Our previous installment dealt with ensuring you have a clear understanding of what you want before buying land. Now, we will consider the “where” question. It’s a more complex question than you might imagine.
To recap, here are the five questions:
What do I want?
Where will I do it?
How will I do it?
Who will do it?
Is this God’s will?
Where will I do it?
In one hand is your understanding of what you want. In the other hand, is a good understanding of where that is possible. Some people dive in and end up making costly mistakes or even losing resources because they don’t balance their desire with the place they are considering to buy. So whether you are considering a homestead or operating a farm of hundreds of acres, we have to balance place with desire.
We start with first-hand observation. Rarely is buying land unseen a good idea. It’s also not a good sign if an owner won’t let you get on the property to examine it in detail. When considering a purchase, don’t be embarrassed to ask the owner to examine it multiple times. I recommend walking a property several times before making an offer. If you have the opportunity, examine the place in multiple seasons and conditions.
Observation is often an underestimated discipline of gardening, homesteading or farming. We don’t want to end up in paralysis by analysis, but we really need to do our best to understand any prospective property before diving in.
Here are a few things to look for.
Weather and climate
Start with determining what hardiness zone the property is in. This will be helpful to determine your growing seasons. But, hardiness zones can have a lot of diversity in each zone, so you have to understand what the seasonal cycles are in your region and that specific location. What directions do storms come from? What are your chances of early or late frosts? Is the property shielded or open? From what direction are the prevailing winds at the surface level? Is the spring season wet and the fall season dry, or vice versa? Examining temperature charts are also helpful. Does most of the rain come in one primary time of the year or spread out evenly? Speaking of rain, that leads us to our next area of observation.
Along with sunlight, water is the most important part of your plans on a property no matter what your goals are. Knowing how much and when the rain falls on the property is a must, but just as important is knowing how the water moves through that property. If possible, get out on the land during a hard rain to see how water moves. Look up rainfall records for that area. Do you have the potential to artificially irrigate? Are there wells on the property and what is their flow rate? What’s in the well water? Is there municipal water and how much does it cost? For most people, you’re not going to do much without water. Understanding what you want to do will also help you determine what your water needs are. Does the property you are considering meet the water needs of what you want to do? Are their usable ponds, creeks, streams, springs, or rivers on the property? Regarding surface water, what are the water-rights laws in your county and state? You need to have a handle on almost all these questions before purchase to know if that land can meet what you desire.
Most people only consider that the sun rises and sets and the amount of time between varies throughout the year. But, you need to understand the actual solar exposure of the land in all four seasons. Sun angle is critical for planning during each of the seasons. How much shade is there that can create zones where things grow more slowly. Is there shade for animals to protect them during the hot seasons? Solar charts for sun position during all seasons is informative to tell you angle and duration of sunlight on your specific property. Here’s a website that may help. What you want to do can be dramatically impacted by how much sunlight you have access to and can bank away I plants or heat.
Soil, Geology, and Geography
A good understanding of the soils of the location is important to help you determine if the place can support what you want to do or if you need to do some soil remediation work. Soil is essentially sand, silt, and clay. The ratio of those three things varies from place to place. Soil composition can even vary within the same acre. Start by looking up the old USGS soil maps. Soil types can define what you want to do and what may be possible in the near future. Additionally, what biota exists in the soil is a sign of how healthy the soil is. Earthworm population is one indicator of the life in the soil.
The geology of the property, as well as its geography, can give you a variety of clues about the land. How deep is your soil before you hit bedrock? Is your soil deep enough to support your plans? How much change in elevation does the land have? Is it too steep to grow crops without erosion? Can animals still get around? Can you hold water at various spots on the land?
Entire books can be written on this. So, be sure you have a good handle on the soil and the lay of the land.
Wildlife and flora
What is already growing on the property can be very telling. If the land is covered in early succession flora, then you understand it’s been under some kind of stress or event, such as regular haying or a fire. Different species of plants can be an indicator of presence or lack of minerals as well as a sign of compaction. Contact your area NRCS agent to walk the property with you for this deeper dive.
Wildlife can also help you make decisions about what you can and cannot do. If you have a high deer population, you may have to grow sacrificial plants or develop deer-proof systems. Predators present in the ecosystem will also help you define your practices if you’re going to have any kind of livestock. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, feral dogs, hawks, opossum, to name a few, are all impactful on operational decisions of a homestead and something to know ahead of time when purchasing.
I haven’t covered every facet of this question in this installment, but the purpose is simply to get you thinking as you consider a purchase. Make a checklist and don’t be afraid to talk candidly with the owner and neighbors.