Mmmm, maples.
March 5, 2011 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I want to live on a large expanse of land, but avoid insane $$$ in property taxes. They say having a farm is the way to go. In that vein: How many maple and birch trees would I have to grow and tap to produce enough syrup of each for personal use? (I'm guessing a gallon if I eat pancakes regularly.)

I have been throwing around ideas in my head on how to live on a large expanse of land (so I can grow lots of my own food) but not pay property tax out the wazoo. It seems having a small farm is the way to go, but I don't want to grow lots of different things in large amounts just to satisfy the farm requirement. I'd rather have one thing to concentrate on for that, and then grow whatever I want for personal use separately.

I have tossed around pick your own fruit farm(which seems like a pain in the butt), Christmas Trees(would work if someone came and hauled them off to resell, don't want families coming to my house every December), and maybe a wind farm(???). If you have some knowledge on one of my other ideas/personal experience or what have you on which idea I should go with, please share.

BUT... Another one of these ideas is the sugar shack idea, so I'm looking for the bare minimum patch of woods of maple and birch respectively I would need for my own use, and then would multiple it times how much I think I could handle on my own or with a partner as a almost-hobby in the spring. I understand birch requires more trees for the same amount of sap.

Thanks for any insight.
posted by lettuchi to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Welllll, how much do you consider a large expanse of land, where in the country do you want to live? (different areas have vastly different tax rates)

FAQ about Maple syrup
posted by edgeways at 3:21 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Consider farming a small amount of high-profit product. A friend of mine bought a lavender farm, which seemed to be a stroke of genius.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:25 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: From Vermont Living magazine's maple sugaring facts:
Only a few places in the world have the right climate for sugar maples: New England, upstate New York, Michigan, the Maritime provinces, and southern Quebec and Ontario.

Usually maple trees are not tapped until they are at least 40 years old and 10-12 inches in diameter. As the tree's diameter increases, more taps can be added (up to a maximum of four taps).
When done properly, tapping does no permanent damage to the tree. Some maple trees have been tapped for over a hundred years!

Each tap will yield an average of 10 gallons of sap per season, producing about one quart of maple syrup. Or, to put it another way, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
I know places in the midAtlantic and Ohio have modest maple sugaring programs, though - so the claim about climate may only apply to very large scale commercial operations?

But if these numbers are right, you need one fully-mature tree per gallon of syrup you want to produce over a season. (So you'd need to move to place with existing mature sugar maples)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:25 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm thinking 30 acres, ish.

I am also imagining NE United States, no concrete plans yet, just drafting up ideas.

Thanks for the link, that helps quite a bit.
posted by lettuchi at 3:26 PM on March 5, 2011

Ok... well AFAIK your taxes in that region are going to be far higher than in most the rest of the country.
posted by edgeways at 3:34 PM on March 5, 2011

Response by poster: I would actually like to grow my own food. Owning a lot of land is almost secondary to *that* actually, but only almost.
posted by lettuchi at 3:36 PM on March 5, 2011

As for birch syrup, Wikipedia says:

Most birch syrup is produced in Russia, Alaska and Yukon.... Smaller quantities... in Canada, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Scandinavia.

One litre of syrup from these trees requires evaporation of approximately 130–150 litres of sap. Because of the higher sap-to-syrup ratio and difficulties in production, birch syrup is more expensive than maple syrup, up to five times the price.

So: Move to Alaska, raise birch trees, sell birch syrup?
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:04 PM on March 5, 2011

Not to be too negative, but what experience do you have with any of these things? I think you may be underestimating the amount of work any of these plans take.

I grew up on a small (like less than an acre) strawberry farm and that was our life in May and June. I knew people who made maple syrup commercially (small scale). That was their life in February/March and they had all the equipment and know how all ready. If you're thinking about these plans only for the tax exemption and not because they sound appealing in and of themselves, I think you're just going to find any of them a huge headache.
posted by geegollygosh at 4:05 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't have any experience. I'm just exploring ideas at this point.

I know a farm is not just a big garden and all(and I'd expect some amount of work, even if the land was just grass), but I'm looking for the easiest thing to grow if I want to have a farm-enough to have my (as of now non-existent!) land classified as a farm. It seems that many people do Christmas trees, but I thought that was a little pedestrian. I thought sap trees would be it, but maybe that is not the case.
posted by lettuchi at 4:18 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Also, if owning a lot of land is secondary to growing your own food, well... you don't really need that much land to grow your own food. Growing up we had maybe a half acre garden with enough corn, tomatoes, fruit trees, herbs, peppers, potatoes, beans, squash, blueberries, strawberries, peas, etc for four people in the summer and the fall. (If you want thirty acres to have thirty acres, that's cool and I'm not trying to talk you out of it, I'm just a little confused.)
posted by geegollygosh at 4:19 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry for all the responses.

I do want to live on a large piece of land. Mainly, I don't want neighbors. I don't want to hear kids playing or dogs barking, what have you.

I also want to grow lots of my own food, regardless if I am doing that on windowsills or in the basement or on the roof or whatever.

Separate goals that I'd like to have combined, ideally.
posted by lettuchi at 4:23 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Look for a small piece of land on the edge of a state forest or some other conservation land. Growing a lot of your own food is not all that feasible in the northeast because of the short growing season, unless you don't mind eating a lot of root crops for a lot of months. You should consider doing an apprenticeship of some kind on a farm before you make any big moves.
posted by mareli at 4:27 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: I wouldn't go with syrup. At least here in Maine, you can just grow trees (for commercial use) and get the tax benefits. We have about 90 acres in tree growth and it reduces our taxes by a huge amount. While I was growing up we did "cut your own" Christmas trees, but now its just in woodland management and we get the same benefits. We hire a professional woodlot manager to write a new plan for us about every five years (cost: a few hundred dollars) and periodically (about every ten years) have some harvesting done. Its basically painless for us, but enables us to hold onto family land that we would otherwise have to sell because the tax burden would be too high.

As a bonus, if we're ever forced to sell, the land must stay in the treegrowth program or face hefty back taxes, so the land itself is protected from possible subdivision.
posted by anastasiav at 4:28 PM on March 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Depending on what state you are interested in a Conservation Easement may give property tax benefits as well.
posted by buttercup at 5:12 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where she and her family live on a small farm and eat only what they could grow or source locally for one year. Short version: A lot of work, very rewarding (both in terms of learning to make things and enjoying food), and so depriving of certain things that they broke down and allowed each person to pick one outside treat (e.g., her husband chose coffee).

If you're serious, the book won't dissuade you, and may increase your resolve, but it should cause you to shed any romantic ideas about how it will work. Kingsolver and her family were very happy they did it, and mostly kept the lifestyle they developed.
posted by fatbird at 5:23 PM on March 5, 2011

You don't necessarily have to do the farming yourself. Use what you need. Rent the rest of the land out to a small-scale farmer who will be good to your land and maybe start up a CSA or something.
posted by aniola at 5:37 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wrote that based on the assumption that a responsible farmer would not be the same as neighbor kids or dogs, but it would depend on your tolerance level for people, I suppose. If it's something you could tolerate, it could be an awesome solution, though.
posted by aniola at 5:41 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: The term you need to search on here is "hobby farm" or possibly "farmette". For example, there is a magazine Hobby Farms, with a page (magazine article?) on maple syrup farming. (In fact, it appears that a syruping operation was the inspiration for its publication.) I would probably want to read such a magazine for at least a year before I was sure of getting into this, and before any purchase I would want expert opinions of the quality of the existing operation.
posted by dhartung at 5:49 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not sure what community you are looking for, or what kind of quiet you are looking for but a farming community may not be what you think it is. I have no experience with rural life in the northeast but in the Texas panhandle, southwest and the pacific northwest you will get lots of noise of human activity anywhere farming is viable. Tractors (unmuffled diesel engines) start early-like before dawn early, all kind of small two stroke engines like chainsaws, shredders, engines on farm implements, quads, pickups, and so on. You are going to get tractor-trailer noise during harvest time especially as trucks haul the harvest away or bring in supplies to bigger operations. If you are near any kind of livestock you are going to get animal noise, manure (not too smelly if managed right but its shit-it is going to stink some), flys and so on. And lots and lots of barking dogs. 30 acres really isn't that much land as farms go and your neighbors are going to be closer than you think.

All that being said I would also like to get a piece of land in the country and live a peaceful life there, someday I may be able to afford it. Oregon has some interesting property tax laws that keep the taxes here lower than they would appear to be based on the rate, California does also. Of course this has thoroughly screwed up our state budget, but it keeps owning moderate property somewhat affordable. I would also recommend looking for a smallish piece of land that backs up to protected land like state trust, federal, blm, national park, national forest and so on. I bet there are a lot more of this kind of land in the west than the northeast but that way you get tons and tons of open space without paying for it.
posted by bartonlong at 6:20 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: If you want to grow food, you might consider doing it in the city. My husband and I took a class led in part by these folks a couple of weeks ago and found it very informative. It's oriented more towards earning a living from growing & selling produce than towards growing all one's own food, though. If you're focused on growing most or all of your own food, you might look into John Jeavons and the Grow Biointensive techniques. The people who wrote this book claim it's possible to grow one's complete diet in less than 1,000 square feet.

If you're a city or suburban kid (which is not meant a slam; I am one myself and so is my husband) do think seriously about how you'll adapt to moving to "the country". The culture shock can be profound, based on what I've read from people who've done it. Plus, apparently one of the truisms in the world of homesteaders is "Weather you consider decent, land you can afford, neighbors you find compatible. Pick two and consider yourself lucky if you get them."
posted by Lexica at 7:00 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in a tropical area, but people here have "farms" for the tax break. They plant a bunch of fruit trees and sell some of the produce at un-manned road-side stands (with an honor box) or local markets. These are mostly retired city people and they do alright with the farming aspect. They are not trying to make money, just pass themselves off as farmers.

As for maple syrup, it is fairly labor intensive. I would go with apples. Nice trees, easy to grow, and you can have people pick them themselves. When I lived in the NE, I lived on an apple farm. It was fabulous. If you really get into it, you can make cider, pies, and jelly.
posted by fifilaru at 7:17 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Vermont has a "current use" program which is I think what you're talking about. The land doesn't have to be farmed per se. For example, you could have a forestry plan where every few decades some of the trees are harvested for lumber. If you have enough trees, someone would pay you for the trees and do all the work. You could have the forestry plan stipulate which trees would be harvested, say to balance income and aesthetic value.

Or, if you had a large meadow I think you could have it hayed annually and that would count (provided you sold the hay).

Note that with neither of these requires much "hands-on" involvement.

The idea is to protect the state from over development by offering a tax break if the land was being put to some useful purpose, even if it wasn't the most profitable possible purpose.
posted by justkevin at 8:12 PM on March 5, 2011

You could move to North Dakota, but the growing season is pretty short. If you can hunt, you'll have meat for winter, assuming you have a big freezer.

Lavender farm looks great, but not cheap.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:27 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Link for NoDak.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:27 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: I also initially thought of Vermont's current use program, but now that I see your primary goals, Maine may be for you. There is a lot of land in Maine, and a lot of it is quite empty and devoid of neighbors, or any other signs of civilization. Maintaining a property as managed forest isn't that uncommon, and folks would be generally understanding of what you are trying to do I think. I suspect you'd find the cheapest land in Northern New England somewhere in the economically depressed areas of inland Maine.
posted by meinvt at 8:31 PM on March 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Great ideas and responses. :D
posted by lettuchi at 10:30 PM on March 5, 2011

Only a few places in the world have the right climate for sugar maples: New England, upstate New York, Michigan, the Maritime provinces, and southern Quebec and Ontario.

The Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association begs to differ. Likewise Wisconsin.
posted by gimonca at 11:11 PM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Based on your requirements I'd look into a conservation easement to be honest. You can grow all the food you need on a half acre or less, and if you want the tax break you will have to do something with the rest of the land. Be aware of local ordinances that require you to do things like remove nuisance species from your property that can be more expensive than you'd think! Timber is one option but only when there's a mill and the other infrastructure close enough to make it worthwhile or you have really nice old hardwoods that go for top dollar veneer use and that kind of thing. There are places you have to pay someone to haul perfectly good trees away and there are places with environmental laws that makes those simple timber harvest plans run into the many thousands of dollars. For most kinds of farms you have to show a profit a minimum number of years out of 5 or 7 a lot of places to get the tax break. Haying or growing your own food probably won't do that. A lot of hobby farmers have a hell of a time meeting that requirement.

Also be aware that rural areas are not deserts nor are they devoid of local ordinances. There are people out there and 30 acres isn't very big. You can't just buy a small parcel and expect to do whatever you want and not interact with your neighbors. There is a pretty huge problem in rural neighborhoods with people buying land then complaining about the dairy farm next door or setting off fireworks over livestock fields or calling the cops every time they hear a 4-wheeler or someone runs a chainsaw at 6am. Most rural people will come help you out in a heartbeat but they are at work out there, it's not a vacation spot. Also if you aren't out and about on your property very much expect people to trespass; hunting, pot growers etc. (The best bet is to give some responsible local hunters the right to hunt your property imho, they'll keep everyone else off).

I really think that a conservation easement or CRP (it's a federal USDA program) might fit your needs better than a working farm. Unless you're somewhere a tree farm will work and have the money to buy the timber.
posted by fshgrl at 11:47 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

An article from NYT this morning about new farmers
posted by growabrain at 9:26 AM on March 6, 2011

Best answer: "even if the land was just grass"

You can farm and sell grass. You need to be in the right location though, because it can be water intensive.
posted by trialex at 1:28 PM on March 6, 2011

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