strangely, no one has asked me why we’re doing this, nor why we chose this particular piece of land. the former question might be a bit harder to answer, but it seems to follow that we would have to want to homestead before deciding on a piece of land to attempt it, so i’ll start there.
why did we want to leave our cushy portland house?
well, as with any good decision, there isn’t just one reason, here are a few:
- i like watching things grow. plain and simple. i wanted to have room to do more of that.
- we like good food, which typically means grown onsite, cut minutes before eating. we did provide ourselves with most vegetables, but were unable to make much dent in our meat production. i was also tired of not having enough space to grow everything i wanted. each year we would have to make decisions about our menu for a whole season well in advance. with more room, we should be able to grow everything all the time, only contending with the weather, not the geography.
- portland is extremely easy in almost every way. though that is great for a while, and i think i learned a lot within a comfortable setting, we felt the need to test ourselves a bit.
- we wanted a new experience. i find it good to put myself in new situations from time to time. no big deal really. just do something different than we had previously done.
- pollution, traffic, etc. i was sort of tired of waking up and smelling the asphalt plant, thinking about the glass factories, tasting the chlorine in the water, adjusting my bike route to avoid car exhaust.
- we were no longer taking advantage of city life. i stopped attending ballets, going to brunch, or … what is it that people do there??? i cannot even remember.
- rich people. hot damn there seemed to be an uptick in rich people around. i can’t think of anything less appealing.
anyway, we were happy for the time spent there. it was great, but it was time for us to move. but where to? what we considered when buying land…
- size: i wanted a minimum of 40 acres – a few for a house and garden, some for animals, and some to be left over for wilderness. this was an arbitrary number, but i think reasonable. of course, 40 acres in oregon would be much more productive than 40 in montana, but still, something to aim for. 5 acres only leaves a couple for animals after a house and garden go in. 10 acres would leave room for more animals, but still probably not enough to be able to grow your own animal feed, or be self contained in any way. 20 acres still leaves you with a very close neighbor. we wanted a buffer from other people and room for whatever we wanted to try our hand at – barley, pigs, trees, honey, veggies, etc. we still don’t know what we’re after, but these things all take different amounts of land. i also wanted some roll to the land (not flat), to allow for water routing, and different micro-micro-climates.
- money: land in western oregon was roughly $10,000 per acre. we didn’t have $400,000. and, you cannot finance a parcel of land that large. banks just don’t do it. shocking to me since land is about the only thing that will likely never depreciate. but, it is true. also, you cannot finance a house if the land is worth more than the house. have you ever seen a nice but modest house in the country? i’m sure they exist, but i’ve never seen one in oregon. they are all either manufactured homes, have 4 (strange) additions, or are million dollar horse properties. anyway, we didn’t find anything that was a remote possibility in oregon. so, we started to look elsewhere. basically hood river to maine all have some relatively cheap land available.
- climate: this is obviously the first geographical consideration. but, it should be noted that we weren’t thinking about the current climate. we’re betting on 30 years from now. so, anywhere south of san fransisco was pretty much out. that includes all of the south east.
- water (A): water has several angles to it. when dealing with any sort of farming you need to have “water rights”to pump and irrigate with it, whether it is stream fed or from an aquifer. each state has its own limits on what you can take without water rights (if i remember correctly, oregon is 5,000 gallons per day and washington is 10,000 gallons per day, and livestock are always able to be watered). if a property has water rights, it’s more expensive. if it doesn’t have water rights, then it is unlikely to be of much farming use, depending on what you want to do. moreover, water rights (every where i’ve seen) are based on seniority. historically, the first properties to establish water rights get to use their full allocated amount before the next junior property gets to use any. when you think about how dry much of the country is over the last 100 years, and how much water some senior rights pull, it doesn’t take a genius to see that a small drought could wipe you out, even if you have a junior water right. wet places, that are likely to remain wet for the next 50 years include michigan, maine, vermont, and places with extensive canal systems. though we don’t get much rain here, the mountains here provide a huge catchment, feeding our canal and irrigation ditches. also, the aquifer coming from flathead lake is very shallow. being just downstream from the largest lake west of the mississippi is a good thing.
- water (B): fracking. we were pretty concerned about places with any sort of mineral or shale deposits underneath them. (mineral rights to come next.) we would have looked pretty hard at michigan, or maybe another fly-over state had it not been for the extensive shale plays underneath them. one fracking accident next door can easily taint your aquifer for the rest of your life, and we didn’t want to be relying on bottled water. NOTE: we do have shale under our property here — total oversight. we likely would not have purchased if we had realized it. i believe the play is small, and the tribe here does not seem inclined to exploit it, but… feel stupid. anyway, the intention was to avoid possible fracking zones. this left us to basically, the far northeast and northwest.
- mineral rights: many places have mineral rights titles separate from the surface, ground level title. so, if your property has been split, the owner can literally mine (or frack) underneath you at any point in time. many properties in eastern montana do have the mineral rights listed as a separate title. being old lake bed (glacial lake missoula) there hasn’t been any mineral exploration done here. and, our title search didn’t reveal any time when the property may have been split (though this is apparently no guarantee).
- big-ag: depsite wanting to have a farm, we did not want to be in an area with any big ag. big ag comes with depleted water supplies and massive pesticide and fertilizer use. this all gets into your water and lungs. i also dislike seeing monocultures. that gets a little boring and sad.
- bikeabilty: find me a rural property where you have a legitimate chance of biking into town! there is a strong amish presence here, and have accustomed the local drivers to behaving well around bikes (and horse drawn carraiges). we’re about 3 miles outside of town, which is just enough to work up a sweat.
- politics: cait refused to move to any place that was solidly in the red. this was partly due to a desire to find people she could relate to, and partly due to teacher salaries being prohibitively low in red states. montana is definitely purple, and our valley seems to be just that. vermont was still in the running at this point, and i think maine would have been as well.
- diversity: we both appreciate the spice that other cultures bring to a community. i don’t think finding a rural community with a substantial latino population is that difficult any more. but, it is very difficult the further north you get. based on the above criteria our options were now spokane or vermont, and as far as i know, neither has a substantial latino community. here we’re about 40% native, with large amish and german baptist communities in the mix. anyway, it isn’t a large latino community here, but these are distinctly different cultures, and we’ve enjoyed not being surrounded by (boring) white people. i should also note that i think what i really like is poor people. natives, amish, and even rednecks are all typically raised in fairly humble settings. the total lack of any wealth here seems to have made the people a bit kinder. perhaps correlation is not causation. i don’t know.
- wild: the thing that killed vermont was its nature, or lack of. i know it’s all forest, and great woods and so forth. but, it looked like what it was – an old land, worn down by weather for millions of years. we took a hike to a waterfall that pretty well had its own park created around it. the full drop of the waterfall was maybe 50 feet. growing up in the gorge, cait looked sad, like she had been tricked into a hike. i think that’s when she knew she couldn’t move there. for me it came when we went on another hike and i realized that back country skiing in vermont would just be following your up-track through dense brush. we are used to the west, and spoiled by it. here it is wide open and the land is younger. i should also note that the tribe here controls the west side of this mission range, and it is likely the most unspoiled and wild place in the lower 48. lucky strike for us.
- civilization: there was also a desire to not be 3 hours from a good grocery store. missoula is just 45 minutes away. if we need something city-ish, we go there.
- fun: i think i would have preferred to be near the ocean and go surfing in my free time, just to avoid ski boots. but, skiing is a close second, and the back country here looks pretty epic. it’s about 10 miles to the put-in at a reservoir. i don’t think snow machines are allowed in the wilderness area at all, and again… 10 miles. one of these years i will be in shape enough to scope it out.
- we didn’t know the property or town even existed. ahead of a camping trip to (just outside of) polson we checked for properties in the surrounding area. polson is actually quite expensive but cait stumbled upon this place. it had been listed for years, and somehow not showing on zillow. i think it was unattractive to most farmers in the valley due to the rolling, weeds, and inaccessibilty (the canal cuts the property in half, and not in a way that would make it easy to mono-crop). we took a short walk here on our way to the campsite. it seemed good. we did some research, and it seemed better. looking back, it seems great.
- we paid just under $200k for 67 acres, with canals and ditches. the owners carried a loan for us until our portland house sold, since we didn’t have that much. we are betting there will still be water in the canals in 50 years due to the reservoirs and mountain catchment. it is a very interesting cultural mix, easy biking distance, and pretty good soil on top of the clay. we’ve got bears, eagles, and some huge mountains. in the end, we’re feeling very lucky to have found this place.
- ben also wanted me to note that we are now much closer to good friends in coeur d’alene, bozeman and whitefish. we’ve also met some very nice folks here already. unlike a large town, where it might be harder to find your niche with exactly the right crowd (eg. you rode THAT bike here???), when you meet people here, undertaking similar efforts, you already have a lot of shared experience. anyway, there is a nice community of hippy and plain-folk farmers here.