Monday, May 21, 2012

Going Country: Moving Rural for Self-Reliance

When I was asked to be involved in the panel discussion The Women of Prepping at the Self-Reliance Expo, I was offered an additional opportunity to give another talk, subject of my choice. I decided to give a talk entitled "Going Country: Moving Rural for Self-Reliance."

This talk was a shortened distilled version of my ebooklet Moving to the Country offered on for $2, but tweaked a little to be specifically geared toward Preppers.

I promised a number of listeners I would post the text of the talk, so here it is.

Going Country: Moving Rural for Self-Reliance

Good afternoon. My name is Patrice Lewis, and I homestead twenty acres in north Idaho with my family, trying to live a self-sufficient lifestyle.

I’ll be talking about moving to the country in order to become as self-reliant as possible. The focus of my talk is not about the feasibility of you leaving your urban environment – whether you can afford it, whether it’s better to stick it out in the suburbs, or all the reasons why you can’t leave your job or your friends. Instead, this talk is directed at those who have already made the decision to move rural in order to become better prepared for an uncertain future.

May I see a show of hands for those who already live a homesteading lifestyle?

Now may I see a show of hands for those who live urban or suburban, but who want to live a homesteading lifestyle?

It’s for folks like YOU that this talk is directed. I’m working on the assumption you’re interested in moving to the country in order to become as self-sufficient as possible through homesteading, rather than moving to the country just for the pretty views.

There have been endless discussions about how to bug out to a rural retreat. I’ve read stuff on the best routes out of the city when the bleep hits the fan, the types of transportation, what you should put in your bug-out bags, and how you should stock your rural retreat.

I've read much, much less on what the heck you do once you GET to your rural retreat. Not much is written about the long-term sustainability of your bug-out. In short, for long-term societal interruptions, you don’t just need a rural bug-out; you need a homestead.

A homestead is not just a place in the country, it’s a place where you can potentially grow a huge garden, raise fruit trees, acquire livestock, defend against two- and four-legged marauders, and otherwise survive indefinitely.

A Brief History
As a brief history, my husband and I left urban Sacramento back in 1992, shortly after we were married. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do, but we did know that the city wasn’t where we wanted to be. We didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives listening to traffic and sirens and fighting neighbors, getting tied up on highways and buying all our food from grocery stores.

Above all, we didn’t want to be the type of couple who would be married for fifty years, only to look at each other on our golden anniversary and say, “If only.” If only we’d moved to the country. If only we’d raised our future kids on a farm.

At the time, we were both working professionals and between us we made about $70,000/year – a very respectable sum for a young childless couple in the early 90’s. We were able to pay off our student loans and car payments without much effort, as well as save up a nest egg of about $5000. In short, we were sitting pretty financially.

What I had no way of knowing was it was the prettiest we were to sit, financially, ever again.

At that time, we had the rare insight to realize we were at a critical juncture in our lives. With no kids and no debts, when would we ever have a more opportune time to jump ship and move rural?

We considered staying in California, but land prices were too high. And even back then, we could see the regulatory nightmare on the horizon for the Golden State. So on the excuse of sending me to graduate school, we found an inexpensive fixer-upper on four acres in rural southwest Oregon. I’m not exaggerating when I say we bought the land and they threw the house in for free. The house could only be charitably described as a shack. Built in 1874, it encompassed every interior decorating disaster spanning five decades. When I told friends how to find our place, I would tell them to look for the house from The Beverly Hillbillies, before Beverly Hills. But the property was enchanting and we fell in love with it.

We knew we were giving up lot when we left California and moved to Oregon. We were giving up our jobs. Our friends. Proximity to our families. Our careers. Our regular paycheck.

Even more interesting, we surrendered to a surprising extent the respect of our families. Our parents wondered what on earth were we doing, giving up dependable careers and a nice income? Those of you whose parents started life poor and climbed their way into the middle class know what I’m talking about. To watch their children deliberately reverse course and voluntarily opt for a life without financial security seemed to them stark raving insane.

But that was okay. We were young, in love, naïve, and entirely dedicated to the idea that we knew what we were doing.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing we didn't know what we were doing, because had we known what was in front of us, we might never have left the city.

Bottom line, we went from a great income to nothing. Zilch, zero, zero, nada, nothing. For five months we had no job, no money, no prospects. The employment opportunities my husband optimistically thought would drop into his lap never materialized. I was in graduate school full time and accruing student loan debt. Our savings account quickly disappeared. We often lived on our credit cards. Any hopeful plans we had for fixing up our little slice of rural paradise were shelved. Rather than replacing the roof which leaked like a sieve during wet Oregon winters, we put bowls on the floor to catch the drips.

Desperate for income, my husband took his hobby – woodworking – and turned it into a highly specialized niche business making hardwood drinking mugs. We hit the road and peddled them at Renaissance Faires and Oktoberbests. We worked seventy and eighty hour weeks, trying to keep our heads above water. Livestock was out of the question – we couldn’t afford to fix up the infrastructure we needed, such as barns and fences, plus we were away from home too much selling our wares to be able to care for livestock, which we couldn’t afford anyway.

It was a brutally hard time of our lives. It would have been so easy to give it up and move back to the city… so easy. But we didn’t. We had the teeth-clenching determination to succeed because more than anything in the world, we wanted to live in the country.

For ten years we lived in poverty.  No health insurance, even through the hospital births of both our daughters and the partial amputation of my husband’s thumb on the bandsaw. Ten years of never buying new clothes or eating in a restaurant.

When our girls were born, we were already accomplished students of thrift, but raising babies added a whole new element to living cheap. We had hospital bills to pay off as well as the emergency room for patching up my husband’s hand, so spending money on things like disposable diapers and lots of toys was out of the question. Daycare was impossible (and we didn’t want it anyway), so when I graduated with my master’s degree, I worked nights as a field biologist and my husband worked days in the shop. It’s amazing, really, how little money it takes to raise children when you simply don’t have money to waste.

But gradually things got better. We transitioned our business from retail to wholesale and got off the road. A few years after our daughters were born, I came home for good and split the hours in the shop with my husband, and our business truly became a family affair.

After ten years in Oregon, we moved to Idaho in 2003, where we found a twenty-acre homestead with a house and outbuilding for $115,000. We’ve been there ever since, and can’t imagine being anywhere else.

But rural living doesn’t have to be as hairy and difficult as we made it. You simply need to strip away your rose-colored glasses and approach the subject with far more maturity and realism than we did.

In other words, do what I say, not what we did.
* * *
There are a number of things to do before, during, and after purchasing rural property. Let’s look at these in order.

Before Buying Rural Property
Okay, you’ve decided you’re going to take the leap and get out of the city. But such drastic measures require mature planning and intelligent forethought, rather than impulse and rosy dreams. What should you do first?

Get out of debt. I can hear the groans of dismay right now, but let me tell you, you don’t want to be dragging the leg shackles of credit card bills, student loans, and car payments along with you to the country. Your income is likely to take a tremendous drop, but bills don’t go away. Contrary to popular belief, country living is not necessarily cheap, especially in the beginning. So buckle down, live on beans and rice, cut up your credit cards, and work like mad to get rid of the debt. Believe me, you’ll probably build up more debt when you move anyway – don’t handicap your efforts even further by bringing along several maxed-out credit cards.

A corollary to that is to leave as cheaply as possible, starting NOW. Frugal living is fun and creative, but you won’t be able to embrace it if you look at it as a constant string of deprivation.

Find ways to make money from home. One of the first things we realized about country living was the importance of working from home. It might sound oh-so romantic and fun to set your own hours and theoretically stay in your pajamas all day, but it goes much further than that.

Working from home means you bring your work with you. It means you’re not tied by an umbilical cord of employment to a city job. It means you don’t have to commute long distances and/or through adverse weather conditions with high gas prices. It means you can look far enough away from urban hubs that you can buy twenty acres and a house for $115,000.

Most people in rural areas don’t do just one thing to earn money. They have many irons in the fire. Some hold down two or three part-time local jobs. Some have many creative ways to earn money at home. It’s the rare but lucky individual who can take his city wages with him in the country and telecommute. But developing income from different sources has a major advantage: if one income stream dries up, you’re not absolutely destitute.

The topic of working from home is huge and beyond the scope of this talk, so I’ll just touch on it briefly here.

Finding a niche and filling it might sound like a cliché, but it’s true. Look at your skills and interests and see what can be transitioned into multiple streams of income. Be realistic in what you think people might be willing to pay you for. YOU might have a fascination with hand-painting pastel ceramic dragons, but do you realistically think enough OTHER people will like them so much that you can support yourself? Unlikely. But maybe you can teach ceramics, or teach music, or do desktop publishing, or computer data recovery, or other skills you already possess which could possibly bring in money. Start thinking about that now.

Broaden your skills. Before you make your move, start learning to pressure-can green beans, handle a chainsaw, shoot a rifle, learn carpentry, and grow a garden. Read up on plumbing and wiring, on livestock care and fencing. Start developing a library. Start learning skills that will be marketable in a rural environment.

Make a bucket list of what you want in your rural property, and know what’s negotiable and what is not. After talking with sixty or seventy realtors during the course of buying our Idaho property, I learned they don’t necessarily try to find property that suits your needs. Rather, they take the properties they have available and try to convince you it suits your needs. I can’t fault realtors – they can only sell properties that are available, not create ideal properties out of thin air – but it means you have to know what hill you’re willing to die on vs. where you can compromise.

Decide what kind of climate and terrain suits you. Some people love heat, others prefer cold. Some like arid deserts, others like oceans or mountains or forest. There’s nothing wrong with anyone’s preference and there’s plenty of land to suit all our tastes. But keep in mind one critical thing: this is not a vacation home you’re buying. This is, conceivably, the land that may keep you alive if the bleep hits the fan. To that effect, avoid extremes in terrain or climate that make true homesteading impossible. Deep forests or arid deserts are breathtakingly beautiful, but not practical for growing wheat or raising cattle or planting orchards or other self-sustaining ambitions, at least not without immense effort, time, and of course money.

While Buying Rural Property
Okay, you’re ready to jump ship and move rural. You’ve found the part of the country that interests you. You have several pieces of property bookmarked to visit with a realtor. What now?

Research the local, state, and federal laws that might affect you personally. This could include homeschooling laws, wetlands requirements, livestock or building restrictions, CC&R’s, gun laws, eminent domain issues, timber, water, and mineral rights, liens, rights-of-way, and other issues. Remember, just because you’re buying a piece of rural property doesn’t mean you’re exempt from state and local laws.

Consider whether your targeted property is suitable for your long-term goals. If you want to farm, don’t buy desert land or property that’s completely forested or on a steep mountainside. Don’t get swept up with the beauty of a parcel without realistically assessing whether it will be useful. And for God’s sake, NEVER buy land sight-unseen.

I recently heard a radio commercial for forty-acre “ranches” in mid-state Washington. The descriptions sounded glorious. But what they didn’t tell you was this land is nothing but dry scrub unable to support agriculture except with extensive irrigation, and water rights don’t come with the property. The land parcels were cheap because they were useless for much of anything except for someone to brag they own forty acres. Take it from me, you’ll wear yourself out trying to turn unproductive land into a homestead without a huge amount of money and labor. The same applies to a parcel that’s heavily forested. Forests don’t support farms. Remember, you’ve got to think realistically about your targeted property.

Consider buying property with an existing habitable structure, rather than bare land. Bare land is wildly expensive. Oh, not for the initial purchase – that can often be seductively low – but it’s expensive to bring in power or rig up alternative energy, build something to live in, and create the infrastructure you might need for homestead, such as barns and fences.

Also, buying land with an existing and habitable structure means you’re less likely to face bureaucratic nightmares from government officials who can restrict your activities due to wetlands, endangered species, or other red tape if you try to build on bare ground. Don’t be ashamed to start small or humbly – you have to start somewhere. If your new home is a butt-ugly shack – well, you can always build something nicer later on. But in the meantime, it’s good to have a roof over your head.

Adjust your expectations. Too many books, magazines, websites, and blogs emphasize the beauty and simplicity of rural life without considering that country living is not all sunshine and moonbeams and mystic crystal revelations. To paraphrase Murphy, if something CAN go wrong, it will. When newbies are faced with complications, they often become disillusioned and disheartened, and eventually return to their “simpler” life in the city.

Water water water. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough – your land MUST have water. How deep is it? How clean is it? Is there a well? A spring? Is the supply consistent? Are there usage restrictions? Will you face wetlands violations if you plow that field? Who owns the water rights? What about irrigation? If you haven’t got enough water and can’t afford to get more, your chances of having a successful farm or homestead is virtually nil.

Learn the politics. Be careful about moving to where the political climate is the polar opposite of your own. Just saying.

Family members, especially your spouse, must be on board. A bitter and complaining spouse will ruin your experience and, possibly, your marriage. And don’t think that moving rural will necessarily “save” your teenage children who are heading down the wrong path. Yanking three mall-oriented teens out of the mall and into a rural environment can result in rebellion and resentment, not wholesome goodness. Try to move while the kids are young and more adaptable. Or, if you do have older reluctant teens, give them goals: “You can do X once you accomplish Y.” We have neighbors who told their three teenage boys they couldn’t get their driver’s licenses until they’d completed their Eagle Scout.

Consider renting for awhile in your targeted area. I know everyone is impatient and you want to start your homestead as soon as possible; but by renting for anywhere from a few months to a year, you can discover a number of critical things. Perhaps the weather or climate isn’t suitable after all. Perhaps the politics in your region are not to your liking. Perhaps other problems are more widespread than you anticipated. If such is the case, you can leave without having irrevocably committed all your efforts into a piece of property. But renting can also provide additional benefits. You can explore the area at your leisure and target specific locations or properties that interest you. You can begin to get involved in local functions or organizations, and spread the word about the type of land you’d like to buy. You can start making friends.

Do NOT overburden yourself with too high a mortgage, because it’s almost guaranteed that your income will drop when you move to the country. What might be perfectly affordable on your old paycheck may not be affordable on a country income. Better to buy a cheap fixer upper and spend years slowly improving it, than buying something shiny and pretty and too expensive.

Consider the potential for defense for your new property. Ideally you want someplace well off the main roads but with open views – and this does NOT mean perched on a hillside in full view of everyone. If you’re totally surrounded by trees, you don’t have clear lines of fire if you’re being attacked. But bear in mind, total isolation can be almost as deadly as city living. No man is an island, and if you’re too far away from others, no one can hear you scream if you’re under siege. Ideally you can band together with neighbors to help defend your area.

How close is your new homestead to a major city, and how easy is it to get from here to there? Living close to a city has advantages like access to supplies and entertainment, but if the bleep hits the fan, that city can be your worst nightmare. There are many experts on security, far more expert than I am, and some of the best are right here at this Expo (be sure to seek their counsel). But my point is not to forget security when purchasing rural property.

After You Buy Your Rural Property
Congratulations, you’re now the proud owner of a piece of rural paradise! Now what?

Do not bite off more than you can chew. Too many newbies think they can “do it all” their first year on the farm. They try to build a house and barn, get chickens, cows, goats, and pigs, plant a garden, drill a well, fence forty acres of pasture, cut and split eight cords of firewood, in addition to homeschooling four young children and trying to make some money from a home craft business. Then they wonder why they’re stressed, exhausted, and broke. Unless you can devote yourself full-time to developing a homestead, I would suggest no more than one, perhaps two major projects per year. That way you can take the time and energy to do it right without killing yourself.

Concentrate on infrastructure before you get livestock. Animals need protection from weather and predators, and they also need to be kept where you want them to be. Before you buy a cow or baby chicks, have a barn, corral, fences, coop, or whatever ready to go. In other words, at least in this case, don’t put the cart before the horse.

Remember, you might be able to store garden seeds for the long-term, but you can’t store livestock. Chickens or cows are a little reluctant to get vacuum-packed and put in storage. Better to move to your rural place now, get your livestock, plant your garden, and learn the art of self-sufficiency – so you have it when you need it.

Two rules of country living: Leave a gate the way you found it, and never let your dogs roam.

Learn how homesteading is an interconnected circle. Livestock can provide you with milk, eggs, and meat; composted manure enriches your garden, scraps of which can be fed to livestock. The whole thing is a beautiful circle, but it takes awhile to achieve. And in the beginning, that circle can be quite delicate and easily broken.

Preparedness is a three-legged stool: supplies, knowledge, and community. Presumably you’re all doing pretty well in the supplies section; but knowledge of how to sustain yourself indefinitely from the fruits of your labors takes awhile to acquire; so do friendly and supportive relationships with neighbors in your new area. Your emphasis on rural property should be on how to grow or raise your own food, and you need the knowledge and equipment to do that. But no one can go it alone. You don’t want to be so remote that you’re isolated. We all get by with a little help from our friends, so cultivate a friendly relationship with everyone you can in your new community. Become involved, join local organizations, attend a local church, offer yourself to your community. You won’t regret it, but remember: all this takes time.

In short, there’s no time to lose! There comes a time when, after you’ve done all your research, you have to close your eyes, grit your teeth, and take the plunge. Don’t just endlessly talk about it – talk is useless. At some point you have to take the leap. This might mean taking losses in the city and jumping into the unknown.

Self-sufficiency takes time, effort, preparation, money, and experience. Better a year too early, as the saying goes, than a minute too late. Just know what you’re jumping into.

The biggest take-home lesson from this talk is this: your rural property should be productive, capable of potentially supporting you, reasonably defendable, and not so far from neighbors that you’re isolated in case you need help.

Remember, the people who know the most about country living and self-sufficiency are the ones who have never done it. The best way to learn about how little you know, is to jump in with both feet and start experiencing it.


  1. For most of my life, I've lived on the edge of small towns-semi-rural, I suppose you might call it, but a great deal of my friends and family lived in very rural areas, on marginal land and even more marginal housing. I was-still am- a source of materials/labor, though not as frequently as in the past. I got a lot of practice on.."engineered materials"..adapting things to purposes for which they were not designed,and salvaging "good junk"( Salvage 1 Jeep and trailer). Sometimes, things fall in your lap. A $2 flea market RV battery isolator becomes the inspiration for a van-charged 12 volt shack electrical system("Batteryhaus").
    A lot of what you say rings bells-I've seen hardship and difficult lessons learned(participated in some). Sometimes,there's just no easy option-dental care usually consists of fill or pull-spending 1/8 of a year's income on one tooth for extensive repair just isn't practical. More than a few of my friends and family are missing teeth.
    You cannot plea bargain with The Laws of Physics, or Murphy's Law.
    Despite all the hardships, I never heard any of them mention wanting to move back into town. Am I moving outta town?-you bet....
    Side note-is it me, or do things get named more often out in the woods? We named almost everything-vehicles, homes, machinery..just wondered.

  2. Great post! We are ready to take the full-time plunge into the city, as soon as our house sells. It's on the market now. It's a HUGE, SCARY step, but we're going for it and are very excited!! Of course, we've had our land for nearly 12 years now, but to live in the middle of a forest will be very interesting!

    I guess we'll be the city folk in the middle of Redneckville! :-)


  3. Get a ham radio license, used equipment, learn to use the equipment and find the call signs of all of the other hams in your area.
    This is the greatest security tool you can have in rural environment.

  4. Thank you for emphasizing WATER. So many people don't realize how precious water becomes on a homestead! When I lived in Montana, I saw several wanna-be homesteaders move into the area and then realize they didn't own the water on or under their newly bought property. Most of them did not last long!
    My FIRST priority, before ANYTHING else as we are looking for our property is WATER. I have even told the realtors we talk to that we MUST have at least TWO water sources on the property.

    1. Water and SOIL. And if there is a well, what is the output? Very important! Check with neighbors. Also look at the soil. The property can look lovely and lush and green (trees and prairie grass and tall weeds), but if you dig down a foot, and you find gravel -like from an old gravel bed - or clay, you won't have topsoil for farming or gardening. There may be a REASON the land is so cheap.

      Been there. Done that. We are financially invested in a lovely piece of property overlooking a river and a mountain range. Looks like Paradise -and to us it is. BUT -have had to bring in loads and loads of expensive topsoil just to have raised veggie beds because we live on an old glacier bed. Gravel, gravel, and more gravel!

      We would love to have an in-ground garden area/field on our 5 acres, but it is not possible. So we must garden in raised beds and greenhouses and hope we can sustain ourselves if bad comes to worse.

      Of course, when we left the city 17 years ago, we were just looking for a beautiful country place to raise the kiddos and never really anticipated the economic conditions of today.

      So be careful out there, and look before you leap. DO have fun and DO enjoy your solitude and country life. It is wonderful in spite of the mistakes we made. And at least we left the really deep gravel behind in the city!

    2. I recently watched a movie that might interest you. Its about a family that left the rat race of the city and moved to the country. Only to find that there was very little water. He found his answers to his problems. Maybe you will too. Here is the web site and you can watch the movie for free., Killerwales

  5. All in all good advice. On the topic of climate, consider that it's easier (more options/less costly) to provide heat than it is to provide air conditioning. It's also much better to have consistently good rainfall than to risk major droughts or install extensive irrigation. Consider appalacia (GA to NY) for a supportive rural climate. Also get used to driving a 4WD vehicle. You'll need at least one to navigate muddy or snowy rural roads and to maintain your property. However, everything is farther apart in the country, so a second, very fuel-efficient vehicle that you can drive when the weather is cooperating is advised as well.

  6. Excellent article!!

  7. Beautifully well said! Great summary of what to do. I couldn't have said it better myself! We recently ran back to the city after our self-sufficiency/farming disaster. I think point for point we almost did *everything* on your list wrong! (Except starting out debt-free; we did start that way, but still ended up broke - and not due to our investment!) Raising babies in the middle of nowhere with no decent medical care is HARD! Especially so when you are also trying to run a farm with a 100-yr old house and livestock. Hopefully God will give us another opportunity to grow a homestead someday and next time we will be a lot more humble about the prospects! And we will use these tips. Thanks! :)

  8. Beautifully well said! Great points and excellent summary!
    Wish we would've read this three years ago! Although we did start out debt free I think we did the exact opposite of every other step you listed. And it was a *disaster*!
    We were living such an isolated existence on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere - raising BABIES. And, as a first time "farmer," I also thought we could handle cattle. My husband worked 50+ hours a week - plus commute-time over an hour into the "city." And then I suffered an incapacitating back injury.
    Last month we tucked tail and scurried back to the city.
    Hopefully someday God will give us another opportunity to homestead... someday. Next time we are going to be a lot less prideful, though! We thought we could do it alone - without any friends, family or community nearby.
    But we found out real quick that the self-sufficient lifestyle is anything but "SELF" because Life is so dependent upon OTHERS.

  9. Thank you for this honest, eye-opening post! My husband and I long to move to the country, but I admit we have a lot to learn from your story. Thank you! I just emailed him a link to this story so he can read it and we can have some good talks to make the right decision at the right time!

  10. Beware of cheap land. Cheap land could have the soil over that is over worked and salt lanced. Salt is a mineral that is brought up out the soil because of watering. Cheap land may be a product of big farming business, read commercial.