When my partner and I began our search for property, we were looking for an escape from suburbia. We weren’t sure what we were looking for, but we knew our days of competitive lawn care and comparing corporate jobs were numbered. Over the next year and a half, there were some promising leads and a few romances with places that simply would not work. But when we found our home, we knew immediately that it was the place.
The property was anything but turnkey. The amount of work that would have to go into rejuvenating our new home was daunting, and we knew it would be years before the project was complete. But it was exactly what we had been looking for.
In our initial search, we looked mostly at either empty parcels of land, or places with fully functioning homes and outbuildings. Somewhere along the way, we changed our thinking: With so many old farm properties just sitting abandoned along every backroad we drove, some of them had to be for sale for a reasonable price. We knew we could turn them into our dream homestead with less work than building new, and for a significantly smaller cost than purchasing ready-to-go.
Make your checklist
When searching for a farm or homestead, the first step is to create a checklist of what you are looking for in a potential home. How much land do you actually need? How far from cities and towns would you like to be? Are you willing to put in a great deal of work on the house, barn, or outbuildings? Questions like this are equally as important as finalizing your budget or your inspiration for moving.
For most folks moving from city to the country, a few compromises will be necessary. In the case of our new farm, we knew what we wanted in terms of acreage, and because we had animals already, a barn was high on our priority list. In fact, a structurally sound barn is one of the most desirable features of a future homestead. The farmers I know who have moved to old farms list a good barn as a number one reason they bought the place they settled. Those who found land without a barn have invested significant time and effort into constructing outbuildings.
Outbuildings, acreage, and fencing are all limiting factors, so it is important to think about your end goals instead of simply thinking about the number of animals you have now. Our 93 acres were far more than a small flock of chickens, geese, and three goats would ever need, and certainly more than I wanted to garden, but it allows us plenty of room for future farm stock and crops. While I would encourage those searching for land to set their acreage goals high, that does not mean that you need to only look for pastures and tillable land.
While it is no easy task, clearing land of timber, brush, or overgrowth is one project that is relatively doable by a few people and a chainsaw — or the right kind of livestock. It’s less costly than putting up buildings, and often doesn’t have to be done within a single season. Acres of overgrown fields or timber can be found for much less than cleared pastureland. Farmers starting out on overgrown land have used pigs to turn acres from saplings to workable dirt, and goats will happily live on very rough terrain.
When to compromise
The first place for a farmer to compromise when searching for land is the house. A good barn cannot be passed up, but if your goal is to make a living off the land, having the most modern house shouldn’t be a priority. A new house will drive the price of a property up, and it won’t contribute much to your farm’s future success.
The land that we found in the summer of 2015 was 93 acres of former farmland. It had been home to blueberry barrens and cattle for generations, but nothing had been touched in almost 30 years. The barn, our number one attraction, was a towering structure that showed no signs of rot, even though it was stuffed full of moldering bales of old hay and various abandoned equipment. The house had a few structural issues, but was livable without electricity, plumbing, or running water.
The fields were full of alders and pine saplings, and some spots were bursting upward in groves of poplars. Nothing was fenced in, and the barn’s stalls had been converted into open space for more storage. But the price was right, and the projects to turn it into a working farm were within our abilities as two motivated farmers. The house — we’d worry about that later.
A number of homesteaders I know can tell a similar story of finding just the right property. It is always hard to find something perfect when shopping on a budget, but the ability to see what a place will look like once cleared and reconstructed, and the confidence in your ability to complete those projects (or a realistic idea of your limitations) opens up overgrown fields to visions of happily grazing animals.
Our friends in the neighboring town, Mike and Cari of Ridge Pond Farm & Herbals, had been planning to build on family land for many years. They were not looking to buy when they first visited their future property. Like us, they knew it was the place as soon as they got out of the car.
A structurally sound 1800s barn was the first thing to catch their attention. The home required significant work to be livable, but they were able to find an apartment space nearby while it was converted. While only 2 of their 30 acres were cleared, they were able to expand that with a trio of pigs, which later fed them through the winter, and the property has frontage on a local pond.
For some, privacy is a key part of country living. While it won’t directly affect your farm’s success, many people who are looking at rural property are in it for the peace and quiet. Kate St. Cyr of The Modern Day Settler blog (and a contributor to Grit) found the perfect compromise with her husband. A property with 101⁄2 acres allowed them enough land for their gardens and animals, and it was surrounded by 600 acres of private, undeveloped land to give them the solitude they were looking for.
An old but structurally sound barn can usually be made into living spaces for animals relatively easily. Our space required a few new floorboards and a lot in the way of walls and doors to be constructed. Within a few months, we had stalls for geese, goats, chickens, and ducks.
When you decide to “go country,” finding the right place is a must for the future enjoyment and success of your farm. Limiting your search to properties with modern homes and new or renovated barns can drive the price up. Similarly, only looking to build your own brand-new structures could be equally costly down the road. With a little bit of compromise and elbow grease, it’s possible to find the perfect property for your future farm.
Around the country many farm houses have been abandoned by families moving to jobs in the city and suburbia. Farms with strong barns and neglected fields are fully capable of becoming the perfect homestead. All it takes is some hard work and a little bit of vision to bring these properties back to their former glory.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen grew up on a farm and has been raising geese for most of her life. She enjoys their quirky personalities and practicality. Always intrigued by self-sufficiency and working with her hands, Kirsten and her partner are restoring a 200-year-old farm in Liberty, Maine, where they raise livestock and grow vegetables and native medicinal herbs. Her book, A Modern Homesteader’s Guide to Keeping Geese, was published in the Fall of 2017.