By PAUL WHEATON
I spent three and a half years looking for the piece of land I have right now. Yesterday, my buddies Tony and Emily were here and talking about their ongoing quest for land. I wanted to write some of our discussion down before I forgot. Since this topic is so massive, I should probably start with the disclaimer that this is all my own crazy, lunatic rant and is probably of no value to anybody but me and the voices in my head.
How many acres?
Decades ago I was obsessed with gardening and outgrew my urban lot. I needed more space. Not only for my horticultural endeavors, but I needed to expand into all sorts of animals. I was sure I would never need more than 20 acres, but 10 acres would be fine. I even had thoughts that if this amount wasn’t enough, then someday I might be able to buy a piece of property next door.
I was wrong about lots of things. Or, maybe I should say, I changed my mind about lots of things.
Oh by the way, I eat beef. Tony eats beef too. Emily was a vegetarian for 17 years and when she came here she started to eat our meat (my impression was that the root of being a vegetarian had to do with respecting the animal). By the standards of all three of us, beef might possibly be one of the healthiest things to eat.
Plus, one of the greatest tools for improving land is pulsing ruminants through the land. So even if a person is vegan, it would be wise to be a healer of the land with cattle.
Cattle are herd animals. So the smallest herd would be about five. And if you worked your magic on a piece of land, you could get it to the point that it could grow enough food to 100% feed five cattle on … about 80 acres. Therefore, the bare minimum for beef/dairy is 80 acres.
One very painful thing is that 80 acres costs about twice as much as 40 acres. Which costs twice as much as 20 acres. And once you are on the raw land, you need some funds to build your home and all the infrastructure for everything you want to do.
Last night, Emily and Tony pointed out that their math came to the same conclusion. And as they have been visiting a lot of properties, shopping for their perfect piece of land, they are considering properties that are 40 acres with the idea that the smaller size will probably make it so they don’t raise cattle. Of course, when you have everything you ever wanted except for the one thing, then it sorta eats away at you to move to someplace bigger.
Another issue is that most lots that are for sale are surrounded by sprayers. One of the reasons that a permie seeks out their own land is that they want to KNOW the full story of their food. For sure. Utterly and completely. The three of us swapped stories of the people we met that are passionate about organic and yet they still use all sorts of toxic gick in their stuff – it’s as if they don’t know what organic means, let alone the much higher standard of permaculture.
The sprayers think that if their stuff drifts over to your property, you don’t mind because you got a little free help. It’s good for you.
So if you have 40 acres and you are surrounded by sprayers, then you want a lot of trees to act as a buffer between you and the sprayers. You end up creating a sacrifice area. It isn’t a 100% solution, but …. what else are you gonna do? And you left the city to try this in order to KNOW the story of your food, but now your food is tainted. The purity is no longer pure. It’s tainted. So you tell yourself “well, it was just a little. Maybe rather than “better than organic” I’ll be okay with “organic”. But then you might as well have stayed in town and bought the food labeled “organic”.
I’ve met about 30 people that bought land like this – surrounded by sprayers. Or a sprayer on just one border. And about half of them ended up moving.
Plus, if you have to make a sacrifice area, how much of your 40 acres do you give up? There isn’t a clear line about how far the spray comes over. So in your quest to KNOW the story of your food, how much are you willing to have your food tainted.
Emily has itchy feet. I think one time she told me that the time she spent here was the longest she ever stayed in one spot. And even then, there were big trips in the middle of the stay.
If you have animals, and you are going to spend a week or a month on a trip – somebody else will need to care for the animals. In fact, it could be wise to have not just a “plan B”, but a “plan C” and “plan D” as well.
Emily and Tony have a lot of first hand experience with this. While they were here, Tim’s family went on a trip and a guy …. let’s call him “Emmet” promised to care for Tim’s critters for five days. On day 2, Emmet decided to leave. No emergency – he just felt like a change of scenery. Poof! He’s gone! Emily and Tony, being awesome, stepped in and cared for the critters.
I have lots of stories, but the one that really sticks in my mind was leaving for a three day trip and having to return on the first day because the two people, “plan B” and “plan C” both botched everything.
So, clearly you need “plan B”, “plan C” and “plan D” – and you need them to REALLY know your stuff. And you need extreme confidence that they will do well. You need those people to understand your values. If anything goes sideways, you want these people to KNOW what to do to take GOOD care of the animals.
Your first thought is to develop good relationships with your neighbors. You’ll help them and they’ll help you. It will take some trial and error to find somebody trustworthy *IF* you have a pool of good neighbors.
My experience was not so good in this space. And I have visited with dozens of people that have long tales of woe – most of whom just embraced never traveling.
A lot of permies consider the idea of community. Bring a collection of people together with the same values and work ethic. And maybe the animals can even be owned collectively so anybody can travel whenever they want. This idea lasts no more than a fraction of a second because life has taught them that people are fucking nuts and this can NEVER work. At the same time, there are some people out there that appear to be not crazy. In fact they seem kinda cool. It would be great to get together with those people. And it would be great to have the freedom to leave. But this problem is just way too huge. Okay, more on that later ….
The Price of 80 Acres
80 acres with a creek, southern exposure, deep soil, forest, close to a lovely town and not all that far from a lovely city, nestled into forest service land at the end of a road, … no improvements (house, barn, power, well, roads, fences): a million bucks.
Most people that want to travel this path don’t happen to have a million bucks.
Nobody wants the debt of mortgage, but some people are so passionate about this path that they will consider it. And most lenders won’t touch bare land. In the country, a lot of folks are selling land and will do “owner financing”. You need to put 20% to 35% down (I’ve seen it as low as 10%) and then you have mortgage payments. For a million dollar property, that’s $200,000 down and about $4000 per month. So, for a lot of people, this is also a show stopper.
Okay, so you can find 80 acres for about $120,000 …. no creek, recently logged, some soil, maybe eastern exposure (smells almost like “southern exposure”), and maybe the town doesn’t seem uber cool, but it probably has a kind of “character” that will grow on you ….
(and you can find 80 acres for $65,000: north facing slope, no way to access except by helicopter, and some serious problems you really don’t want to know about)
Most people reading this are probably still thinking that $120,000 is still way out of their league. Suddenly the thought of five acres looks way better. The funny thing is that this property as a five acre plot will be $40,000.
One thing to keep in mind: most raw land does not have owner financing. You can either buy it outright or you don’t buy it.
This giant gob of advice is continued in part 2.
See the entire Paul Wheaton archive.
Paul Wheaton is the tyrannical dictator of Permies.com, the largest permaculture forum on the web. As a certified master gardener and permaculture designer, he’s built an empire around what he calls, ‘infecting brains with permaculture’. His forums are full of rich information, and there are a number of great free resources, guides, and articles that can be found on his sister site, Richsoil.com as well.
Most recently, he has worked with rocket mass heater experts Ernie and Erica in developing a DVD set on making your own rocket mass heater, and has produced another video series on permaculture gardening, which detail how to use hugelkultur, swales, and natural ponds to capture and utilize water without irrigation. His recent work with natural buildings based on Mike Oehler’s designs have resulted in the creation of the Wofati, a semi underground natural home design.
Crowned the Duke of Permaculture by Geoff Lawton and the Bad Boy of Permaculture by the Occupy Monsanto movement, Paul continues to educate and inspire at his property – dubbed Wheaton Labs – in western Montana, where he conducts experiments in permaculture and natural building, hosts workshops, and entertains the curious passerby. More information on stays at the property can be found here.