Finding land that is ideal for a homestead or a permaculture farm can be a challenging endeavour. While there are some similarities with agricultural land the criteria isn’t going to be exactly the same. Here are some of the main points to take into consideration when hunting for that  perfect homestead property. By no means is this an exclusive list, as everyone will have different needs and wants, but it is a good starting point. I’ve included some general information and questions to ask yourself for each one as well as our personal preferences.

Location
Water
Topography
Windbreaks
Size
Vegetation
Pre-Developed vs. Raw Land
Soil
Building Sites and Road Access
Surrounding Businesses, Farms, and Infrastructure
Local Climate
Previous Land Use

Location

How far from a major center or small town is best for you? Is there a certain direction or area away from a main city that is more desirable? Do you want to be extremely close to a big city or is a secluded country lifestyle more to your liking? The further away from a major city a piece of land is located the less it usually costs per acre but amenities and services are also further away. We wanted to be about 30-45 minutes west or southwest of Edmonton ( a major center); far enough away from the city to escape the hustle and bustle but not so far that commuting was out of the question. We could afford a larger parcel of land further away from Edmonton but wanted to be close enough that marketing our products in the city or inviting people out for an afternoon U-pick would still be a reasonable drive. We also looked at growing zone and rainfall maps and noticed that west and southwest of Edmonton was in a warmer area and had more precipitation than north or east of the city.  An added bonus to moving west of Edmonton was that it would put our home closer to the mountains and the recreational opportunities we enjoy. Back to list

Water

Water is one of the most important aspects to consider when looking for land. Will you need water for personal use only or will you need to irrigate or water livestock? Are there clean reliable sources of water available and if so how much will it cost to develop them? We knew we would need water for both personal use and for livestock. We wanted both good well water and some sort of surface water, ideally a stream but a slough or pond would also be acceptable if the water was decent. Back to list

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Here, a small spring fed creek runs through the property and is surrounded by lush vegetation. Using google maps we were able to see that beavers have dammed this area in the past, increasing the spread of the water.

Topography


The physical features of the land itself are very important. Is it flat or sloped? Both can have advantages and disadvantages. In a lot of ways, flat makes for easier planning and layout, while slope can be used to capture and move water around a property. Access roads and other infrastructure can be more challenging and costly to develop when working with slope. Does the property have a low lying area that contains a risk for flooding? South-facing slope in the northern hemisphere receives more sunshine and heats up a bit more while north-facing slope has the opposite characteristic of being shaded and, therefore, cooler. We wanted a property with south-facing slope so we could take advantage of a warmer and sunnier property, especially in the winter. Slope would also allow us to use gravity to passively move water around the property.
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Wind Breaks

This is something that is critical in our area, but often overlooked.  Sometimes the difference between a cool day and a miserably cold day is as simple as being out of the wind. I am amazed at how often I see people build new houses up on a hill out in an open field simply for the view. These people fail to recognize how miserable being outside in the winter and spring is when the wind is blowing cold. Establishing a decent windbreak takes many years because plants grow better out of the wind, meaning the very trees that you need for the wind break will grow slower because they themselves have no windbreak. Finding property with existing wind breaks is optimal. Since we were especially concerned with the prevailing cold north and northwest winter winds, we specifically focused on looking for established trees to shelter this side of the property and potential building sites. Back to list

Size

The size of the property you are looking for will depend a lot on what you want to use it for. Some people may be fine with smaller plots even a ¼ acre can produce quite an abundance of food. For most homesteaders in our climate 5 acres would suffice. We were looking for 20 acres or more because we know that we want to produce an agricultural income from the property eventually and want to have enough land to leave our options open. Back to list

Vegetation

What sort of vegetation grows on the property? Are there lots of trees or almost none? At first, a bare field might seem like a good idea because it is a clean slate but remember that growing trees and windbreaks can take years. Starting from scratch is a ton of work. The flip side of this would be a fully treed property. Sure you can clear trees but this is also a lot of work. Unless the trees can be sold as timber, removal is most likely going to be costly. We were looking for a mix of trees and pasture. Existing trees can create windbreaks and favorable growing conditions for desirable plants. The existing trees can provide firewood, timber for building structures, and are great wildlife habitat. Having some pasture would also allow us to start with grazing animals right away if we wanted.
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This property has a 50/50 mix of trees and pasture. There are also a few south-facing slopes with potential to create micro climates. This small patch of trees was too wet to cultivate and may be a good location for a pond.

Pre-Developed vs. Raw Land


There are some big advantages to buying land with preexisting structures like houses or shops. Usually for rural properties, with most of that work already done, buying pre-developed property is going to be cheaper than building the exact same structures from scratch. The big draw back with pre-developed property is that most land owners don’t build with a homesteading or permaculture mindset which makes finding the perfect set up for your needs unlikely. If a building or other infrastructure isn’t well suited for your needs it is often expensive and time consuming to fix the issue. Some challenges, such as building location, may be practically an impossibility to fix. We preferred to build from scratch, since doing so would give us more flexibility, but we didn’t completely rule out a pre-developed property either. Back to list

Soil

A perfect loam  or sandy loam soil would, obviously, be optimal for most peoples needs but a property with perfect soil that also meets your other criteria is hard to find. Luckily, soil is one aspect that you can quickly improve. A few years of rotational grazing or intensive green manure cropping can make a huge difference in the quality of soil.  We were fairly flexible with soil types on the property. As long a variety of healthy native plants were growing on the property already we wouldn’t be too concerned whether the soil was clay, sandy/gravelly or loam. Back to list

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All throughout the property we discovered thriving native plants. While the soil in the hay field had little organic matter from repetitive cultivation, the tree lines and treed areas had plenty of humus and were rich with plant life.

Building Sites and Road Access


Where are the good building sites on the property? Are they near the road? Is the land conducive to easy installation of access roads like driveways or is building these going to be difficult? Is there power or other services along the road? Bringing in services, like power, from a long distance is expensive. We wanted a property with services like gas and power along the road. Not requiring an excessively long or difficult-to-build driveway to the potential building sites was also important. We may still decide to build off grid but at least if the services are nearby we have the option to hook up. Back to list

Surrounding Businesses, Farms, and Infrastructure

There are many other factors that can affect the desirability of a piece of land. Road noise, train tracks, loud or smelly businesses or agriculture operations are just a few examples. Is there pollution from industry or agriculture you need to be concerned with? We preferred to be near a highway for ease of access  but a major one that had constant high traffic volume was not appealing.  We also preferred to be in more of a ranching area rather then in an agricultural area where a lot of highly sprayed crops surrounded the property. Back to list

Local Climate

Even within a relatively short distance, variations in climate are possible, especially in mountainous areas. One thing we found when doing research was that west and southwest of Edmonton the winters were slightly milder and had higher precipitation than north or east of the city. This difference can actually be seen in the size and variety of trees if one is observant enough to look for it.
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Previous Land Use

Has the property been used for extensive chemical based agriculture? Are there other potential concerns from previous uses of the property. Chemicals do tend to break down over time but we preferred to look for properties that were already in pasture or weren’t being used for agriculture rather than land that was being used for conventional crop production like wheat or canola.
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Another view of the tree and pasture mixture, with the spring fed creek to the left. This field has been used for haying and the healthy vegetation around the edges of the field suggests that the chance harmful chemicals were used on this crop were low.

Want more clarification on any of these points, or think we missed something? Feel free to comment below with your thoughts!

In three newer blog posts I walk through a property we ended up buying and discuss some of these considerations as they apply to that specific piece of land: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.