Obstacles to Going Back to the Land

Back to the topic of agrarianism. How do you get land?

Notice I didn’t say “how do you buy land?” though that might at first appear to be the meaning of the question. No, how do you get land is better, because it’s possible that you don’t have to buy land (at least at first).

But before we delve into that, the three obstacles to going back to the land are:

1. Desire to do it
2. Money
3. Expertise

If you don’t desire to have some acreage, animals, garden/crops, then the rest of this is a moot point. But perhaps you are married and one of you has this desire, however nascent, while the other does not. That’s a common problem. My wife and I were at that place several years back: we both vaguely thought the idea sounded interesting, but our visions of what it would look like differed greatly—too greatly to be able to make any decisions.

Through much reading together, prayer, thought, and also time, we have come to unity in our vision for living on some land, in a well-built home (straw-bale most likely, more on this later), making some income off our land but still having a regular job too or perhaps some means of supplemental income. There were times in the past five years when we spoke about these topics a lot, and others where it was put on the back-burner for months. Only you and your spouse can discern where God is leading you.

But what about money? Land prices are inflated, though they have dipped in many places due to the economy and housing bubble bursting. Still, if you want to be reasonably close to a city or large town, you could be looking at $3,000 to $20,000 per acre. This varies widely but where we’ve been looking, if we stay within thirty minutes of the city, land prices are about $5,000 per acre. Twenty acres would make one hundred thousand dollars, not chump change for us or most people.

If the land is too pricey to buy, don’t despair. The majority of farmers are aging grandparents whose children left the farm long ago. Many of these farmers would love to see a young couple make a go of it on their land, maintaining it, improving the soil, bringing life back there again. There are ways to find these farmers and great deals can be found (for both parties), low rent or no rent even.

Money should not be the obstacle, though it is certainly a high priority, and the less money you have the more creatively you need to think.

Expertise. Katie and I have little, being brought up in towns. Kevin Ford has more. But you can gain expertise: backyard garden, small animals (chickens, goats, etc.), volunteering or interning on a farm, getting training on special farms, etc. We’ve done some of these things but need to do more. This is the weakest area for us; we have much to learn, and the curve can be steep and punishing.

The main point of this is: every family has peculiar advantages and disadvantages. Some people inherit land, hundreds of acres just given to them. Others have saved up enough through working a regular job to be able to procure land and housing and animals. Many have expertise, horse-sense, mechanical abilities–you name it–and all these can be employed to help you get onto some land and begin stewarding it.

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29 Responses to Obstacles to Going Back to the Land

  1. Have you and/or Katie read The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love? It wasn’t the best memoir I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed it and it certainly offered an intriguing glimpse into the lives of people who leave the city to try their hand at farming.

    Here’s the Amazon link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Dirty-Life-Memoir-Farming-Food/dp/1416551611/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328722054&sr=8-1

    • Devin Rose says:

      Hi Hallie! No we haven’t read it but I just read the summary and some reviews. Sounds interesting, though I usually prefer more practical books that explain how to do stuff, since I’m a greenhorn. :)

  2. mdavid says:

    I grew up rural, and believe most of the desire people have to go “back to the land” is really a desire for independence, not for the joy of tilling the soil with machines. And truth be told, independence can be had better by working a normal job but changing one’s lifestyle for independence.

    Serious food savings can be had by buying in bulk and having a SAHM cook entirely from scratch, i.e., zero processed food (except maybe cheese or a few other hard-to-make items). Also a practical way to save: a very large garden, chickens, hunting/fishing (the local kind), rasing rabbits, etc. It’s like a part time job, but any back-to-the-land type finds it fun.

    General lifestyle savings are there for the taking as well: fixing your own car, cutting your own hair, sewing, repairing your own house, furniture, homeschooling, not driving so much, etc. The family who lives like this often finds they get the best of both worlds: financial independence and a “back to the land” lifestyle.

    Agriculture is a big business. Competing with it on the open market (not on a small garden scale) is not very practical, sort of like making your own shoes and manufacturing your own cloth. It’s fun for a hobby, but.

    • Devin Rose says:

      mdavid,

      Thanks for chiming in.

      Ah, but that’s why you don’t compete with big agribusiness. You hit the niches, the people who want good clean local food, and sell direct to bypass the middle-men. This is what the new agrarians are doing and being successful with.

  3. mdavid says:

    Yes Devin, I know the concept. I’m all for it! But I will be interested to see how many of these local farmers are still around in 20 years…and how many who do make it that long started out with land/money to carry them. And how they afford health care, how many children they have, etc. I also note that if there ever gets to be enough people willing to pay another 25% (or more) for quality local food (Pollen style) in this economy, big business will be glad to step and and provide it at lower cost; the local family farmer is simply not very efficient.

    I think a more realistic book, and one that shows the power of rural living but also the challenges would be The Feast Nearby

    • Devin Rose says:

      mdavid,

      I would challenge the claim that the local family farmer is not very efficient. I don’t have some numbers to back up my challenge (but then, you didn’t offer statistics either), but big business will have a very hard time competing with local farmers who establish relationships with their customers. Big businesses can do volume well–big stuff–but not small stuff. They make money on small margins, large volume. You know all this I’m sure.

      The local farmer may be the only one around in 20 years. I’m not a doom-sayer, anarchist, or local/organic food fundamentalist. We still go to chick-fil-a and buy lots of stuff that is neither local nor organic, but there’s a fundamental problem with the way that agribusiness farms the land and it is not a sustainable system, imho. Thanks for stopping by again love chatting about this stuff don’t take any offense.

  4. Augustine says:

    Devin,

    Forgive me for being a little suspicious, but I think that more often than not, and perhaps you’re the exception, I don’t know, the travails at a farm are largely underestimated.

    I say this having relatives who actually own or owned ranches which, though they didn’t live in them the majority of the time, required a lot of work, much of it that we, city dwellers, take for granted.

    So, allow me to throw you this curve ball, which I think that is still up to date, though written in the 30s: http://mises.org/daily/4983/To-Hell-with-Farming

    God bless.

    • Devin Rose says:

      Augustine, farming is hard work. But why be afraid of hard work? The article was humorous and painted a grim picture of extremes, but there’s some truth there as well. True farming is not “gentlemen farming” where you sip lemonade on your porch and watch the animals graze in bucolic bliss.

      So this is something to take very seriously, the work aspect.

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  6. Going “back to the farm” is hard, yes. But it is necessary for the majority of people to once again do just that. Why? That is the only way for people to own productive property on a masive scale. All talk of “efficiency” is capitalist rubish imho. What that ussually translates to is 2 very capitalist things:
    1. “cheap”- as in money and quality.
    2. A few men owning the vast majority of productive property with all other men serving those few men.

    Capitalism also invented the notion of “experts”. No longer is it good to be a renaisance man who owns his own stuff and makes his own stuff, because hey, one guy in a combine can mow down 10,000 acres for much cheaper, so why bother? But is it really cheaper once you factor in all that it takes to move that tractor? Is one guy deciding what to plant on 10,000 acres a good idea? What if (com-pleeetly hypothetical) he plant genetically modified corn? Doesnt that negatively affect the millions of engineers in the cubicles in the skyscrapers who are designing combines and oil rigs? What if those guys just came down from the skyscrapers and owned their own plot, tilled their own soil with simple machines they owned? Sounds much more efficient to me.

    • Augustine says:

      The division of labor allowed for unprecedented allocation of labor. If it weren’t for it, which predates capitalism by many centuries, we weren’t be discussing this on a computer.

      The fact is that if all own productive property, there’d be no one to develop computers, microchips, software, etc, for every one would be busy milking cows and tiling the soil.

      The specialization of labor benefited everyone, unless you think that you could shepherd sheep, feed them, mine the soil, refine iron, build a shear, shear them, make yarn, build an ax, cut trees, split wood, build a loom, sow the fabric into clothes all by yourself or even as a family, not counting the need to eat, drink, etc.

      • “unless you think that you could shepherd sheep, feed them, mine the soil, refine iron, build a shear, shear them, make yarn, build an ax, cut trees, split wood, build a loom, sow the fabric into clothes all by yourself or even as a family, not counting the need to eat, drink, etc.”

        What you describe here is one man doing absolutely everything like Jerimiah Johnson.

        Perhaps I was unclear, but what I was trying to describe is the vast majority of people owning productive property, and the natural result of that being that most people own land. That still leave a sizeable amout of extra people to do all the things you mention that require extreme specialization, and probably a lack of ownership, including ones you didnt mention like Priests and nuns.
        The choice is not caveman or computers.

  7. I hadn’t thought of this for years, but at one time my family owned 40 acres (no mule) in Illinois, which my father sold in 1990 to the family who tenant-farmed it for us. Now I’m wishing we still had it.

    By the way, Devin, you’ve won an award. Stop by Outside the Asylum to find out about it.

  8. So Devin, any tips on how to scout out potential “situations”? Is there a website or book or something that gives the lay of the land? (hehe) I am picturing something like this for someone in my situation (full time job, city folk):
    Try to find a rental farm from an old farmer, and start with some chickens or something part time in the evenings, enough that my family can do some of the chores with the animals during the day. Gradually ramp up the operation while moving to a part time job. At that point though, a lack of health insurance becomes an issue. Considerations like that scare me. But being laid off from my wage slave job scares me too. So is there any source of practical advice you can recommend to start some initial planning? Right now I am doing a lot of reading on the Catholic Land Movement and Distributism. But with the theory I want to be planning my attack as well.

    • Devin Rose says:

      David, I would start in your backyard, if you are allowed to have chickens there. Build a coop, get some laying hens (or raise chicks or buy pullets who will soon lay eggs), and do that for a while. Make a garden, perhaps get bees if that suits you or plant berry bushes or grape vines. In other words, start small in your own place, that way you don’t have to drive anywhere.

      If you can’t do that for whatever reason, you can see if your town has a community garden. Typically you can rent for a nominal fee a small plot and garden there.

      To find a local farmer who might be interested, you need to make connections either in the community or via the internet. Internet-wise, here’s a neat site for the Midwest that seeks to connect people who own land with small farmers: http://www.midwestfarmconnection.org/ (from this site that has lots of resources: http://fieldguideforbeginningfarmers.wikispaces.com/B.+Access+to+Land#ACCESS%20TO%20LAND).

      Also this site could help: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/bfc/

      But your best bet is making local connections. Connect with local farmers in your area through farmer’s markets or better yet CSAs (community supported agriculture). Where do they farm? How did they get there? Do they rent some land? Do they have internships? Do they know anyone who might rent a small plot to you or let you work their land? Etc.

      For a replacement for insurance, I would suggest Christian Medishare: http://mychristiancare.org/medi-share/

      It is not insurance, since that is heavily regulated (as we have seen with the HHS mandate grrr), but it works in a similar way. You pay a monthly amount (“premium”) based on family size and your family “deductible” (it’s called something else but it’s the same idea) and then your medical bills are matched with another family’s contributions.

      So my main advice is: start now, start small, do something.

      • That medishare is much better than some I have seen which forbid any alchohol other than communion. This one only forbids the abuse of alchohol.
        It does mention a belief in “faith alone” as a membership criteria. But I believe that can be wiggled out of by Catholics by taking B16′s advice on viewing “faith” from the correct perspective.

  9. Augustine says:

    I’m very interested in a distributive economy, something that some can do without the whole economy becoming distributive, though the hope is that it does.

    However, many of the early works on distributism were of a time that is not here anymore and I think that this is a problem when the scenarios of those works are transposed to our times. Not that I think that our times are fateful, but that in our times I question the chances of long-term survival of the effort.

    I think that we need to actualize distributism without agrarianism for it to be successful, at least to more people who have no vocation to work the land. Perhaps the best example of such an actualization of distributism in the modern world is the Basque Mandragon Cooperative (http://bit.ly/wYwg9K), which is wholly owned by its 80000+ employees and was setup by Fr. Madariaga (http://bit.ly/AhcQQE) in the 50s. It’s a company with excellent records of profitability even when Spain experienced deep recessions.

    I think that in this day and age, thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to achieve something like that for us, white-collar workers with no competence to work the land.

    • Augustine: Sounds interesting. I love the idea of a refuge for us white collar distributists. I still think a return to the land is a necessary part of things for at least a sizeable portion of us, but I agree that for those with no vocation for farming, there should be distributist alternatives to the wage-slave rat race.

  10. Thanks for the solid leads. I will be looking into this. Being in a townhome a garden is out of the question. We do homebrew and make outr own soap though, and are trying to always make small steps toward this lifestyle. One thing that may be a benefit for me is that I rent. So I wouldnt have to worry about trying to sell if I find a place to start something small. Devin have you read any of Joe Saladin? Is his book about starting a chicken operation any good?

    btw your sites captcha is the toughest in town. I fail about half the time.

    • Devin Rose says:

      David I fail it too about that often. Don’t know why since it’s just the standard reCaptcha. Thanks for bearing with it. I’ve thought of switching to Disqus but that has its own issues.

      Yes I’ve read lots of Joel Salatin. I recommend You Can Farm first. It’s general and has lots of good ideas. Realize that Salatin is coming from the perspective of wanting to be able to make a full time living for your family from farming (and farm-related products) alone. Even if that’s not your ultimate goal he’s got lots of neat ideas and very practical too.

      We also own Pastured Poultry Profits. It is good, nothing else like it among this genre of books. I actually ran fifty chickens out on our backyard acre this past spring/summer, building the chicken tractors off his model. I’d recommend getting it after You Can Farm.

      God bless!
      Devin

  11. Patricia Eileen Crowe says:

    Going back to the Land is a blessing from God. It takes families away from the social influences of modern day society and places them closer to our Creator..Growing your own food is a learned process of planting, cultivating and harvesting, all these things God has done for an eternity for the betterment of mankind..Faith is learned by just placing a small dried up seed into the furrow of the ground and believing in God so full heartily that life will begin again to nourish the bodies of your family. It is the same with raising animals for food. Each and every aspect of living on a small or large farm is about placing your family back in the hands of God. Your will be amazed how the beauty of the land surrounding your farm will take on a calmer more prayerful attitude..It will not be easy but then nothing in life that counts is.. Pray to God for a small piece of land for you to begin again and renewal your trust, faith and hope in God..For he is the Way, Truth and Life to each of us who are given this gift of understanding in Him who is our creator. Good Luck. If you ever need a shoulder to cry on or advice about what to plant..send me an email..My husband has a degree in Agriculture and well I was a farmers daughter who married a farmer..Enough said..God Bless!

  12. I’m not so sure about farming…but I do often (once in a while, anyway) think about that little plot of land that I will get after I kick the bucket.

    Thankfully, the Lord loves fresh dirt…and pulling people out of that ground :D

  13. Ed Hopkins says:

    There are quite a few Christian families in Central Virginia that you might find common cause with, if you would consider buying land here. This website is run by one of them. http://sustainabletraditions.com/

    • Ed,
      I mean no offense, but as a Catholic who wants to raise Catholic children, I don’t think it would be good planning to go there. Those Christians can never have a authentic Christian community because they lack priests and most sacraments.
      I think for the kind of communities that would be ideal for a more rural Catholic life, having them be as Catholicas possible is not just a plus, but an absolute necessity. Here is one reason (there are many others). Practically, if many families in a rural area each own a hundred acres, which aint that much, the distance to a Catholic Church can get pretty lengthy. And unlike Protestant ecclesial communities, Catholics MUST have access to the sacraments. Perhaps central Virginia is a good first step for some if that works out, but the presense of large amounts of Protestants who are very consciously not Catholic, and can tell your children why they should not be, and have sons who will want to tell you teenage daughter why they should not be, is a hindrance to the kind of authentic Catholic/Distributist life I want, not something to seek out. (imo of course)
      Honestly, I would rather live among American (practicing) Muslims or Hindus than conservative Protestants. (btw, I was one just two years ago, and was a big fan of the Highlands study Center in Bristol, Virginia, which is a Reformed community trying to implement some of these ideas.)

      • Ed Hopkins says:

        David: I understand. My sense, however, is that many of the Christians I know would be very open to authentic agrarian Catholicism. I am just coming into the Church myself, from a Reformed tradition, and know something of the scene at Highlands. BTW, the catholic community in Charlottesville is very solid (St Thomas Aquinas Church is the one I know), and would, I think, be a wonderful church home for catholic families in that region of Central Virginia.

  14. There is land in Wyoming for $200 an acre. I dont know if it is farmable, but perhaps for chickens/goats cattle ranching. Many of the Wyoming properties I have seen are within a 20 minute drive of a town with a Catholic Church, and a 2 hour drive of Wyoming Catholic College, which will be a powerhouse school in the future.

    http://www.cheaplandinamerica.com/listingsmore.php

    I think what we need is for the Church to buy large parcels of this land and give it to Catholic homesteaders.

  15. Martin Snigg says:

    Catholic agrarianism. Yes!

    Some might find these sites/concepts interesting.

    http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/

    Permaculture originator:Bill Mollison Ph.D
    (set and virtually forget food forest)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9fhCEzWS04

    7 Food Forests in 7mim
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG_vRG66wkA