She's going back to the land...
February 12, 2015 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Can the Hive Mind help me in brainstorming the perfect family homestead?

Part business plan, part vanity project, mostly a reality:

Given a piece of property, you want to create a home AND campsite that functions as a home, a farm and a retreat from the city. (Assume decent weather for farming and gardening.)

You are pretty crunchy (AND VERY EXPERIENCED WITH NATURE) but don't like to be filthy/uncomfortable (say yes to indoor plumbing) and your main goal is NOT to live "off the grid" but to have a working farm with a small number of animals (think chickens, dogs, a single horse, like that. Not a cattle ranch.) You also have a degree in design and are big into inexpensive DIY projects. You have a craft room.

The property should have an existing house (family of four), but a double-wide trailer could also be purchased and brought in. There should be enough room on the property for subsistence farming, outdoor camping, bonfires, a shed, outdoor sculptures, maybe a rock garden?

There will also be young children present (so no ponds / swimming pools / stabby architecture), and pickup trucks available.

This is how/where I want my girls to grow up -- so how can I make it more awesome than awesome? The best answers are going to probably start with "My grandparents lived in a big old farmhouse..." and that's what I'm looking for. Give it to me, Metafilter.
posted by polly_dactyl to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
There is a company called Yankee Barn that makes prefab houses that might be perfect for your needs. Then you don't necessarily need an existing home on the property. Or you can tear down a house in disrepair and easily start over.
posted by jbenben at 1:32 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not clear what you are looking for. Locations? Building ideas? Personal anecdotes? Validation?
posted by cecic at 1:37 PM on February 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Design ideas, words of caution, personal stories. Have you ever been on a farm?
posted by polly_dactyl at 1:39 PM on February 12, 2015

Best answer: This is mostly how I grew up and how I'm living now.

The Backyard Homestead is a good book to help you dream.

Not sure what specifically you are looking for though?
posted by slipthought at 1:40 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are you looking for anecdotes about homesteading in general, or places to read more about it? Or are you looking for advice? Or where to look for land? Where are you currently in your process - the daydream stage, or have you located the land you need? Checked for zoning laws?
posted by Think_Long at 1:40 PM on February 12, 2015

Best answer: The answer to this question might change responses, so I'll ask now: when you say 'working farm', are you assuming outside income or income made from the farm itself?

All of the farmers I know are either working at something else part time or else make the majority of their income with events/guest stays (Winfield Farm near Austin is a good example of this; Springdale Farm is another, though they're in trouble with the neighbors. If it's the kind of thing you'd be interested in, location near (at least, within an hour or two) from a big city or vacation spot is really helpful.

There's also of course selling produce, livestock (though I guess that's a no for you? Even alpaca or something?), eggs, but it's honestly a crappy way to make a living (one of my die-hard farmer friends posted that yesterday, so that's not me being anti-farmlife by any means - just a sad truth). And obviously the advice for a farm that provides only subsistence to the people living on it is different, as is the advice for people who make an income elsewhere but have farm as a supplemental food source/hobby. Which are you thinking?
posted by theweasel at 1:46 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: retreat from the city

I'm not sure what you mean here, usually when I hear people talking about rural property this way, they mean that they want to live in the city and go spend a few days or a week at their retreat once in a while.

If you want to have animals and do that, you need someone who will live there and take care of them. You can pay someone to do this, but it sounds like you budget isn't that high?

You also mention subsistence farming. Do you mean you want to grow all the food your family will eat, and buy no food? Make your own clothes? This is very difficult even if you are an experienced farmer. (theweasel, a subsistence farm does not sell goods elsewhere like a commercial farm)

You should carefully choose the climate you will buy your land in, and check on the local zoning and permit laws to make sure you can build what you want, really do have the option to buy a doublewide, etc. Climate is more than weather, there are some places with very nice weather for gardening where fruit trees won't set fruit because there aren't enough winter freeze hours.

your main goal is NOT to live "off the grid"

Everyone I know who lives off the grid uses the term to mean that they aren't tied into the electric grid, have a well instead of city plumbing, and don't have a wired internet connection available. I guess you don't want that? This will affect where you can live, and that will make zoning issues much more complicated. Or if it's just not a goal, solar and batteries, and wireless internet, seem to work just fine for my friends, you wouldn't even realize they weren't on the grid (for those with fancier setups).

Have you ever been on a farm?


I suggest you sign up for WWOOF, find people doing exactly what you want to do, and go intern with them.
posted by yohko at 1:49 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You may want to take a look at the Boxcar Kids blog--they have this sort of life, kinda, and have been through quite a few unforeseen twists--goats, chickens, trailer, etc..
posted by Ideefixe at 1:53 PM on February 12, 2015

Response by poster: Thank goodness I didn't post Anon, OK let me clarify - I want IDEAS FOR COOL STUFF TO PUT ON A SMALL FARM. Where my family will live, full-time. Now, it's kind of a cliche to have kids and run off to the country; I'd rather not lose my whole inheritance making mistakes and wasting time. If we can make a little money at it, great -- one of the projects I'm already planning is to try growing some mushrooms or lettuces to sell to restaurants. If that's not successful, we will just attempt to feed our little family (we are decent gardeners.) I don't need locations, I need someone to say, "Ooh, are you sure you want to move way outside of town and have to drive you kids 30 miles to school every day? That's rural living."

So, if you are a gardener, farmer, commercial designer, camp director, parent, or someone who lives outdoors/off the land/whateverthefuck, I want to BRAINSTORM.

That's about as clear as I can make it! Thank you slipthought and theweasel.

On preview: WWOOF is something I have always wanted to do, that's the right idea! But I'm a 35-year-old nursing mom. I'm talking about building something for my family. The hands-on training idea is a very good one though!
posted by polly_dactyl at 1:56 PM on February 12, 2015

Best answer: Even though you don't want to sell your farm goods this would still be a good article to read:

What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living
People say we're "rich in other ways," but that doesn't fix the ugly fact that most farms are unsustainable

Also, I can't emphasize enough that it is very difficult to grow all the food to feed your family. It would require a lot of changes to your diet -- you'll only be able to eat what grows where you live. It's also a lot of work to make things like flour if you use flour. You absolutely can buy some food at the store and still have that farm life experience.

I don't need locations, I need someone to say, "Ooh, are you sure you want to move way outside of town and have to drive you kids 30 miles to school every day?

Thing is that really depends on your location. A friend of mine who is raising a child on a small farm with chickens, a garden, sculptures, bonfires, home canning, etc., lives close enough to town to take the city bus.

It really depends on how things are in the particular location you'd pick. Some places still have school buses too. Just because someone else has to drive their kid 30 miles to school every day, or drive three hours if they want to go into town, or something, doesn't mean you'd live in a location where you'd have to do those things.

If you don't want to make mistakes that will cost you money and time there is NO SUBSTITUTE for getting out and seeing what others have done. See if you can find some way to tour farms on daytrips. My farm friends sometimes have days when they ask for volunteers to come help, maybe you can find some friends of friends who do that too. Try your county extension office, they might be able to put you in touch with some people.

Edited to add: you can meet other parents doing this by getting involved with 4-H, even if your kids are too small for 4-H yet.
posted by yohko at 2:08 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My grandparents lived in a big old farmhouse...wait, no. They lived in a small house in a town; my parents still live in a suburban house; my kids and I have a small working farm with a small mob of livestock. I love that my kids are growing up surrounded by gardens and animals and baby critters, squee, but frankly, they'll be the first to complain that all of this character building through the virtues of chores and natural consequences can go get stuffed. I implore you: do not do this with the idea that it's for the kids. My best friend is a former farm kid, and you should see how she grimaces when I say things like "rendering lard" and "canning tomatoes." Even a small farm is a LOT of work. Kiss your craft room goodbye, and no, you'll never want to visit Modern Farmer's site ever, ever again.

Do your reading beforehand. I don't mean glossy, pretty magazines about the country life; I mean Storey's agricultural books. Think about the tools and storage you'll need, then triple that estimate. Take any courses in your area -- through your extension office -- on gardening. Go to your county fair and watch the 4-H kids and how hard they work.

Know thyself: Can you kill an animal? Can you stand your kids' tears, the first time you tell them that Wilbur's going to the butcher? (Mine started early, and actively participate in taking pigs to slaughter. But. Somebody always gets named, and that rarely works well.) The number of times a friend has arrived at my farm to find me with a dead groundhog at the end of a shovel is not zero. Dead things are part of the deal. Are you OK with that?

Are you any good in an emergency? I ask, because you will have them.

Still thinking about it?

OK, let's talk. If you are thinking about a garden, you will also need to consider a place to let compost break down until it's ready to use, and a tool (whether wheelbarrow or tractor bucket) to get it to the garden(s). If you're also on a well, consider what you need to know about water collection via rain barrels, and how to site them so your kids have less water to carry. Learn about canning, drying, and freezing; you have to have something to do with your produce. I hope you like to cook. A lot. How are you going to keep your garden weeded? Will the kids help with that? Where will you store your garden stuff in the off-season?

Livestock: Would your children be interested in 4-H? (We tried, with the chicken club. But we eat our hobby, and it was... not a good match.) Are you already familiar with the animals you're dreaming about? The Storey books mentioned above are excellent guides, and the actual experience of having livestock will be nothing like it is in the books. Read up on artificial insemination, basic veterinary care, worrying signs to keep an eye out for, processing and storing; know what local zoning permits; count on space not only for livestock, but for the animal-related supplies you'll have on hand. Be ready to look ridiculous as you chase escaped livestock through the neighborhood. On multiple occasions.

Bonfires: Do local ordinances permit burns? Because you'll probably use a burn pit more often for branches/canes than you do for marshmallows.

As for the rock garden -- could you combine this with herbs? To make a stone herb spiral? Mint does well for me. You might also read up on high tunnels if you want lettuce.

On preview... Look, the only real way to know if you can do this thing is to do it. But "making it cool" is less useful than being honest with yourself about how much constant, repetitive, difficult labor you're willing to do day after day, in a place where you may not have friends (or other kids) nearby, and where errands require tactical planning. Are you cool in the clutch? Resilient? Strong? I say that as someone who has had to develop these traits, because the reality of a farm is that it demands. It demands your time. Your physical energy. Your planning ability. Your management skills. It can ask everything of you, down to a bird's warm blood on your hands, to burying a newborn kitten, to staying up with an animal in labor and placing the stillborn to one side as you help the rest come into this world. It is unlovely, uncool work, and you have to be in bone-deep with it.

And I have to go feed my pigs now. Please MeMail me; I'd be happy to answer specific questions there.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:14 PM on February 12, 2015 [31 favorites]

Absolutely everything MonkeyToes says, and more. Definitely learn to kill a chicken before you HAVE to cull a chicken.

Having said that, if you're not totally turned off, consider bees. Don't, for even one minute, think that you're going to get a few hives and suddenly have honey by the gallon and beeswax candles to sell; making you self-sustainable. That's not really how any of this works. It's work (like all of the above), but it has been so unbelievably fulfilling for me!
posted by Sophie1 at 2:23 PM on February 12, 2015

Response by poster: Be ready to look ridiculous as you chase escaped livestock through the neighborhood. On multiple occasions.

It can ask everything of you, down to a bird's warm blood on your hands, to burying a newborn kitten, to staying up with an animal in labor and placing the stillborn to one side as you help the rest come into this world. It is unlovely, uncool work, and you have to be in bone-deep with it.

WINNER. The thing is we live in NOLA (currently) and have had chickens, bonfires, an organic garden (supplemented by the grocery store, yes!) and several outdoor pets. If I had a few more acres, we would have space for all the PRODUCE we need (I am not grinding flour, I need to be able to access a grocery store, yes!) and a full flock of laying hens in a proper coop. Plus maybe in a year or further down the line we could decide on alpacas or whatever.

We are both scrappy survivors and have no problem killing an animal. I was thinking about living in a tent for a year, but with two kids we need AT LEAST a trailer on the property.

I feel like I always have to threadsit -- but the clarification was needed and this is very helpful. We are past the daydreaming stage and want to start looking at properties this summer. The location is not certain but is in the central US. I don't want to kill myself or make my kids hate farms, I just want to take them out of the city. I'm from central California, I think that what I'm talking about is not so unusual??

Still want to do it!
posted by polly_dactyl at 2:31 PM on February 12, 2015

Best answer: An aquaintence of mine just finished a book on the topic, called Get Back Stay Back that you might want to check out. Its a documentation of the 2nd generation homesteader movement in the northeast (mostly Maine I think).

It might be a good source of supplemental, anecdotal information for you.
posted by furnace.heart at 2:32 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm about to take online classes to get a certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming through the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. Living on a farm (not making a living off a farm) is a lifelong dream of mine and now I have the acreage to make it happen. I wanted to actually know what I was doing, beyond just backyard gardening and keeping chickens.
posted by lydhre at 2:43 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Avoid entertaining fantasies about buying really cheap land and turning it into something miraculously productive. Cropland is more valuable than grazing land is more valuable that hunting land or timber parcels. The American farmer is neither lazy nor stupid--if that cheap timberland or hunting property could be made into grazing land or cropland, someone would have done so already. Instead, buy land that is appropriate for what you want to do with it. Buying the remnants of someone else's farm dream lacks the cachet of carving a life out of the wilderness, but it's a lot easier to hit the ground running if you've already got a barn and some fencing and well/septic and all that jazz--leaves you a lot more time to design that rock garden etc.
posted by drlith at 2:46 PM on February 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: There are parts of California that are perfect for this. My Grandparents and Aunt and Uncle bought 5 acres in Watsonville. There was an A frame cabin and a 3 bedroom ranch house on it.

They kept two hogs, Ham and Eggs. They kept a steer, his name was Chuck (Steak). There were guinea fowl, peacocks and chickens (lots of chickens and one bad-ass rooster.) I'm sure there was a kitchen garden in there somewhere. They had a deal with the co-op down the road to buy all the expired produce for the hogs. Have you ever eaten hogs fed primarily on avocados? Because, that's a freaking thing.

A giant weeping willow in the middle of the land, with a picnic table under it where we all ate as a big family. In the evenings, we watched TV and/or played Spades.

Did I mention that the crunchy, hippie farm thingy was actually a front for the cash crop? Oh, yeah. The were growing HUGE pot plants behind the farmhouse.

The location was awesome, it was off of a paved road, with a really good Polish restaurant about 3 miles down towards town. You could get to Santa Cruz, Carmel or Monterey in about 10 minutes.

THIS is what you want. And it's doable, but you do need land that specifically for that purpose. Honestly, if you're from Central California, I think you should consider doing this IN California. I don't like the weather anywhere else.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:54 PM on February 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For a somewhat sensational take on this concept, you might want to watch the TLC series Risking It All. It's about families homesteading and the sweat and toil of working their land. Come to think of it, there are also shows like Frontier House (PBS) and a million shows about living in Alaska that I think also bring up interesting points about living a rural or semi-rural life.
posted by Yellow Silver Maple at 2:56 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have no experience with this, but MonkeyToes' comment made me think of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She seemed honest about the good and bad parts of living on a farm.
posted by amicus at 3:13 PM on February 12, 2015

Best answer: I knew a residential contractor who owns a midsize, semi-rural plot in southwest Virginia. He built a small A-frame cabin with a wood stove and loft (chalet style), which he intended to live in while he erected the main house, which was a large contemporary log home designed by one of the firms that design and engineer that sort of thing.

He ended up living in his VW Westfalia and renting out the cabin while he worked on the main house. The property had an existing barn which would have needed repair if used for animals, but was perfect for shelter of tools and building materials.

I can't speak to the practices of subsistence farming, but I can say that the first things he did to the property once it was cleared were build a masonry pizza oven and plant a small herb garden. Minimizing the volume of indoor conditioned space, and allowing some of those functions like cooking and eating to bleed out into the landscape, really increases engagement with the site.

Have you read A Pattern Language? If you're not familiar, poke around and investigate a taxonomy of conditions that make spaces pleasant to occupy.
posted by a halcyon day at 3:27 PM on February 12, 2015

The people I know who do this successfully are mostly craftspeople of one sort or another. They participate in periodic semi-local events of an appropriate theme/community for their work, supplemented with internet sales. (In the case of my friends, that tends to be SCA, Celtic festivals/Highland games, Renaissance Faires, wicca/pagan gatherings, etc.)

They do some vegetable farming and have chickens, maybe goats, but cannot live off of what they grow, let alone make money on the surplus. Surplus is generally bartered for other stuff with neighboring homesteads for variety, but they still need to make periodic Costco runs. Finding restaurants willing to buy your surplus is probably not realistic -- they need to be able to depend on getting a certain volume of product from you, consistently, to make it worth their while to have an account with you. It's a tricky game to keep the procurement of produce, food costs, and food storage simultaneously under control.

They typically live in a rural area which isn't in a totally remote location, but has some sort of inconvenience factor -- outskirts of a kinda runty small town, a long slog via a bunch of local roads to get to an interstate, a nearby industrial farming facility -- which has discouraged the ever-spreading suburbs from catching up.

And -- they all wind up homeschooling. Because no, the gasoline and time to drive their kids to the best nearest school is not worth it.
posted by desuetude at 3:29 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My grandparents had a place like this, on a river, and that is what inspired me to re-create it. I'm actually re-creating this in two places now. Both of my places are also on rivers.

I would prefer a lake place but as I was scouring Zillow for tiny lake cabins I kept noticing, on the satellite images, clusters of lily pads near the homes. I'm certain this is caused by faulty "DIY" sewage systems, sewage getting into the lakes from either old, grandfathered outhouses or crappy septic systems. So I decided to only buy on a river which at least moves the water and it doesn't just sit there. (And I swim in it.)

So, what I do is in each place I have a tiny house that will serve as a guest house and when I don't have guests I Airbnb it. I did this in house #1. In house #2 I am going to get a cute trailer or Airstream and use that as a guest house / Airbnb.

People absolutely loved my #1 Airbnb. They love the experience of being out in the country.

Going back to water quality, the main problem I have is BATHROOMS. I have had endless problems with bathroom #1. Septic, freezing, faulty air vent, problems with the low-water toilet (going to replace it with a 1950s 3 gallon tank.). In house #2 there is no septic. So there is an incinerator toilet and a very old outhouse. This may work. I don't see myself explaining to new guests how to use the incinerator toilet but they can use the outhouse. But I have certain older relatives I don't think will want to use the outhouse. And I will NOT explain to my great-aunt how to use an incinerator toilet. That's just me. YMMV. So it is a little in flux over there. Not sure what I will do.

My grandparents kept their outhouse as a back-up after they got indoor plumbing in the 1950s.

The point I am trying to make is, you want to have guests, and Airbnb is a great way to make money and the most important thing you are going to need is a really great guest bathroom. So I would start there - researching how to make a great guest bathroom.

If you don't know about septic systems they can be tricky. And there is just nothing that ruins a guest's visit more than no toilet!

If you live in the country you will probably have to have a back-up toilet situation for when there are problems with the septic or god forbid, your sewer lines are frozen. You have to be prepared for that within your family. But when you have guests or Airbnb customers it is going to be extremely awkward to say "OK, well, you are welcome to use this plastic bag we stretched over a bucket".

Now if you had designed a free-standing bathroom that is not dependent on a septic system or electricity (I am not really sure what that would be - I am still doing research. Solar compost toilet?) You could weather any kind of bathroom crisis.

Another thing is it is extremely hard to get a plumber or septic person to come clear out in the country. Expect if you have a toilet problem to be able to get a plumber to come "within the week". If you are lucky. If your pipes freeze, and everyone else's pipes freeze, you could be in a long line. So, if you have the perfect stand alone guest/back-up bathroom you will not be dependent on their schedule.
posted by cda at 3:31 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I worked on a farm for about eight years, and, as a kid, had several relatives or friends with large, sprawling plots of land. This really stood out to me:

There will also be young children present (so no ponds / swimming pools / stabby architecture)

It sounds to me like you want to make this "safe" for your kids, and I sort of feel like most of the awesome, in my memory, came from people allowing us to do things like go wade in the river to find crawdads and leeches, or to go swim against whitecaps in the lake.

Farms are, generally speaking, not super safe places for children, and part of having one or working one is accepting that risk. Nature isn't really a whole lot safer. I personally feel that it's a great thing for children, and my biggest regret with my daughter is that our urban/surburban life has limited the amount of risk-taking she was able to do. Growing up with access to land (and water) meant dragging yourself against the current, even though you were exhausted, or falling off of and into things, or getting trapped between the horse and the fence and being convinced, however briefly, that you were going to get crushed. And working on the farm meant working heavy machinery, and knowing how to work the emergency shower, and tearing your hand open on rusty wire.

So I guess I feel like you're asking for both things to consider, and things that make rural living great. My feeling is that one of the things that can make it great for children is the ability to test yourself, and to learn how to deal with danger and the knowledge that the world can and will hurt you--and you should consider if you're willing to live with the risk that one of your children may injure themselves in this way.
posted by MeghanC at 3:35 PM on February 12, 2015 [11 favorites]

I spent three+ decades living in rural areas. Lived in far northern Vermont for a while, then in rural Blue Ridge Virginia, then in upstate NY. The first two were not good back then, early 1970s. Neighbors did not appreciate our lifestyle, to put it mildly. In NY we lived a few miles outside of Ithaca, a college town, which meant a more progressive multicultural community, decent schools, cultural events. It was a good place to raise a family and my kids ended up moving back there to raise their families. A few people I knew there managed to have real farms, they usually had some serious seed money to get started.

You're in a much warmer climate, try to stay there. Surely you can find an old house on a few acres of land. Spend some weekends driving around likely areas. Investigate local schools, even if you think you want to homeschool. Your kids may think otherwise, and in any case, they're gonna need playmates. Are there parents in the community who share your fundamental values? In Virginia I remember a neighbor kid who thought it was fine to use the word nigger all the time and another neighbor who thought I was really cruel for not giving my nursing baby a bottle of Pepsi, you know, stuff like that. Oh yeah, and the local doctor thought I was crazy for nursing my kid for more than six months, threatened to report me for child abuse for not feeding him formula and gerber's baby food.
posted by mareli at 3:47 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm at the farm! Recently, I inherited my grandparents' farm, and I am in the middle of transforming it from a ruin into something livable (after my grandfather died, my grandmother moved to the city to be close to us so the farm was uninhabited for more than ten years).
When the grandparents took over the farm, it was a subsistence farm, with a family of 6 + 2 hired helpers living off the land. Even though my grandmother in particular was a very accomplished farmer, there was no way they could uphold the diverse production and manpower of previous generations. My grandfather had dreamt of being a full-time farmer, but gave up. My grandmother started breeding very specialized and extremely expensive horses, and she was good at it. Everyone in her network is asking me to start that up again, but I am not certain I can work at her level. During the 60's and 70's when my grandparents built up their vision, they used fertilizer and irrigation to make the sandy ground here bloom. Now, both artificial fertilizer and irrigation are illegal because of the fragility of the land, and the need for drinking water.
My plan is to start a bed and breakfast, inspired by this place, I visited the first time 25 years ago in Italy. When I went there, they could host a few guests over night, and less than 20 in the restaurant for dinner. Since then, they have expanded as you can see from the website.

I don't want a place where people come to party, but a tranquil place for relaxing and re-booting. I plan to grow vegetables and have some livestock, but not to be fully self-sufficient. I've installed geothermal heating and hot water and there will be solar power in a few years.

What has been a surprise here is how long it takes to get a farm up to working condition, after ten years of neglect. There is no part of the farm that works, at all. I had to fell some trees in the garden and orchard, and partly because of misunderstandings, partly because of storms, my gardens are now transformed into a sandy desert. I am back to where my forefathers were. The take-away here is that stuff happens, and you are not always in control. Happily, my compost pile is working well, and the manure from my neighbor's horses will help me, but it is just not at all near what I need to rebuild what has been lost. I am profoundly impressed by the energy and knowledge of those who originally built up this farm 200 years ago, but specially back after WW2.

The houses were far more ruined than I imagined. After two years, one can live here, but only barely. For a long time, I couldn't live in the main house, but luckily a workers apartment was fairly dry and free of rot or mildew.

The out-buildings are beautiful, but no longer useful, and my dream is to rebuild them as living spaces. But financing that will not be easy. In other words: this is tough. I have a day-job which helps me finance the project, but also delays progress.

And yes, like cda says, plumbing is a huge issue. I can't get ahead with my plans unless that is solved and it is not even close right now. Exactly as cda writes, a huge part of the problems is that the smartest and most hardworking plumbers do not work out here. I have seriously thought of paying for a week of holidays for my city plumber, if he would only fix my stuff here at the farm.

On preview, what MeghanC writes about children and childhood is relevant too. You cannot bring city values into rural life. There is no way you can control what kids are doing on a farm, and this has two sides: on one hand, you have to live with and accept the risk. We have ponds, streams, tall trees, young horses, attics with faulty constructions and many other dangerous things.
My own kids are 21 and 16 and have somehow survived, but I am a "relief parent" for two city-kids. And even more than with my own children, I realize that in some ways I am a stricter parent here than in the city. There are rules and those rules are non-negotiable. However, my own children remember me as milder when we were here than in the city, so perception can be very different from reality.
posted by mumimor at 3:50 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

You cannot bring city values into rural life.

I'm pretty sure my kid's suburban cousin is not doing this.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:55 PM on February 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I will suggest you pick up a copy of the book "How to survive without a salary" by Charles Long. He bought a cheap house in the country so he could plant a garden, live cheap, escape the pressures of the rat race and raise his kids there. The book is entertaining, has good advice for living frugally, and also talks about a choice not terribly different from what you are talking about.

You might also be interested in The Foxfire books.

I will also recommend you read up on Earthships.

I did a college paper for an environmental biology class where we had to plan something akin to this. An Earthship house was like 50% of my plan, and I knew it the minute I read the assignment (which is part of what convinced me to become an environmental studies major -- I thought the weird stuff I was into was totally normal for a homemaker). Also, daddy grew up on a farm and I grew up with a garden out back, eating produce from the garden, and sometimes eating squirrel and deer that dad brought home from hunting.
posted by Michele in California at 5:13 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My grandparents were farmers and then moved to the USA where my grandfather worked in a factory, which was how they were able to afford a house and a car in the US and money to rebuild the farmhouses in the old country with modern architecture.

When my grandparents retired, they moved back to the old country, and my grandfather maintained a small agricultural plot where he grew his own vegetables and kept animals for meat and eggs. it sounds like what what you want is a larger scale version of the latter situation. The thing is that it is only sustainable with an outside source of income to keep it maintained (his retirement income in this case).

The article linked to above is a must-read for you. The key is to realize that to make this work, you and your spouse have to approach this in terms of having a sustainable business/source of income, where the house and land are only a piece of that business, not the whole thing.

People my age who've made an attempt at it have been craftspeople and those whose jobs can be worked remotely or have a large degree of flexibility. And the only way this works is by having the house and land bought and paid for.

I would approach this in terms of keeping whatever jobs you have and buying the land/house. Over time, take on projects that will be more and more self-sustaining, which will ultimately just mean leaving your full time jobs to work more than full time running a business with lots of separate revenue streams.

This is something similar to opening a coffee shop: the pool of people willing to do it is deep and easily replenished with newcomers to replace those who've failed.

This is a family business. Like many family businesses, it will need someone making a steady income (which provides health insurance!) to get it off the ground until the day you can support your family with the income from the land alone. And that day may be never. A perfectly reasonable solution to this is for one person to work at the post office or a local municipal job while the other maintains and builds up the ability to live off the land.
posted by deanc at 6:20 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thought is that you should consider doing this in a place that is congruent with where you already know (as an adult) how to live and garden. If, as you say, you feel like you could make this work if only your current setup had more land attached, see if you can find more land near there, where the soil and climate don't require you to relearn lots of what you already know.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:29 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well this went a little sideways at first, but I am so pleased with these links and ideas and challenges. I was thinking more along the lines of "You can do this, have you ever thought about building a straw-bale house?" but you all have given me a lot of other things to consider too. I have no idea how to buy a plot of land, especially acreage, so I'm going to start there.

One problem we have in NOLA (don't get me wrong, I love it here, and if we move we'll be at grandma's house every Carnival) is that most of the plants fry in the summer and then freeze to death in the winter (freeze warning tonight, actually, at the end of a 60 degree day. So gardening here is fun but challenging. Not to mention that we need a break from the South and we'd like to do something different before the baby starts kindergarten. Mr. D. is allll about homeschooling but I'm not, so I did appreciate that bit.

Nearly all of these answers have something for me to chew on - and I should mention that Mr. D. grew up in a commune-like-place (house) and I have lived on a goat farm (double wide trailer, unincorporated land 30 miles outside the city) where I raised the babies of mothers who died. So I'm into my plan, I just know that we can probably invest wisely and end up with a really cool living space. Like, I'd be willing to buy an old church and have it delivered on a flatbed. Or live in a camper while we build a container house... or rent out the place to foreign tourists or whatever. I need a solid plan before bringing this idea out in public IRL.

Gotta go, we started sleep training today....
posted by polly_dactyl at 7:40 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Having wanted to live on a farm since I was 5, I have been living the dream for the last 7 years, as it were. The things I thought I'd love about it, I hate, but there are benefits.
- Driving everywhere. Consider distance to hospitals, schools, and size of nearby communities and their services? Are you prepared to drive 2 hours one way to see a medical specialist? 20 minutes to the nearest ER? If your kids hate their rural school, driving them 40 min every day to the next closest one? How about finding childcare?
- Yard maintenance. My yard is beautiful, but it's 12 fucking acres of grass that has to be mowed every 5 days through June and July, and heaven help you if the mower breaks down and you're waiting for parts. Trimming is the bane of my existence. The farmers we bought the place from kept it in pristine condition and they would spend every Saturday, 8 hours, mom and 2 teenage sons, to keep it nice. Pruning existing trees, planning and planting new shelterbelts, managing wildlife (oh god how many mole traps have I set in my lifetime), all have to be done.
- House maintenance. It can be challenging to get contractors and trades out to a rural location. You have to manage your well, power generation systems, septic systems, roads and road access, etc. Again, all of these take time and possibly equipment.
- Getting away. Especially if you have livestock. When you're new to a small community, you might have a hard time finding someone who's willing to watch your place and animals so that you can go on holidays.

- Wildlife. Before I moved here, I worked an office job but was super outdoorsy evenings and weekends. But I have had so many cool encounters with wildlife out here. Fox dens under old grain bins and the cubs playing in my yard all summer!
- Freedom to do as you please. You can put in as many cool features as you want, as long as you're prepared to mow and trim around them! Think: willow playhouses, tire labyrinths, a corn maze, a patio and firepit down by the creek, treehouses, whatever. Want to build a sauna out behind the house? If you're really out in the sticks, you aren't even going to need planning permission for it. If you're planning on being somewhere with a cold winter, definitely plan for a smooth flat area of grass that you can flood for a skating rink in winter.
- Being in touch with the cycle of the seasons. Sounds super crunchy, but it's something I treasure too. Just knowing that March is when I can expect to be woken by the mating calls of our resident Great Horned owl, and that we can guess what kind of winter it will be by seeing how thick the animals' coats are in fall, and what the mice are doing, and getting a sense of where we are in the predator-prey cycle from how many hawks I see and hear ... it's kinda cool.

Upon update, I see you've written that you have had plenty of experience with rural life. I totally know people who have bought old churches, fixed them up, installed hot-water heating and a grain burner and made it work. Gotta have lots of fixit mechanical experience to make it work. Lots of people live in trailers too. You buy a plot of land by setting a budget and finding an area with matching land prices. Undershoot your land budget because you will most certainly overspend on fixing up your living quarters. Good luck!
posted by bluebelle at 7:49 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

> if we move we'll be at grandma's house every Carnival

One thing I know about farmers: they don't get vacations.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:36 PM on February 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Sharon Astyk has blogged about living as a small farmer at Casaubon's Book since 2009. She also writes about how it's done: see "Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place" as an example.

She is currently in the process of moving from a very rural community in upstate NY to Rochester NY, where it sounds like she plans to continue her farming lifestyle. She has many reasons for the move, but a large part is finding a better place for her children. I think you might find a lot of wisdom and inspiration in her writing.
posted by Wilbefort at 10:26 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My wife and son are regular metafilterers and DW pointed out this post.

For several years I have been researching a move such as yours, in my retirement, so that I would have some income separate from the homestead I am contemplating.

I posted a similar question in another discussion board two years ago which got a lot of answers, and that might be of interest to you now. It is an international site, with members across the English speaking world, though a lot of the members seem to be from single-digit USDA zones.

In addition to this I would think you should consider climactic conditions very carefully, and if you can discern a climate shift, try to get out in front of it by planting species and preparing your earthworks to handle conditions more in line with the future than with local traditional patterns of land use, which may be inappropriate as change develops. For example, I am developing skills and techniques in aquaponics for winter greenhouse gardening, and sub-irrigated planters for dry regions, with emphasis on greywater reclamation and rainwater catchments.

Since I am not tied to a particular plot, I have been researching areas where the amount of rainfall is likely to remain high enough to manage with surface water coming from precipitation, during the expected 30 year droughts in much of the Southwest region. You may know that the aquifer under most of the western US on both sides of the Rockies is steadily dropping, and that wells are running dry or being continually deepened to keep up with depletion of this aquifer. That being said, it seems to me unwise to assume that water assets that you have no control over will always be there for you.
posted by halhurst at 9:15 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

It seems I did not post the link properly. I will try again:

And hopefully this is the HTML link
posted by halhurst at 10:42 AM on February 16, 2015

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