Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Challenge Begins

Since I started this blog last April, I have been living in the Chicago area describing some of the challenges our society is facing and offering some solutions. But until this point, I have not been able to put into practice very many of my own suggestions. I now have the opportunity to move to a rural environment where I will begin the long journey to self-sufficiency and living a completely sustainable life. I have selected a fertile and watered mountain valley in southern New Mexico as the location of my new homestead. As any journey is easier and more fun with a companion than alone, my mother and I have decided to go into this adventure together. Being a partner in crime who shares my philosophy of life and concerns about the "modern" world, I look forward to sharing this exciting journey with her.

We have yet to even purchase a property, although there is one in particular that we have our eye on. So I have decided to dedicate this blog post towards the decision process we went through in finding an appropriate property for us, what we considered necessary and what are bonus criteria.

Reliable access to clean water is the most important criteria for land selection. In order to lessen the impact if a source of water runs dry, a prospective property should have at least two independent water supplies (as independent as possible, since most water sources are tied to rainfall). And in the terms of both sustainability and self-reliance, do not count any municipal water supply (i.e. piped in water). If it exists, this may be a nice backup while it operates, but should be used sparingly. If it is the only water supply on the land, keep looking. This is important not only because you don't want to rely upon failing infrastructure that is out of your control, but because you also have no control over the energy intensive and possibly environmentally damaging practices in use to pump and deliver that water to your prospective property.

Most sites have one water source that you can count on: rain. Either the current weather patterns of the area provide enough rain for seasonal crops or you can build rain collection devices to store rainwater through the dry periods of the year. If your prospective property lies in an area which receives less than 16" of rain a year, you will need both a shallow water table (less than 100 ft. for a low energy use well) and at least a seasonal source of surface water (spring, stream or river). In addition, you will have to research local water rights laws and determine what water rights are associated with the property deed. The last thing you want is to purchase a property on a river or stream and find out you can't draw even a drop of water from it.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is changing due to the increasing levels of CO2 released into the atmosphere primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. As such any consideration of precipitation as a source of water (or precipitation fed sources such as streams and rivers) would be remiss without at least considering the projections for changing precipitation patterns in the area of your property. The EPA has a good description of regional projections for both temperature and precipitation by the end of the century.

It may seem obvious that plants need sunshine to grow. However, some sites can have less than obvious disadvantages regarding how the sun illuminates the landscape. Look for major obstructions like large trees, existing buildings (especially on adjacent property), hills or mountains or other aspects of topology. Also remember, the sun moves not only on the daily cycle from east to west but also on the yearly cycle of the seasons. For North America the angle of the sun varies from a low of 18 degrees from the horizon at noon at the winter solstice in the north (Grand Forks, ND) to a high of 84 degrees at the summer solstice in the south (Miami, FL). Your property location will greatly affect the seasonal amount of sunlight available to you.

A useful website to help you visualize the movement of the sun for your prospective property is Sun Earth Tools. It will superimpose over a Google maps satellite image of the property the daily path of the sun at any date and indicate the furthest extent at the two solstices. Also keep in mind this evaluation does not reflect the local weather which is obviously correlated to the amount of sunshine available at different times of the year (it is colder in Grand Forks, ND than Miami, FL most times of the year due to the amount of sunlight both areas receive).

It is also important to notice and take into account the regional and local geography and how it affects weather patterns, rainfall and local heating and cooling cycles. For example, in the northern hemisphere a south facing slope, even in a shallow valley, will have more direct sunlight than the north facing slope opposite and will therefore warm up earlier in the morning, suffer less frost damage in the winter and support more sun loving plants.

Also notice how the local geography affects wind direction which in turn can imply heating and cooling characteristics of surrounding buildings, trees and topography such as a stony hillside. Low lying areas, even of only a few feet, can become cold air traps in winter and are likely places for frost to develop first. Walk the property with a notebook and camera and notice and document all of these details.

The non-organic components of soil are sand, silt and clay. The definitions of each is based on the particle size not their composition, that of silt being somewhere between sand (the coarsest or largest particles) and clay (the smallest and finest). The current (in situ) relative proportions of these components will determine how much or little work will be required to successfully grow crops on your prospective land. In addition to the amount of organic matter present, the most important aspect of soil composition is the relative quantities of these components. Too much clay and you will have poor soil drainage leading to root rot and other problems. Too much sand and the soil will not hold enough water to prevent the roots from drying out between waterings.

A simple way to determine soil composition is to dig a spadeful of soil from a representative spot (on the surface, don't dig deeper than a foot) and half fill a mason jar with the soil. Fill the rest of the way with water and seal tightly. Shake the jar until the soil is completely dispersed in the water. Set the jar on a level surface for a day or two to allow the soil to settle back to the bottom. The sand will settle out first, then the silt and finally the clay particles (the finest ones). Use a ruler to measure the clear bands of each layer to determine the relative quantities. Easy to manage soil should consist of approximately 20% sand, 20% clay and 60% silt, although up to equal quantities of each is manageable. More sand or clay than silt is an indication that this soil will need much remediation to be useful and you should probably consider other properties.

In addition to these components also look for number and size of stones in the soil (many stones makes it harder to till and weed), how compacted the soil is (did you have to jump on the spade to get a shovelful?) and how many worms or worm holes you noticed in that one spadeful. An absence of worms is always a warning sign and can indicate any number of problems that might be difficult to remediate.

How easy was it to drive to your prospective property? Is it remote? Close to the nearest town? Did you have to cross any dry stream beds (which may flood some times of the year), steep hillsides (may ice up during the winter) or other terrain features which may make access difficult during the various seasons? It may be worth while to visit at night to notice how easy it is to find the driveway or negotiate the nearby roads. How easy will it be for someone else to find the property? You most likely will take a delivery of a package or possibly large shipment at some point. Will this be an issue or inconvenience? This is particularly important if you plan on any large construction projects like building a new home, barn or other structures on the property.

Can you see yourself living there? This sometimes can get lost in the shuffle with viewing multiple properties and checking off the list everything mentioned above. But don't forget why you are buying this property. Notice the neighborhood and surrounding properties. Are they well kept or run down? Are there others in the area homesteading or growing kitchen gardens? Is there a local community of like-minded individuals or will you be forging a new path in this area?

Try visiting just before sunset, setting up a lawn chair and simply sitting to watch the sun set. Notice the noises, traffic, people or whatever else goes on around the property. Is this a view you can live with? What don't you like about it? How does that balance out with all the positive qualities of the property?

Good Enough
Finally, no property is going to meet all of your needs. The real challenge is to decide what is truly important to you and make sure you are selecting the property that is good enough to meet those needs without waiting for that perfect property that may never materialize.