Topography is the study of land forms, or the terrain. I goofed and used the word topography in a previous post when what I actually meant was terrain. In an ideal world, the terrain of your homestead would have relatively flat south-facing land, with some shelter from winds provided by hills or trees. The topsoil would be deep and erosion potential minimal. In the real world, things will be different. Steep slopes affect your ability to grow crops – running heavy equipment over sloping land increases your risk of an accident and plowing on slopes increases the potential for erosion. Steep slopes are often rocky as well. Low-lying flat land in a wet area will be more likely to flood. This sort of terrain may also have marshy areas and vernal pools, as well as chronic drainage problems. However, it may be an ideal place to dig a pond. Swamps and marshes are often rich in organic matter as erosion brings in topsoil and plants such as reeds and cattails die and decay.

Our Ranch Terrain

I mentioned in an earlier post that our location increases the chances of adequate rainfall over the long term. We are also high enough that we get snow most winters. Snow is better than heavy rain because it means less run-off and erosion. We don’t need to worry about floods (frankly, I consider anyone who builds right beside a river or anywhere in a known flood plain as mentally deficient). However, our land faces north, which means less sunlight. That’s why our kitchen garden is on a south-facing slope of the hill below the house. The terrain of the property is such that while we have some steep slopes, we also have gently sloped or flat areas good for pasture and orchards. Even the steeper slopes offer some grazing, and they are also where most of our trees grow.

Water and Terrain

In dry areas, my first criterion would be terrain that supports increased rainfall, as I noted in the previous post. Since that often means relatively steep slopes, study the work of farmers in Israel or the Far East, who create terraces on the hillsides to increase flat land with maximum sun exposure. Terraces also allow water collection when it does rain. Interconnected drainage systems between terraces promote better water distribution. In wet areas, terraces can reduce erosion by helping to prevent heavy runoff. Areas with poor drainage can be successfully reclaimed, although it often means a considerable investment of time, labor and money. Land is rarely perfectly flat, so trenches, canals and underground perforated pipes can move the excess water somewhere else.

Terrain – Hedgerows and Shelterbelts

Flat areas are more prone to erosion and may suffer from cold or harsh winds. If the land is flat and there are no hills, you can plant windbreaks to shield your home and garden from the wind. During the Dust Bowl years, the federal government planted millions of trees to form a shelterbelt reaching from Texas to Canada. Mixed flora windbreaks can also help support beneficial insects and pollinators. One of the best features of old rural England was the hedgerows. Full of nut and fruit trees, flowering shrubs, brambles and other vines, they offered food, cover for small animals and nesting spots for birds. Hedgerows also confined farm animals and could last for centuries if properly maintained. Hedgerows decrease the need for lumber or metal fencing and are – to my mind – infinitely more attractive.

Adapt Rather than Fight

My final word on terrain – work with what you’ve got. Accept that you cannot change the basic terrain and adapt accordingly. North-facing property? Make sure the kitchen garden faces south, preferably on a slight slope, to maximize sun exposure. Best house site is in the full glare of the summer all summer? Plant mixed deciduous trees for shade. Hilly pastures? Go for milk goats rather than cows. The goats can forage more effectively and will be less destructive to the ground. They also require less feed. Gullies from erosion? Improve the drainage and fill the gullies with brush or tree trimmings. The brush slows the force of running water and traps silt, which will gradually fill the gullies. You might not be able to change the terrain, but working with it results in a more productive and more beautiful homestead.

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Water Supply


No water supply, no homestead – it’s as simple as that. To which I will add, water pumped from far underground in this era of diminishing aquifers is a very risky proposition. The primary reason we bought this place is because of the water resources.

Water Rights

Water rights and water access were behind many of the range wars in the American Southwest. States vary in the laws regarding water rights. In most states, surface waters (lakes, streams, coastal waters) are publicly owned. Groundwater comes from underground aquifers and is privately owned. People who use groundwater cannot legally exhaust the water source or prevent other people from using it. You have a seasonal creek flowing through your property and want to dig a pond or make a dam? Make sure you are legally permitted to do so, as the dam will interfere with other peoples’ water access. In some areas you cannot build dams or change run-off patterns because it affects fish habitat. Never buy a property unless the water rights are spelled out. If there is a beaver dam on your property, treat it like the priceless jewel it is.

Water Supply and Storage

Our well pumps groundwater from a “house spring” that is around 65 feet deep. We could easily switch to hand pumping or use a bicycle-driven pump to fill cisterns and gravity-feed our house and garden water. The spring doesn’t recharge very fast, especially in the late summer. We supplement it with water storage tanks placed above the kitchen garden so we can gravity feed to the beds and containers. Water to fill these tanks currently comes from the big pond. One tank is on a trailer. We haul it to the pond using the backhoe, pump in water using a small gasoline submersible pump, and then pump it into the other tank. Then we go back and fill the tank on the trailer. This is not an ideal situation because it requires heavy equipment and fossil fuels. We’re planning a roof collection system and larger storage tanks to collect rainwater.


We flood irrigate the pastures and supply drinking water to the livestock from our “big spring” at the other end of the property. The big spring is an artesian water source that flows out of the hillside 100 feet or more above the level of the various pastures. Even in the worst drought years, it has consistently pumped better than 500 gallons of water a minute. Everything is gravity fed; irrigation is a matter of changing gates and doing a little shovel work. Runoff from this irrigation also provides summer water to the north orchard.

We have multiple springs that flow from the hillsides on our property. Some are seasonal and some year-round. They provide enough water to keep quite a lot of the annual and perennial grasses and forbs going during the summer months. The original owners of this property created ponds and catchment basins in various places to collect as much rainfall runoff as possible. I suspect many of them were dug/built using horsepower, just as the original irrigation system included hand-built wooden flumes. While most of them dry out in the summer and there is certainly evaporation loss, the soil absorbs much of the water.

Low-Water Homesteads

Money usually is an object, but whether you are rich or not rich, expect to spend it to assure your water supply. Accept that in order to secure adequate water, you will probably have to choose land that is less desirable overall. If rainfall is adequate but on the low side, plan on collecting rainwater into cisterns or storage tanks for your house, livestock and garden water. Cisterns can make a low-water homestead livable. A suitably located cistern can also provide you with gravity feed water for the house or water you can pump with a small solar pump.

Water Supply and Floods

Unless you want to be a desert hermit and have extensive skill in desert living, I would avoid homesteads in the American Southwest. Such places are already overpopulated from the water standpoint and will just get drier. The classic advice is to choose a place that has a year-round spring or creek. One downside of this advice is most land that fits the description has already been snapped up. Another is that real estate agents and the average homeowner have heard the classic advice and jacked up the price accordingly.

On the other side of the coin, the more humid eastern states may have adequate rainfall. Compared to the arid west, however, they are also much more susceptible to flooding. Coastal states must deal with storm surge. Flat states like Florida and Louisiana were originally swampland. Many low-lying areas in the south or California’s Central Valley are also prone to flooding.

Too Much Water

Even living in the mountains is no guarantee you won’t have a flood. Many years ago, a rain cell became trapped over an area near us where the elevation is close to 2000 feet. That cell dumped five inches of rain in one hour. A shallow gully caught a large proportion of the run-off and funneled it across a small vineyard and the state highway. The water was at least two feet deep. In flatter areas, rivers may go over the banks or levees fail. Just look at storm damage from hurricanes or the recent California floods to see how destructive too much water can be.

When it comes to water supply, apply the Goldilocks principle (just right). Give very careful thought to how you will manage either a dearth or an excess of water on your homestead.

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Choosing a Homestead


Many people dream of living in the country, and you can find plenty of information on choosing a homestead. In most cases, the writer seems to operate on the assumption that things in the world will be relatively stable and the focus is on location, soil quality, buildings and such. There’s no question there are some basics for everyone to consider, and we’ll cover those. But it seems to me, in this highly unstable day and age, that there are important considerations beyond the basics. Among these are societal trends, climate change and politics. I have written a number of posts and made predictions on where I see things going in our country, so my suggestions and recommendations reflect those opinions.

The Homestead and Climate Change

Whatever the climate in the area you’re evaluating, you should expect it to change within your lifetime. The rule of thumb so far seems to be that everything will get warmer, dry areas will get drier and wet areas will get wetter. To some extent, you can mitigate these problems with careful selection. Our ranch is located in the western California foothills near where the Cascade range and the Sierra Nevada range meet. Because it is on a west-facing slope, we have the advantage of a windward slope. That means we get more precipitation than a similar property located at the same elevation on the far side of the Central Valley.

Historically, average rainfall in this area is 35-45 inches. While we are still within the historical averages, the swings are much wider and generally trending downward. Again, historically, we get most of our annual rainfall between November and February. In the last eight years we have had more years of no-rainfall months in that time period than at any time in the historical records I have been able to dig up. When it does rain, we are now more likely to get bursts of very heavy rainfall in a short time interspersed with no rainfall. Luckily, we have a number of year-round springs that feed multiple ponds, which helps us collect and store the rainfall we do get.

The Homestead and Societal Change

Sadly, our society (along with many others) is becoming less civil, more angry, more violent and less cohesive. Groups with different agendas are stoking divisiveness and fanning the flames of hate and racism. While these are normal human responses to fear and uncertainty, it means there are more risks in day-to-day life. For all of those reasons, I strongly recommend you choose a place that is well away from a large town (by “large” I mean a population of 25,000 or more) and well off a major highway. Don’t even consider locating near a larger city. For similar reasons, I would choose a place well off the road.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should be aware that our civil liberties are under attack in many areas. Governments are getting involved in things that would horrify the men who developed the US. Constitution and created our democratic form of government. For example, if I were looking for property these days I would be very careful not to choose a state/community that thinks it’s OK to relocate immigrants using force or lies; ban books or control access by only allowing certain groups to provide reading material to children; interfere with the electoral process; storm the US capitol; treat people differently because of their skin color, ethnic background, gender or biological sex at birth; control what people eat or wear, or decide what sexual orientation people should have.

In my opinion, Robert A. Heinlein captured it best: “Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”

What Are the Basics?

Once you’ve considered the factors above, you can get into the day-to-day living aspects of choosing a homestead. These include climate, topography, vegetation, soil condition, water supply, access to the property, buildings on the site and the location of the homestead in relation to stores, schools, health care and other services. If I were ranking these, water supply would come first. After that, topography. Then climate, vegetation, soil condition, access to the property, buildings on the site and the proximity to shopping, schools and services. With the exception of water supply, most of these can be shuffled according to your particular situation. If you are on the older side and have health conditions such as heart disease, access to health care and a relatively flat stretch of land may rank higher for you. Parents of school-age children may place a higher priority on schools (although home-schooling is an option for almost everyone). In the next post, we’ll take these one at a time.

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