Quest for Land: My Advice for Permies and Homesteaders Part 2 of 3

(Publisher’s Note: This is a 3-part series about Paul’s quest for land and how it (the land) relates to all things permaculture. For a bit of background, be sure to read Part I)


Selling Your Soul Into Slavery

So many people living in the city are coming to the conclusion that they hate their life. The work at a job they hate – mostly because they would hate other jobs even more. They take the money and pay for things they don’t really want: car, house/apartment, work clothes, student loan so they can get a good job, stuff to dull the pain of their existence (toys, alcohol, hobbies, drugs …).

They then start to get the idea of how cool it would be to walk away from it all and live in the woods. And then the mind wanders to other solutions. Universally, step 1 is “get out of debt.” Naturally, thoughts turn to stuff covered in books like “mortgage free” or “early retirement extreme” (ERE). In time the solution appears to be permaculture and homesteading.

head on desk (exhausted)

Photo courtesy of Morgue File

So, when you are shopping for property, I would like to make a strong suggestion to not get into a mortgage. It is an obvious suggestion. Nobody want’s a mortgage. I just want to mention that for a lot of people, this is moving from “slavery to the system” to “slave to your dreams.” There is a good chance that five years into the future, you might hate the five-years-ago-you.

Some people will do a lot of work to find a job that they can do out in the sticks. Or they will find land that is still really close to a town where they can continue to work. And with a 30 year mortgage, you might have to do that for 30 years. Your new life could turn out to be quite the burden.

Some people tell themselves that they will make major coin from their new property. I do think that is possible, but it almost always takes a big hunk of cash to get started. That’s the cool thing about ERE, the root of the book is: the more humbly you are willing to live, the better your forward velocity.

I think a big part of permaculture is the opposite of credit card debt. With credit card debt, you sell your future self into slavery to pay for your whims of today (the whims are usually about anesthetizing your current existence). Permaculture is more about giving a gift to your future self.

I like to think that the thing to do is to explore how humble you can be (ERE style) combined with residual income streams. But, this is a story for another day.

There are hundreds of arguments for the infinite number of paths. I just wish to encourage everybody to have a strong preference to get out of debt and stay out of debt.

Attributes for a Property That Were of Interest to Me


Photo courtesy of Morgue File

80 acres minimum. 200 optimal.

Need deep soil. A lot of the property I looked at had no soil, or just a few patches of shallow soil. One property I saw was a 480 acre rock – beautiful, but not for me.

Need extreme privacy – I don’t want a public road going through the property.

No building codes.

Sloped land makes it so you can control frost pockets. Plus flat land is usually a sign of flood plains – where other people’s persistent building codes get washed onto your land annually.

Need lots of weeds – this indicates that the soil is not poisoned with persistent herbicides that can take decades to get rid of. Probably 90% of the properties were dominantly grass – a strong indicator that persistent broad leaf herbicides were used.

Surrounded by properties that generally never spray. The forest service and timber companies will spray sometimes, but usually they don’t bother. The nature conservancy sprays (which seems like an oxymoron, but it is true). Check the surrounding properties for lots of weeds.

Within an hour of missoula. For a while I looked at land that was within an hour and a half of missoula, but am glad that I found something within an hour.

– first, I have a powerful bias. I just love missoula. The carousel, freecycles, the saturday market, the events and people, the flavor of community …

– second, I have a powerful desire to be someplace where it gets cold so I can build soil the way I want to build soil, plus, less bugs and less disease


Caras Park in downtown Missoula, Montana

– someday I want to be able to say that I grow a lemon tree, outdoors, in montana

– when showing off the power of the wofati or rocket mass heater, it has more weight when you say you are doing it in montana

– I just love to say that I’m a montanan. When people ask “where are you from?” I found I like to say “montana” about 20 times more than “idaho”, “oregon”, “washington state” or “colorado.”

Seven Years Ago …

I built up dozens of tiny residual income streams. I had about $1500 per month coming in from residual income streams. In other words, I could do utterly nothing and my bank account would gain $1500 per month. I could go sit on a boat, out in the ocean for ten months with no connection to the internet or anything and come back to find about $15,000 in my accounts.

I was debt free.

I would sometimes take a programming job and bring in a few more bucks here and there.

I was bonkers about permaculture.

I had about $5000 of buffer in the bank. Not enough to buy land. Not even enough to buy land with somebody.

For a bunch or personal reasons, I wanted to stay in the seattle area for about three more years and then move back to montana. During my three year stay, I wanted to “do” permaculture. I wanted to express my vision in seed and soil on a few acres. Chickens, pigs and gardens. Maybe four acres. I also wanted to be part of a community. I was willing to pay.

After four months of visiting dozens of places, I found a place. I lay down my money and got moved in. Then I found out that they told me whatever I wanted to hear because they just needed somebody to rent the place. I was not allowed to do my permaculture stuff. I was only allowed to do landscaping according to their limited, fucked up ideas on landscaping. At first I tried “patient communication” to help them learn about what I was attempting to do. That was working, but it was sloooooooow. I then met sepp holzer and he asked me about my situation. When I told him, he said “Get out. Now.” It then all clicked for me. I got out.

Things changed and I started my search for land in Montana. At first I tried to arrange a 15 year lease. I talked to lots of land owners about such a lease. My ideas were too different. I did find somebody that was cool with my ideas and I drove from seattle to montana and spent a few days talking and working things out …. only the land owner couldn’t decide whether to keep the land and have me do my thing, or sell the land (80 acres for $900,000). I made lots of contacts. I moved to missoula and intensified my search. I would do lots of speaking gigs so that in the middle of the presentation I could tell the audience that I was looking for land to lease.

The Fall of 2012

I lived frugally, beefed up my residual income streams, plus did some work, plus …. all of my giving stuff away for years and years resulted in some very lucky opportunities …. In the fall of 2012 I had saved up about $70,000. I figured that if I could put $40,000 down on an owner carry plot of at least 80 acres, that would leave me with $30,000 to make improvements.

Something clicked within me and I realized my innards NEEDED me to get some fucking land right fucking now. Yes, my passion is in putting out free stuff, but now I want to be a bulldozer and bring in funds asap. I’m sick and tired of dancing around all this stupid shit of owner financing. If I work hard for a short time I can come up with enough money to buy SOMETHING and get STARTED!

A lot of hard work and a lot of help and a lot of luck …. In May of 2013 I closed on 200 acres. It has issues, but it has crazy deep soil, lots of weeds, privacy, slope, no building codes, surrounded by forest service and timber company land and within an hour of missoula. Bonus of thick forests – the heavy tree growth is indicative of the deep soils.

This giant gob of advice is continued in part 3.

Discuss this more in a thread dedicated to this blog




See the entire Paul Wheaton archive.

paul-wheaton-bioPaul Wheaton is the tyrannical dictator of, 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, 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.