'm more concerned about minimizing spray exposure while the hedge grows up than I am about the undesirability of growing my eventual waste stream by 5,000 sq ft of woven poly fabric, as selfish as that may seem. Might be able to repurpose the silt fence fabric once the hedge gets established, but that concern is presently secondary for me. Feel free to scold or convince me otherwise, but I really want to minimize our exposure to the ick with the funds I can spare. One potential way to mitigate the wind load with silt fence may be small u-shaped cutouts? I don't expect any spraying to be going on while there is heavy enough wind to open up the flaps, but maybe I'm being naive?
I was also going to plant 50'-deep windrows on the W & N boundaries anyhow. But I had planned to put that off for a couple years until after I had established a pasture and gotten the soil healthier. And I had planned on keeping the outer trees shorter, partially so as not to block the nice views to the W & N, but also to be neighborly and not shade out the border strip for the farmer who has been planting up to the fence.
Now that the neighborliness does not seem to be a two-way effort to the W & N, I'm considering to get going on a taller, denser sacrificial first row of plantings right away and imposing a buffer zone by way of sealing off the N & W fences with something like a dense, tall hedge rather than the spruces/pines & bushes I had originally thought to plant. I had also considered a hedge of the low Emerald Green Arbovitae (7'-15'). Now I'm thinking a solid 60' wall of Green Giant Arbovitae may be in order to minimize what gets through. Here is an example of a half-grown version of what I have in mind:
It grieves me to realize that would put a minimum 20' buffer zone on the other side of the fence in perpetual shade during the growing season, where the neighbor might have trouble growing (and thus have trouble justifying continued spraying) right up against the fence. But if we are all going to think about nothing more than maximizing our self-interest to the full legal extent, I guess that's the direction my plans drift off in... It would sure keep the weeds down for him, too.
If subsequent spray drift still kills off too much of the backside of the hedge, I expect that will contribute to fairly convincing documentation of negligent or malicious spraying practices, as would such heavy spray damage that the whole hedge just dies. But I expect we would still be able to keep our side green if he calms down and does his part. I would happily keep the hedge trimmed very low if I see that effort from him. With as dense as those Arbovitae hedges get, I expect I wouldn't then have to treat all the other plantings in the entire 50' wide windrow as sacrificial just to protect our living space, which is what I expect without a dense, deep hedge. I still hope to see a usable food forest from those windrow plantings, and am not psyched out by the thought of ambient levels of spray exposure. We're going to get that anywhere rural we go. Mostly just want to shield the interior from direct spray and drift as much as I can.
Enough from me; let's hear it from you! Please feel free to sound off on any attitude adjustments, options, oversights, or improvements you can think of. I'm a fairly thick-skinned and humble permie newbie. Here is my formal acknowledgement that any detrimental consequences, legal or otherwise, from me being influenced by your feedback will be my own bleeping responsibility, not yours or anyone else's. Sad that we live in a culture where that might need to be spelled out like that. Thanks in advance!