How To Choose The Right Land For Your Permaculture Homestead

It’s been a long time since I have written a blog post on here – and a lot has happened since I shared our first yearly homestead recap with you. We finished another year at the homestead: making maple syrup, continuing to plant our food forest and garden, and raising 11 heritage turkeys and 72 chickens. In March, we got three goats, milked them, and made goat cheese. We also suffered a tragic loss when our beloved chicken Toad and three others were killed by a hungry mountain lion momma. And like everyone else, we stayed home trying to survive a pandemic for the past 12 months.

But we also moved to Tuscany, Italy, last November. Yes, we sold our beautiful homestead, donated, gave away and packed our belongings, and left the cold, snowy New York Catskill mountains to board a plane to Florence. For the past 5 months, we have now lived in a tiny mountain village in the Mugello Valley, also known as the “Farm of Florence”. Here, we are now looking for a new property to start a Permaculture Homestead, a demo site, and a productive farm on.

Last week, a reluctant real estate agent stopped me in my tracks when he asked:

“If the land is really that important, what exactly are you looking for?”

– Franco, The Reluctant Real Estate Agent

Well, I have been asking him for three weeks to show me some of his own properties but he is afraid I am just wasting his time (despite us living in an expensive rental and I am dying to get my hands in the ground again and have chickens…) so telling him “I will know when I see it” won’t cut it, but how do you exactly describe what you are looking for in a piece of land. So, I thought, I am going to share with you my criteria on what to look out for when you are considering buying your own property.

How Much Land Do You Need (For A Permaculture Homestead)?

One of the first questions always is: how much land are you looking for? Well, that is a loaded question because the answer is: “It depends … on a lot of things”: on your goals, your climate, your neighbors, the piece of land itself, and so many other things. I have seen extremely well-planned and executed urban Permaculture homesteads on less than 0.3 acres (check out Edible Acres YouTube channel for some inspiration) while Sepp Holzer’s mountain farm has 45 hectares. Let’s take it apart by looking at our goals. We are looking to:

  • Create a Permaculture design site, host Permaculture workshops, and create Permaculture Design solutions for local residents and expats,
  • Create a sustainable agritourism location with one or two off-grid geodesic domes or yurts (since we are 44 minutes train ride away from Florence and a few minutes or one train station over from Giotto’s birthplace, this is the ideal location to stay for a few days, enjoy Florence and the stunning Tuscan countryside),
  • Build a homestead/farm with a very diverse offering:
    • Raise meat chickens (in Europe, you cannot simply go into a supermarket and buy kosher meat and while it is available in special stores and raised a lot better than a lot of the meat found in the US, it isn’t the quality of meat I prefer (organic, free-range, heritage birds)),
    • Make olive oil and kosher wine,
    • Possibly raise deer for venison and have bees for honey, and
    • Grow our own veggies.
  • Buy as much land as we can afford to preserve and protect it from being developed (I know this is very ambiguous, but in the local context where properties are either sold with a small flower garden or huge sections of family farms, this makes sense),

My point is: examine your own goals and situation and decide how much land do you need to reach your goals and how much are you willing to “just let sit” (in Permaculture, we call this Zone 5 or the “wild child”). We would like somewhere between 2-3 hectares (5 to 7.5 acres) of land that we would “use” to some degree (1 hectare for vineyards and olive grove with a sheep/chickens rotation plus 1 hectare of the pasture, food forest, and camping site) – the rest will remain untouched or only visited for plant walks, forest therapy, some herb foraging, and so on.

What Is Your Water Situation On The Property?

Here in the Mugello Valley, we are in a very mountainous area (450 meters or 1500 feet) in a Mediterranean climate. There are plenty of streams, but a lot of them dry out to a trickle by the end of March. However, in Tuscany, 100% of municipalities are at risk of hydrogeological instability. Italy has a long history of devastating landslides, floods, and other catastrophic events – and the modern change in farming practices only increased the risk further.

Street damaged by flooding

Having clean useable water available while also having the ability to extremely carefully manage the water on my property is paramount to me. For example, I would not buy a property downhill from a commercial farm. Or in a valley that is at risk of landslides because the forest has been recently cut or is badly damaged.

When I am looking at a piece of land, I carefully examine its position within its surrounding watershed:

  • Where is the water coming from that feeds my well or my water source?
  • Is there a possibility of creating a small dam or pond to store water?
  • In a catastrophic rain event (we already had one with 65mm in several hours in November – the average rainfall is 113mm that month), how would the water flow?
  • How much water would I potentially have flowing through my property and how?
  • Are there any signs I can decern when visiting the property that points to damaging water issues?
  • Are there any signs of massive erosion or washouts?
  • What plats or trees are there that give away constantly wet areas?

For other drier climates, you might need to watch out for potential water storage solutions – but you always want to make sure you have water and you do the best you can to control where necessary, and if possible conserve, pacify, and soak it in.

What Is The Current Access Like?

Just as water, access is critical. Last week, we viewed a stunning 30-hectare property but it was only accessible by driving 15 minutes on a so-called strada bianca, a dusty unpaved mountain road that is so narrow it should only be one way but isn’t. The owner was telling us that in 2008, the property was cut off from the outside world for 20 days because of snow. But as I mentioned before, washed-out streets and landslides are completely normal, so this is something to consider when looking at the land.

You also want to consider any roads on or through the property. Maybe you have a larger road, a river or a another obstacle (I looked once at the property that had a massive ravine smack on in the middle of it) cut through a section of the land. This hinders you from gaining easy access to parts of your property. In our area here, we need to figure out access to and from the mountains. Often, terracing or some carefully planned earthwork is needed to gain access – but all this can be expensive and labor-intensive.

As you walk the property, notice if there are any trails or hiking paths in place. You should also always check for right of access deeds on the property you are intending to purchase.

How Is It Located In Relation To Other Important Infrastructure?

You know the old real estate saying: location, location, location. Of course, where the property is, is important. Tuscany is a lot more expensive and sought-after than other parts of the country. It is also important how close the nearest supermarket/hospital/train station/airport, your childrens’ school etc. it is. Don’t forget to consider the current location of existing structures. Is there already a barn or a shed? Where are they located in relationship to the house, access, and water source? What needs to be repaired or replaced and what is usable?

Finally, to me, it is very important that I am not on top of my neighbors and I can feel peaceful (no road-noise, etc.) so the size of the property really depends on the location of the house and how the land is situated. For example, the 30-hectare property I just mentioned was situated in a way that in two directions you “owned” everything as far as the eye could see. But the property was an old family farm with an adjacent barn next to the main house that was sold and created an “island” within the property. Not ideal – especially, since you had to drive through his property the get to yours and he had two dirt bikes, a massive dog, and huge, tarp-covered fences. No, thank you.

I hope this is helpful as you consider what is important when finding your piece of land. What other criteria are you considering? What is important to you? Please share in the comments – I would love to hear it.

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