livin’ off the land

Tuesday night, and I’m taking a break from the great “is lonelygirl15 for real” debate to bring you another installment of sounds familiar. Keaton is asleep in her mom’s arm on the couch, and we just finished a fine meal. I’m tired of writing (this part actually gets done last), so I’m just gonna toss it over the fence.

I almost cried last night when WordPress once again lost more than half of a huge, detailed entry I’d been writing for hours. I’ve never had this problem before, but recently, while saving entries, I’ll scroll down to pickup writing where I left off only to recoil in horror as I notice the bottom 2/3 of my entry have bee lost – disappeared into cyberspace. Sometimes, this is not that big of a deal, other times, it’s devastating. Tonight, for instance, I was putting the finishing touches on this long, drawn out piece (something I’d been working on for a couple days now) when it was zapped. Man, I was pissed. So, here goes the 2nd attempt, which I’m sure is not as good as the original. But hey, maybe you think neither is good – deal with it. Oh, and this is looooong, sorry.

Sometimes I wonder about how “real” my co-op could be. So, I decided to take a good-natured stab at what the outlay would be for getting such a venture off the ground while equipping it well enough to give it a fighting chance at success. So, let’s see then, I decided to break the analysis into what I consider to be “major” and “minor” needs, the distinction based both on the cost and the necessity of the items. The goal here is to try and make an educated guess at just how much “up front” funding would be required to start living the co-op life. To further qualify that, I mean the amount of money needed to establish the co-op and change my primary occupation to co-op “employee.” Here’s what I think it would cost “drop out” and get things up and running. Here’s my initial swag. The big items:

According to the Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2005 the average cost of “rural” property in the US is $1,150 per acre. This number varies depending on location, being as low as less than $300 per acre in places like New Mexico and as high as more than $10,000 per acre in places like New Jersey and Rhode Island. California is on the high-end, about ~$4,000 per acre on average for a piece of rural property. Although I’m sure you could find high- and low-side aberrations. For this exercise, however, I’m going to use the nationwide average of $1,150 per acre.

Deciding on what acreage is needed to sustain a small co-op is not easy, several studies have been done on the subject, with varying results. If we’re talking about just a self-sustaining operation which can feed those who live there – something as small as 5 acres might be enough. For argument-sake, though, let’s assume we want a 10 acre operation. This should be plenty of land for enough a small-scale operation needing living space, storage space, crops, eatin’-animals and stock. Using the national average, that puts our property cost at about $115,000. Remember that’s just land. To add a dash of realism here, I searched parcels for sale right now in Montana, where the Department of Agriculture’s study said the price per acre of rural land is about $500. Turns out the estimates are pretty accurate, as I found several ~10 acre parcels for sale in rural Montana for right around $100,000-$150,000. Based on that, I’m going to assume a $150,000 outlay for land alone.

Land, however, is largely useless without some resources. We’d need water, and I’m assuming there’s no existing well we can use, so there’d be drilling costs there. We’d also need a septic system, and leveling and grading for construction and accessibility. I chose to budget for these land “usability” steps separately, rather than include them in the property or construction costs. For this, I’m swagging $50,000. This includes an large engineered septic system (sand/peat or aerobic), a drilled well, and clearing/grading/access earth moving.

Following the “modern pioneer” method (the instant-on off-grid approach), I’m targeting a 100% green powered operation from the getgo. The only real reason this wouldn’t be possible is money, but since I’m working on a cash estimate for my dream situation – I’m going to account for the off-grid scenario right up front rather than opting for what may be a more realistic “stepped reliance” approach to cutting the electric company cord. But, how much would it cost to go green up-front?

In his excellent paper, An Off-Grid Primer, Bill Kemp gives the perfect amount of information and detail about the 3000sq/ft off-grid home he and his wife built in Canada. Powered by a hybrid system of wind, photovoltaic (solar, or “PV”), and a diesel generator – the system he’s using sounds like it would be just about perfect for a small-scale self-sufficient farm. Mr. Kemp and his wife are able to enjoy all mod-cons, albeit with careful consideration to outfit the house with power efficient appliances and electronics. There are hairdryers, big TVs, computers – everything the modern kind of co-op I want could wish for (even enough to do some co-op-style web development on the side for extra scrilla, if need be). Anyway, I suggest reading the entire thing if you’re interested, but the million-dollar question comes at the end:

But is it economical?

This is a tough question, because the answer is not straightforward. The entry level for a turn-key (i.e. you do none of the installation work) PV based system running house loads similar to ours is about $25,000 to $35,000 (Canadian) for all of the materials and installation labour. Do some of the work yourself and it can be lower. Add a wind turbine and it will go up. Can you work with used equipment and tinker some? Our fairly large system based on today’s costs would be approximately $50,000.

Being that this paper was written ~3yrs ago, I’m going to add 15% to that $50,000 quote for inflation – giving us a utility-company-reliable off-grid hybrid power system for roughly $60,000. This is encouraging, going from a piece of land with no native power source to a completely off-grid reliable system for only $60k. Of course, there are things I’m not really getting into here like average windspeed and sun-hours per year at our chosen co-op location – both which will be determining factors in just how efficient the hybrid system will be in using nature as juice. But, for the sake of the exercise, let’s move on.

Rather than going through the same detailed analysis above for shelter costs, I’m going to instead give a blanket estimate of $500,000 for living quarters and amenity-outfitting. This includes the home itself and all the stuff that needs to go in it. To a California native lie me, this seems just about right for not only a domicile but the amenities – but looked at compared to the national average it’s more than enough. I’m assuming here that the house would be constructed and outfitted to take maximum advantage of the green power which will run it, and that involves possibly paying a little more for the most efficient appliances. Even with this considered, I think you could get an acceptable multi-family living space with a decent amount of privacy and breathing room for our $500,000 guesstimate.

Other Structure & Equipment
Another $200,000 seems fair for any outbuildings, storage, and necessary equipment. This may seem low, but remember we’re only talking about 10 acres and I’m not planning on buying all modern farming equipment. We wont be needing threshers or laser-guided GPS plows, but a small front-end loader or baby 4×4 ATV might be in the budget. I don’t want to fall victim to the “big red barn” syndrome that bankrupts plenty of small-scale operations by seeing them build a traditional-looking farm rather than a function-for-what-they-need farm. Again, this may seem like a lot – but I want to ensure we have some padding here.

Since it’s unreasonable to expect fields full of yummy fruit and veggies, fattened pigs, and cows giving milk upon moving in – one has to consider the startup cost of subsistence as the co-op gradually becomes more self-reliant. There will of course be some period of time where reliance on the local grocer will still be key. Not to mention, there are costs associated with bringing a the co-op into a working food-producing cycle, things like irrigation, planting, buying beasties for eating and and stock needed, etc. All these things need to first be acquired or kicked off, and then need time to start producing. Surely there’ll also be some tweaking to the whole production cycle to hone and time output based on needs and conditions, and nothing ever works out perfect. I think it’s logical to assume that the co-op will need at least a year to “proof,” during which everything will be felt out and built into routine. During this year, the co-op “employees” will be weaning off outside provisions as production increases and is perfected. So, it’s a year-long non-linear expense which hopefully declines as the co-op begins to function as intended. I’m swagging another $20,000 for this.

Although the plan is to be nearly 100% self-reliant, I’ll concede that it’s nearly impossible to escape certain outside expenses. For instance, the co-op will still have to pay annual property taxes, the co-op will still consume fuel for things like vehicles and generators, and, since I don’t intend this to be a crazy commune, the co-op will still have expenses like sending kids to school and buying clothes, toothpaste, and toilet paper. I’m not suggesting we move into a teepee and start wearing the furs of the animals we both eat and make soap from their fat. I’m not suggesting we don’t go into town to get haircuts, socialize, or see a show. I don’t intend to home-school the kids or not invite friends over for dinner. This isn’t a walled-off freak-farm, it’s just a group of folks who desire to reduce their reliance on commercial goods and services. And, since it’s not a walled-off freak-farm, it’s safe to assume there will be a normal set of “living” expenses associated with having a “normal” lifestyle. Of course, living within the means of the co-op will be a must, but you still have to account for these expenditures. So, for both pure operating costs and the cost of “maintaining normalcy,” I put the cost at about $25,000. I realize that this expense is more of a regular, or annual, thing rather than part of the up-front investment – but if I’m looking at the co-op as coming online within a year, I think it’s a good idea to include on year’s worth of this expense as part of the initial outlay. This way, if we have this funding up-front, we can be more assured that the co-op can be the sole focus for that important initial “ramping up” year.

This annual cost brings up an interesting point – somehow, the co-op will have to bring in money. There’s no way around it. That means there’ll have to be some kind of business plan to bring in what we need to get by. Whether this means selling some of our bounty at the local farmer’s market, doing some computer work on the side (I expect my co-op to be populated with a few cubicle-jockies turned naturists), selling things on Ebay, or making soap – we’ll have to have some way to generate revenue. Of course, revenue means taxes. But it’s important for me to admit that, as cool as it sounds to shun money, we’ll not be able to escape it. Part of forming the co-op would be working out this business plans with the folks who’d be going with me.

Let’s tally, shall we?

$500,000 – home and outfitting
$200,000 – other structures & equipment
$150,000 – land
$60,000 – off-grid power system
$50,000 – land usability
$25,000 – operation (one up-front year)
$20,000 – startup sustenance

I realize that a million dollars may seem like a whole heck of a lot of money just to “drop out” and start working the land. Can it really cost that much to cast off the fetters of reliant living and get back to basics? I don’t know, my estimates say it’s probably about right, at least to do it the way I’ve dreamt of. I’m sure you could go all Walden and find somewhere to squat in middle-of-nowhere Montana for much cheaper – but I’m trying to achieve something a little different than a Grizzly Adams recluse lifestyle. My fantasy is to have most of the luxuries and amenities I’ve come to rely on now, but without having that reliance be on anyone but myself (or, in this case, the co-op). Utopian? Pie-in-the-sky? Sure, of course it is. That’s why it’s my fantasy. Anyway, I think a million dollar startup fee for a multi-family co-op is OK. It’s just a rough, padded estimate. If I were really going to go through with it, I’m sure the co-op could put their heads together and figure ways to get it rolling it more economically. Even if we do assume a million though, that’s five couples at $200,000 each. These days, leveraging $200,000 from a home sale isn’t at all out of the ordinary.

Now, I realize that the plans laid out here may seem overly complex or “ground-up.” I’ll concede that a lot of this can be done in one fell swoop buy simply purchasing an existing small-scale farm parcel with all the buildings already erected. You’d likely get an existing well and utility hookup – and could take time converting to green power later or make the initial investment outfitting the place up-front. A simple search of property right here in Northern California shows that there are several pieces of property which would likely work, and most fall somewhere right between $600,000 and $1,000,000 (helps to confirm our “ground-up” estimates). There are several reasons why an instant solution like this is attractive, but other reasons why it may make things more difficult. Existing structures may be subject to more restrictive easements or restrictions – some even regulating what kind of green power can be used and if you have to sell back to the main grid, etc. Out in the country, I feel like you have a better chance at calling your own shots, and are less likely to be told you can’t erect that 300ft tower for your wind turbine because there are rare condors around which could be killed by it. And, anyway, my fantasy is a “ground-up” fantasy; it wants me to plan everything, decide things, and make it from scratch. That’s just the way my fantasy goes.

I’ll close this up by admitting I know absolutely nothing about running a farm, taking are of animals, or much of anything related to “living off the land.” For this reason, my estimates above could be completely off-base and entirely wrong.


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4 Replies to “livin’ off the land”

  1. If anything I’m not sure your estimate for purchasing the home is right. A good ballpark # for new home construction (high end) is about $175/square foot. That’s not including the expense of running utilities around, pouring the foundation…taxes…so if anything I think you’re a little low there. Then again you could probably make a lot of it up by building your own windmills or whatever.

    For water it would be best if there were flowing water on the property. 2 words: RAM pump…

    The challenges here are maintaining a sustainable system AND maintaining income sufficient to support it in our economy. It would be a very difficult balance.

    I think to make something like this work in the real world some concessions would have to be made & complete self sufficiency would become more of a lifetime goal to continue to strive for, rather than something you actually achieve and live in.

  2. I object to your put-down of my lifestyle. You want to “get back to basics”? Be a real man like me and give up your air conditioning and toilet paper.

  3. my dad can teach us how to make bio-diesel. we should put our lazy asses to work builing the place. we will need to be in great shape for all the agricultural work anyway. plus, i think we should factor seasonal huntin’ and fishin’ into the food supply. me and my beans and rice are so in!

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