Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Do I Get With 5.5 Acres?

My small farm is only 5.5 acres. That's "micro" scale as far as farms go. And to add insult to injury, when I bought it, it was 80% wooded.

When I decided to move to New England, I had fantasies of the old white farmhouses, the big grass fields, the stone walls. I was hoping for 30 acres, all arable, with a 5 stall barn to boot. Well, nothing makes you feel poor like shopping for farms in New England. That 30 acre farm I just described would be a cool million anywhere commutable to Portsmouth (the location of my job at the time). You could find that kind of acreage for cheaper, but it would not be arable, much less pastured. We're talking swamp, people.

Anyway, after nine months of searching for a farm, I found this little parcel and the house was nice, so I went for it. Five acres and change is a far cry from my romantic New England homestead, but we all have to start somewhere. It might as well be at the bottom.

I moved in on November 1, 2008, just beating winter by a mere few weeks. My first introduction to hard farm life was an ice storm on December 18th that left us without power for five days. No heat, no water, no electric fence for the horses. We learned from that one and now have a generator and a healthy appreciation and respect for winter.

The following year, 2009, we barely got our feet under us. We fenced off a small 3/4 acre paddock for the horses out in the woods, got some chickens, and tilled up the sod on a 40' diameter garden disc aka our leach field. It was a terrible year for weather, but a good year for learning. I watched how the sun rose and set on the farm, where the shadows lay in each season, where the wind would bite the coldest. I learned a lot about the natural rhythm of the spring which feeds our livestock trough. I learned more than I wanted about flood drainage and how even though it is tough to be on the side of a steep hill, it's worse to be at the bottom. Maybe we didn't start at the bottom, after all.

2009 Farm. Satellite photo from 2007 but this is how the property looked when purchased. Improvements in red.

So by November 2009, one full year on the farm, I knew what I wanted to do with the land and I had it cleared. I hired a company that would purchase the timber from me and then use the credit to stump the land and grade it. From forest to pasture in two short weeks. Sounds great, right? Well... They cleared the land in about two days but then moved to my neighbor's 30 acres and by the time they thought about stumping my land, snow had fallen. Funny how that happens in December in New Hampshire. Caught us all by surprise. Not.

Anyway, the bad news is that we will now get stumped on May 1, 2010, because that's how long it will take after mud season to get the big machines back in. The good news is that we got more money for the wood they cleared than we thought, so we just might be able to afford all these "improvements". So pastures in (late) 2010 and, with luck, we will get to graze them in 2011.

As for the rest of the property, the front 1/2 acre was cleared save for some truly awesome old oaks. It will be used for an orchard and a meadow grazed on a 150 day management cycle. The goats will get a 100' x 45' permanently fenced paddock (once the ground thaws), and I have portable electric fencing to graze them out during the day. The garden will be expanded to approximately twice the square footage. And we will see how that goes.

2010 Farm (proposed).

A note on the pictures. The green dots roughly represent large trees, but we saved more trees than it looks like from that representation. I want living pasture, not strip-cleared dead zones. In addition, we have plans to plant approximately 20 fruit and nut trees in the orchard and other areas of the farm.

Future pasture from future goat paddock. Plenty of gorgeous trees and now hopefully more gorgeous sun.

What is becoming very obvious from our experience is that even though the farm is micro-scaled, we could very easily produce almost all the food we need IF we did not have the horses. The horses will take up 3.5 acres of land and they would destroy it if not managed properly. I could raise 30 goats or 10 pigs or 20 sheep on the same amount of land and have a much easier time keeping it healthy. But the horses are here to stay, because there's more to life than farming and that's being loved by a goofy draft horse.

Micro-farms are very viable, however, if properly managed. So although I still wax poetic about my "next" 30 acre farm, that's just so I can have more horses. Or goats. :)


B said...

I just have to say again that I love what you're doing.

I have all kinds of plans for the 10 Acre Farm that someday I will have. With the ground the way it is, I figure that's the minimum I can have in my area if I want the horse pasture to be grass and not sand. Eight acres for the ladies and two for me. Some chickens, maybe one day a real dairy goat or two.

I'm so excited just thinking about it. I love what your doing!!

MD said...

Informative and entertaining! More about the goats! Really interesting retrospective on where you've come from in the last two years. I can't imagine where you'll be in another two, but hopefully it'll be delicious!

Lisa said...

We are currently looking at a home that sits on 5.64 acres. It has a pound and only a few trees but plenty of openness as well. Its hilly though. Trying to decide if it will be enough for a small garden and a few horses. And possibly a few cattle. Truly just a few like maybe 5 of each at most.