Lessons Learned on Ye Ole’ Farmstead: Part 1
We had a long list of “musts” before we started looking for our first farm. After looking at farm and rural properties, vacant land included, for a couple of years, we realized that our farmer friends were right “there is no perfect land”. Good sense demanded concessions.
So, the question is, what are you willing to make concessions on and what are you not? What we would not accept: poor or no water, land that had been farmed commercially or was surrounded by commercial crop farming (there are implications of residues not only in the soil, but in the water), land surrounded by other commercial enterprises (we saw farms surrounded by such things as a competitive dirt bike raceway, a town dump, an elementary school that owned the corner of the land, abandoned adjacent homes with squatters living in them etc.), farms on busy roadways, and farms surrounded by power lines or cell towers (we got sick living in a military house under a power line years earlier and we weren’t interested in going back to those days). Regardless of our adoration of a place, our pre-agreed upon list, which we kept front and centre in our conversations, steered us away from some possible ugly situations. Might as well get that culling muscle working right off the bat. You’re going to need it when you start buying livestock.
From there, our list included it nice-to-haves. A decent house would be swell. Some fencing would be great. No more than an hour to the nearest town for some arts and entertainment would be lovely. A little infrastructure, maybe a barn or two, would really take the load off.
What we would have loved to have found was a beautiful old, perfectly maintained century home with post and beam barns meticulously maintained, surrounded by open pastures and meadows full of wildlife and thriving soils. Ancient hedgerows and trees, maybe an orchard, silence, vitality. Land that had never been sprayed or killed off with mono crops. Land that spoke to our souls.
For us, it was land with good water, biodiverse ecosystems, land that, even if mismanaged could be brought back with the illustrious bovine leading the charge using techniques like spreading compost and rotational grazing. We wanted trees and water and pastures and to be surrounded by the same. We wanted to be able to hunt on our land. We wanted to devote ourselves to the protection of the wild places as much as the controlled areas.
Where we live, in Ontario, Canada, land is zoned according to allowable usage. So, buying “rural residential” was not what we were after. That’s important to know when looking. We needed to find “agricultural” zoned land so we wouldn’t be dealing with bylaw officers or neighbours complaining at the sound of the rooster. We specifically wanted farmland because we knew we would have animals, and not just a couple chickens we could hide.
Speaking of neighbours, we wanted to ensure privacy and security. A neighbour a kilometre or so away is no big deal, but we didn’t want to move somewhere with a house directly beside or across from us.
It’s important to have an idea of what you want to do on your small farm/homestead and to understand the requirements of doing it. I often get the question something along the lines of “can I get cows on 10 acres”. I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. Land is a living, breathing entity. What 10 acres looks like on one corner of our property is very different from another. It’s our job, as stewards of the land, not to impose our will, but to observe and consider what it can handle, what it can offer, and what it needs. A large pasture needs to be grazed, but sticking cattle on a plot of land without rotating them, is a disaster. The questions shouldn’t be “what can I get away with”, but “what will make this place better than when I found it” and “what will give the animals the best life possible”.
The type of land we wanted wouldn’t have been possible for us in Alberta, or many of the other provinces we lived in over the years. It wouldn’t even have been possible for us in many of the places in our own province. The cost of land was too high and the concessions we would have had to make were too great in many places. We ended up moving, and staying, in a part of our province that still had relatively cheap land, one of the few places that did. We bought our first farm, with the objective of selling grass fed beef and organic, pastured pork, in an area we weren’t too crazy about. It was a beautiful farm, 200 acres that were never sprayed, had a lovely cedar bush with aquifers that bubbled out of the ground that you could drink right out of. There was a wildflower meadow, fencing (old but repairable), nothing going on around us, neighbours far enough away to be neighbourly with, ponds, a swimming hole, and wildlife. We had enough land to graze around 30 head of cattle, give or take, and to cut our own hay. We had a forest to put in our breeding pigs and their babes. We had pastures for grazing goats and fowl of all sorts.
But the house was horrible and we had to inject money into just making it livable before we even got in there. The area was economically depressed and rough as hell, but we tried to overlook the drunks crashing into our fences at three in the morning, the poachers shooting deer and selling them out of their garage, and the drug dealer blasting techno music all day and night that we could hear from a kilometre away. That was our compromise. That, and the barns that were over 100 years old. They were usable and we adapted them to us, but the long term solution was going to be to mow them down or inject tens of thousands of dollars. Infrastructure is extremely expensive, whether to build or bring back from the brink. We also had to immediately pay for fencing. Even if you do it yourself, material costs are quite high. We had fencing and animals on the farm before we were even on there. And, of course, there’s the cost of the animals.
Oh, and our well crapped out on us one week in. That was a new well to dig. Before buying, We had our well checked. Our septic system too. Both bit the bullet two years into living there. Know the state of your well and septic system because they will easily set you back thousands of dollars to repair. And run a full water test on the water of any place you are thinking of buying (not just a bacterial count test).
Five years later, when we had learned what we needed and decided to make some tough decisions, we moved our farm to a new farm. I wouldn’t recommend this to my worst enemy, but alas, the pain was worth the result. We downsized to a 100 acre farm, enough to farm for us and to sell live family milking cow heifers, piglets, and any excess livestock and food we produced. It was the right decision for us. What is important to say is that when one, or both, of a couple work off farm for income and then also works full time on the farm with the other person, all semblance of a private life can be sucked into the vortex of production instead of other life pursuits like smooching on a hammock or just enjoying a dinner together before midnight.
I worked on the farm full time, he worked full time and then worked on the farm full time. The hustle and strain remains whether you have 15 cows or 50. Starting out without necessary infrastructure, fencing, and other necessities, combined with the costs of getting the show on the road including, feed, equipment, and tools, is a challenge. Every last cent we made went into our farm. That’s a hell of a lot of beef you have to sell to make up those costs.
We decided, at the beginning of our marriage that it was “us” first. Us before kids. Us before circumstance. At the five year mark, we took a look around and realized that our relationship was paying the price of our unchallenged ideas on how living a self-sustainable life on a farm should be. We started asking some big, tough questions. There were tears, yes, but there are worse things than a broken heart.
Phew! With this lengthy intro into land selection now moving into economics, I think it best to stop here. Next post, I will talk about money, honey. Tell me what you want to hear about that one. I promise to keep all of these posts as real as I can.
Please do listen to my podcast with @ketosavage where we get more into land selection and starting out. So many questions I’m asked are in that conversation.