Hunting for your dream place
From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills
I have a hunch that at no previous time in modern history have there been more people getting ready for their long planned-for move to a garden farm than right now. For one thing there is a good chance that a dip in farmland prices, if not a nosedive, might be coming soon, like in the housing market, making land more affordable for those who have been saving for just that purpose. But whether that is true or not, there’s a vast discontent with the high standard of living we’re supposed to be enjoying. We are at the end of the era of unbelievably wasteful consumption and many people are realizing that the old adage is again appropriate: “Root, hog, or die.”
The perfect place for a garden farm probably doesn’t exist, but in hunting for one, you should be aware of some practical assets that you may not have considered. I am referring mainly to those priceless attributes that can come with a piece of property, often at no extra cost, but which you can’t supply on your own or can only add over a long period of time. There is also land that comes with negative assets that make it sell cheaper but which you can take advantage of or change for the better. I call it paying attention to the W’s: water, woods, and would-be wasteland.
1. Obviously, the first thing you want to look for is fertile ground. The soil on the perfect garden farm would be a deep rich loam over a naturally well-drained, mineral-rich subsoil, have an organic matter content of over 3% and a pH rating of around 6.5 but most of that kind of land isn’t for sale except in small nooks and crannies not easily accessible to big farm machinery. In most counties, you can consult soil survey maps that have been developed by the Soil Conservation Service to help you find where the better land is located in any given area. When you scout for good soil by doing windshield surveys, observe the crops and gardens growing in the area you are traversing. Not even the most skillful farmer or gardener can grow good crops on poor land. Note the state of farmhouses and barns. Fine, well-kept farmsteads bespeak good soil, and obviously, good places to put down roots— literally and figuratively.
2. A mature woodlot on your garden farm is invaluable for keeping a house warm and for cooking, at least in emergencies or when other fuels become prohibitively expensive. Five acres of well-managed mature forest will supply you with at least four cords of wood every year, and with some lumber for building too. If you’ve purchased any boards from a lumber yard lately you know you can carry a hundred bucks’ worth out to your truck under one arm. Woodlots make wonderful windbreaks and air conditioners too.
3. A spring, even a seep spring that you can dig out and develop into a little pool, is a priceless gift on the garden farm as a water supply for livestock or, with precautions, for your own home use, or to fill a pond. In bygone times, springs were funneled into spring houses to keep milk and other foods cool or apples from shriveling in storage.
4. An ever-running creek is an asset to a farm especially one where livestock will be grazed. From the standpoint of the garden farmer a smaller one is better than a larger one or a river, although the latter two have their good points too. Just remember that the larger the creek, the more prone it will be to flooding, the more work you will incur keeping up the gates across the waterway and the fences along the creek banks. Where springs or creeks are not available, choose land that has proper terrain for a runoff pond. Many books can help you in this regard including my own, The Pond Lovers. And don’t forget that a deep well with sweet, potable drinking water is a priceless asset too. Put a windmill over it and you have your own independent source of pure water whatever the future brings.
5. The most overlooked factor in hunting for a good garden farm location is soil drainage. There is a tendency to favor level land over sloping land for farming because level land appears to be more fertile, especially river-bottom or creek-side land. But very often, level land especially in the eastern half of the country “lays wet,” as farmers say, and becomes productive only with lots of underground drainage tile or surface draining ditches, both of which can be expensive to install. Even with tile, lowland soil is more prone to flooding or ponding after heavy rains. Ponding especially drowns out growing crops, or delays planting and harvesting significantly. The garden farmer should always prefer gently sloping upland, or even hilly land, especially for growing legumes for hay or pasture, or fruits and early vegetables. The wonderfully fertile Amish dairy farms in Holmes County, Ohio are almost all on hill land. Upland fields may not be as naturally fertile as low ground, but can be made fertile with rotational grazing and good organic farming practices or, on smaller plots, with regular applications of animal manures and compost. Erosion will not be critical for garden farmers on sloping land because they will not be managing large, bare, annually cultivated fields. Very often hilly land sells for less because it is less desirable for large-scale grain farming.
6. Sometimes a piece of land looks like wasteland, or is considered such, but has definite possibilities for garden farming. You have seen my story on this website about reclaiming strip mine lands. Another example I recount in All Flesh Is Grass, page 51, about a young couple who bought hill land that the seller was glad to get rid of at a low price because it was covered with multi-flora rose. They stocked the thorny pastures with sheep and attacked the bristling bushes with a rotary mower. In a few years, grass replaced the thorns and good rotational grazing practices plus lime turned the hillsides into verdant pastures.
Rocky land can be used to advantage by garden farmers. Large scale farmers with huge equipment tend to avoid such land (one small rock can tear up a $300,000 combine in about ten seconds) so the price is often lower. But those rocks have many uses. New England was once fenced almost entirely with stones gathered from the fields and many gardens can, like Scott Nearing did, be fenced against wild predators with stone walls. In Minnesota, many barn foundations and walls were made of field stone. Yet another example: so-called ghetto parts of the cities are being transformed into wondrously beautiful little garden farms.
7, Geographic location is perhaps not as crucial as soil drainage in selecting a good place for a garden farm. You should be aware, however, that some climates are riskier than others. A great amount of land along the Gulf Coast has been almost ruined for farming because of the salt water driven inland by hurricanes. Luther Burbank chose California for his garden farming because more different kinds of plants can be grown there nearly year-round. But much of California is short on water and now, short on affordable farmland. If you have a choice, it is better to seek a place where the rainfall averages 35 to 40 inches per year, and temperatures do not reach very hot or cold extremes.
I am forever puzzled by the attitude of many new garden farmers who tend to shun the midwest and midsouth in favor of settling in New England or California. They often believe that the corn belt, the largest expanse of fertile soil and favorable climate in the temperate world, is agribusiness country or red state conservative country, both of which they view uneasily. Please be assured. There is as much political, religious, and economic diversity in the midwest as anywhere else. Yes, this land is best for duo-cropped corn and soybeans, but for that very reason it is best for everything else that grows in a temperate climate. And redneck conservatives also have a wealth of knowledge you can benefit from when it comes to farming and rural life.
The notion, dearly held by east and west coasters, that the breadbasket of America is “flyover” country, is a big mistake for anyone looking for good land at affordable prices. Not that we who live there mind being called flyovers. We even boast about it because we know we are less likely to be inundated by tourism or urban development. It is great that many garden farmers welcome this kind of development as a ready market for their produce, but too much of it can overwhelm life on the ramparts that many of us prefer. Ask the Amish.
See also Gene’s The Anatomy of a Homestead Landscape
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
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