Mia and I have a dream. One day we will own a little piece of land-more than 2 acres, probably less than 15. While we have had this dream for almost 10 years now, we are getting closer each month to actualizing. Spent yesterday pricing land, which was depressing, so I need to blog to reconnect with The Plan.

Our brand new home is appreciating nicely, and I have converted half the backyard into my own sustainable farming institute. In my 1/8 acre of paradise (just ignore the freeway for a minute) I am perfecting seedling starts, prairie restoration, windbreak creation (with guilded cover plants), fruit, carbohydrate (sunchokes) and nut crops, worm bins and rain gardens; even living playhouses for the kids made from sunflowers. I have even started trading produce with my local coffee/sandwhich shop to practice marketing. There have been several set backs (the 3 sisters debacle of ’05 still stings), but ruining 100sq ft of corn is better than losing an acre… which is exactly the point. Thanks to E4 and others I am learning by example and have upped my agri-reading to about 200 pages a week: all things sustainable and contrary. Mia’s support is invaluable-she makes the highs possible and the lows manageable. I need to work on my animal husbandry-since chickens are out in the city limits I will most likely have a peck of Angora Rabbits by summers end-I need the manure and the animal element is missing in our permaculture. Plus it will allow me to work on handspinning!

With the land purchase less than 3 years out (need to pay off the 2nd mortgage and the cars-at least the credit cards are dead) it is time to start getting even more serious on the planning.
We have all but committed to building our own because the price of those old ineffecient homes is ridiculous. So here is the loose plan (very high level) that I tweak almost daily.

The House: Small and green
~Passive solar is essential, so it will also almost certainly be a ranch layout 2 rooms deep with a thermal mass wall running the spine of the house. Depending on the site, I will most likely bury the back half-not entirely, but up to about window line so we wtill get light and cross breezes. Anything above grade will have straw bail construction for the wicked R-value and sustainablity, under grade and will be stone work-either rammed earth or Earth Bricks.
~Exterior. Banking that by build time PV roofing will be better, if not the roof will be a wicked cool water catchment system running to large (5000+ gallon) cisterns on each side set into the ground to mitigate temp changes. I like the versions of the Earth Ships but our Someday house won’t look like we bought it from Uncle Owen on Tatooine.
~HVAC. I am really stuck on this one. I need to build without one to pay for the cisterns, appliances, and energy production, and the passive solar with a woodstove will heat our ‘small’ (15-1700sq ftish) floorplan, but how do I cool it? WI will go thru 4-8 weeks where the temp never dips below 80 with high humidity so the thermal mass factor is out for the summer. I am currently set on a radiator system pulling from the cisterns, but not sure that will work. The alternative is a basment bedroom…
~Interior. Will look fairly contemporary, but we will use many of the Green Building pratices: no VOC paints, uber effecient appliances and fixtures etc using LEED certification as a guide-looks like we are Gold at first blush.
~Power We will almost certainly be intertied to the grid because I don’t like batteries, but with a power surplus. Wind will be critical, I like the Whispers, but the new African Power units would be a nice to add in for low wind conditions. Both would augemented by PV on the house as well as crazy effecient appliances, especially the computer and fridge. We have already cut our power use by 25%, but have a long way to go.

The Farm: Small & Sustainable.
~Contrary. Taking a que from Gene Logsdon and the myriad micro farmers out there I will go by the adage that smaller is better. 5 acres or less means possibly no tractor, or at least only a very small one. This keep costs and inputs way down a more foot time in the fields means more intense gardening (no better fertilizer than a gardener’s shadow!).
~Permaculture Just like the old days, but with a better marketing campaign, the goal will be no inputs-all the farms needs will be produced on site, or sourced very locally. Water from the Barn roof waters the animals, chickens eat fodder from the locust and pine nut trees planted to shade the coop, etc. This means very careful crop and animal choices. Intense composting and functional use of animals-chicken tractors, hog rototillers, sheep mowers, etc will be critical and very, very creative farm design-again why we need to start from scratch.
~Vegetarian This is where the whole profitablity part gets hard. We refuse to kill our livestock-though I am not going to go crazy on farmers that do. That means function stacking the critters Big Time-raise sheep that can be sheared and milked for instance. I currently like the Icelandic: multi colored (no dyeing!) and primitive so the need much less care. Finally, we have an active 501C3 from Mia’s animal rescue and will likely start up a farm rescue which could lead to some interesting tenants-pot bellied pigs would rototill the fields for me and make manure and be a nice tax shelter while saving them from an untimely demise.
~Crops. After picking 2 quarts of strawberries a day this past week I now know that I won’t sell strawberries for $2.50 a pint, same goes for peas-too labor intensive. I love fruit though, so we will have U-Pick strawberris, raspberries and blueberries. Other market veggies will be there (peppers, tomatoes, etc) and I might focus in on melons as they seem to get a good price around here and I love them. Perrenial crops will be high on my list-fruits, nuts, and sunchokes do to the low inputs and reduced labor (no tilling/planting-less weeding/fertilizing). Will probably have a small orchard of mixed fruits-heirloom apples and some Paw Paws. I am also looking into growing contrary plants for our fodder-Quinoa and Amaranth. Both have leaves that are edible (unlike corn) and neither needs thresthing (unlike wheat). Sizing of fields and pasture etc needs MUCH more research.
~Adding Value Everything I have read so far points to adding value to your crops as the way to making micro farms work. Strawberries get $2.50 a pint here. But take that same pint of berries ($2.50) and make a dozen muffins and you get $12. More work, sure, but not 5x the work. If you are selling tomtotes to the coffee shop putting muffins in the back of the car just makes the trip more profitable. Same goes for wool, eggs, milk (cheese) etc. Also there seems to be a need to ‘Go to the Farm’-we did this for years. So we intend to make the farm itself a destination-sunflower mazes and encourage the kids to pet the sheep, hold seminars on raingardens and organic gardening for the adults. Finally if I have any time left I intend to have a service business installing eco-gardens and building rainbarrels-the local brewery sells used oak barrels for $20-and I can make them into a rain barrel for under $40 total-Gaim sells oak rain barrels for $200, plus $50 shipping, mine would be $75-100 to your door, installation as an additional option.

The end goal is to reduce our need to be plugged into the work-a-day world, and replug into the eco world. Still LOTS of details to fill in, and thanks if you read this far. I needed to remind myself that we really are on track. Off to the library with this weeks requests!

4 Responses

  1. That sounds very ambitious, but very cool.

    We spent almost a year looking for land, and we felt like it could have taken a lot longer. We also found that the price seemed to be directly linked to the distance from the city. Oddly, it was also related to the compass direction. North was the most expensive, south was the least. East and west were about the same. If we were willing to live 150 miles out, land was cheap. Up close, it was all going to housing developers and was sky high. We just had to move out in concentric circles until we found the right balance point. It’s very hard to find just the right place though. Good luck!

    Oh, one more note. I found out that on a grid tied system where the rate you pay for electricity does not match the rate you get paid for putting it back into the grid, it’s common for the power company to install a second meter that rolls the other way, so they can tell the difference…

  2. Sounds like you are having a great time planning a move to the country. As long as you know that it will work out
    nothing like you planned, you should be okay.
    Value added may be the way to go, but remember, there are only so many hours in a day. Case in point, you raise and pick your 2.50/pt strawberrys and turn them into muffins, which require many more hours plus the input of flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, salt, spices and the cost of ovens, lights, and liscense. Then you have to find a way to sell them. The 5x shrinks real fast.

  3. The license is a good point that will have to be considered. The plan is definitely flexible, and will undoubtedly go in stages-here in SE Wisconsin it would coast cost over $.5 mil to get it up to speed even with me doing most of the work which is completely unreasonable. Grants, workshops, and shared labor will all need to be involved if we are to pull this off!

  4. There are definitely lots of flexible points to the someday plan. It’s more of the feeling, the mission, the experience. The fact is that selling higher value items is one of the only ways to make a real profit in contemporary cottage farming. The strawberry muffin recipe is in our whole foods philosophy and have maybe 25 cents added cost per batch. Combine that with the fact that I’d be making muffins for the fam anyway and suddenly the only added cost above that 25 cents is the time of processing three times the strawberries (15 minutes?) and pouring 3 more muffin trays (2 minutes?). It maybe adds on another 5-7 minutes of baking time. I think the key is to find value added items that fit in with the lifestyle you want anyway. That, and thank goodness for farmer’s markets and an existing outlet possibility for our wares!

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