At some point almost every permaculturist thinks about getting onto a piece of land. And we all have to live someplace, except for the hardcore nomads among us. How do you choose land to live on from a permaculture perspective? Whether it’s big acreage or a town lot, intelligently evaluating the fit between you and a parcel of land is the key to living comfortably and meeting your land-hunting goals.
I’ve made some good decisions in choosing land, and I’ve made some not so good ones. I’ve also been around many people while they were searching for a place to live, and I’ve learned some important lessons. Those lessons may not apply to everyone, but I hope you’ll at least think long and hard before ignoring these basic guidelines.
First, get clear on what you want to do on your land. Are you planning on farming for income, restoring degraded land, setting up a demonstration site or education center, or something else? The types of land that support each of those activities are different. If you want to farm, is there a type of farming—agroforestry, grazing, dairy, market gardening, and so forth—that you prefer, or are you willing to let the land and local market tell you what would be best once you’ve found good farmland? (And we’ll look at what “good” means in a minute.) The goals themselves should be specific, more specific than “we want to set up a permaculture homestead.” What kind of homestead? Will you produce something from the land immediately, or will you have outside jobs that will help you through the transition? Or will you keep those jobs and simply do cool projects on the land as time, inclination, and an evolving design plan dictate?
There are two basic approaches to searching for land. The first is to have a well-established set of goals and aims, and then to look for a parcel that meets all the major criteria for satisfying those goals. If your goal is to raise market vegetables, you’ll have a different set of criteria than if you are planning on building a retreat center. The important caveat here is not to fall in love with a piece of land that attracts you in some way but lacks important elements. It’s too easy to say, “We’ll make it work,” and then struggle against what the land wants. Here you must be guided by your goals, not by the land. Develop criteria and stick to them.
The second approach is to find a piece of land that speaks to you in some profound way and then determine what the best livelihood is to be made with that land. Perhaps you’ve found land that is especially beautiful, or is near friends or family, or has a climate that suits you. This approach requires flexibility and will probably demand learning a new skill set to work well with the land. You’ll need to determine what the land, the climate, and the local economy will support, and be prepared to do that, whatever it is. This can put you at the bottom of a steep learning curve—you’ll have to develop new skills, start up a business, determine the products to sell, build a customer base—and develop the land so it will support all this. There’s a good bit of risk in this approach. It’s probably more suited to a younger person, who can afford to start from scratch if the project fails.
In the first, goals-based approach, establishing your goals and the criteria that meet them, and holding to them carefully are the keys to success. When we bought a ten-acre parcel in southern Oregon, I had a hodge-podge of goals that were mixed in with the notion that a piece of land would speak to us; in other words, a half-assed combination of both the goal-based and land-centered approaches. I wasn’t planning on making a living from the land—Kiel and I both had outside incomes—and this allowed me flexibility that verged on carelessness. I knew I wanted to plant trees, grow food, harvest water, and “do permaculture,” whatever that meant. Our criteria were vague and many were emotional: we wanted to feel a certain way on the land. We were in reaction from the overly busy lives we had left in Seattle and were determined to avoid any place that resembled its metastasizing development. After tramping through 40 or more places, we found one outside of Roseburg that felt very right: Ten acres of former clearcut that a young couple had homesteaded for a decade. It had a small house, barn, and 5000 square feet of organic garden with few fruit trees. What it didn’t have was a viable well and fertile soil, but I figured, as a new permaculturist, that I could harvest water and build soil. The place also, we understood, was in a community of people who held views very different from our own, but we wanted privacy and seclusion. We only needed a few friends, after all, and there were bound to be a few like-minded souls around.
I’ll be forthright in saying that this experience influenced my thinking about finding land in many ways, so I know I have some biases. But I think many of the basic lessons we learned there apply broadly. Here are the major ones:
If you are planning on growing anything, water and soil are paramount factors. Sure, you can catch water—although unless you can fill a large pond, in dry weather you will quickly go through thousands of gallons of irrigation water. Our 5000-gallon cistern was drained in a few days by the water demands of our modest garden, and I was saved only by a generous neighbor who let us tie into her well. All permies learn that an inch of rain falling on a 1000-square-foot roof will deliver 600 gallons of water. So reverse that to see how much water you’ll use: Irrigating a 1000-square-foot garden at the recommended rate of one inch per week will use 600 gallons each time. Our garden was 5000 square feet. The math is brutal: that’s 3000 gallons a week. Even running the garden on half-rations will drain any tank fast. A good water source is mandatory.
Soil is equally important. Sure, we can build soil using permaculture’s methods. And we did that at our place via sheet mulch, compost, and cover crops, boosting the fertility of our eroded red clay immensely. But I learned the value of good indigenous soil when we moved from our ten acres to Portland, onto a yard with the native Willamette Valley loam, one of the finest soils on the planet. With no effort or amendment, our veggies grew to double the size they had down south, needed less water, and tasted better. Now I see why pioneers made the perilous crossing on the Oregon Trail: Moving to good soil is worth it. If you want to farm, find fertile, well-watered farmland.
The third lesson we learned was the value of community. We thought we’d find a way to fit into the timber-town mindset of Douglas County, and indeed we made friends and found the people to be generous and kind. But almost every time I met someone, we both quickly found there was little common ground, politically, spiritually, environmentally, and in experience. I wasn’t from there, and that mattered to the locals. On the day I heard myself say, “I don’t even want to be part of this community,” I realized that our days there were numbered.
The fourth lesson is to know how much land you really need. We thought we wanted some acreage, and ten acres seemed about right. Caring for ten acres is a huge amount of work, and it’s easy to overextend yourself. Geoff Lawton says that a common mistake is to create a zone two that is too big, and I agree. Zone two is where you locate production vegetables, the home orchard, small livestock, and infrastructure that you don’t use every day. I planted dozens of fruit and nut trees, conservation and wildlife species, and swaled and mulched about two acres. Maintaining it was draining. Trying to keep water on 40 trees in a dry summer was overwhelming, and the trees suffered. Finally we realized that we wanted that acreage mostly as a buffer against unknown neighbors’ activities, not because we wanted to tend a large parcel. We could have done all that we did on two acres (and done it better on even less), had we just taken care to pick the right neighbors or be next to conservation land. The lesson there is, understand what your motivation truly is for wanting acreage, or for wanting anything else.
Another lesson I’ve learned, both from our land choices and those of others, is to be cautious about buying degraded land. Sadly, there’s a lot of that out there, much of it inexpensive. But is your goal really to restore a piece of land, or is it to produce something from the land? It’s hard, I’ve learned, to do both at once. The restoration almost always needs to be done first, and that can easily be a decade-long project requiring immense amounts of work. For a full report on how that can go, check out the land blog of Ran Prieur, who bought a damaged piece of land in Eastern Washington, worked on it for years, eventually wore out, moved to the city and put the land up for sale. Working on damaged land will make you a restorationist, which is wonderful and badly needed. Just be sure that’s what you want to be.
I can sum up these lessons in one sentence: Find the best piece of land that you can for your purposes. Don’t compromise. It’s far wiser to get a small piece of land that meets all your goals than a large piece that misses some. If you are planning on farming, an acre of land with fertile soil and plenty of water will usually yield more than ten acres that lack either one, let alone both. And it will be far less work, too. If you want to set up a business that relies on local customers, such as a retreat or education center, locate it near a good market, even if it’s more expensive per acre.
In short form, here’s what I’ve learned:
- Develop clear goals about what you want to do on the land and what the criteria the land must meet to reach those goals. Avoid falling in love with land that lacks important qualities.
- Get the land best suited to your goals that you can afford. If you’re planning on growing anything seriously, make sure there is adequate water and fertile soil.
- Find land near a supportive community or you’ll be lonely.
- Determine how much land is right for your needs, and see if there are reasons you want more land than you truly need.
Most of these guidelines apply to urban sites as well, but there, the human component is even more important. Being in a supportive community, where the neighbors, local codes and covenants, and available resources will aid rather than hinder your work, will make your life much more pleasant. A place to live that meets all your criteria may be expensive, but if you can develop the means, it’s worth it.