Our Fair Field


Your Country Lifestyle Will Be Different

ReneeIt’s Cheaper to Live in the Country… or Is It?

I have heard this so often I could gag. No! It is not cheaper to live in the country! If you are extremely handy and good at repairing things, if you have a double, triple green thumb and everything you plant grows in leaps and bounds, if you detest eating out or going to movies, and if you don’t mind wearing second-hand clothes you might be able to live in the country a bit cheaper than how you lived in the city. The bulk of your expenditure is going to be on gas and animal feed. You’re going to have vet bills. You might have to buy a truck load or two or three of water if you experience a drought. Tools and equipment, seed or sets cost money. If you have to hire someone to clean the chimney or service the air conditioner it costs you more because the technician charges you travel time. In town your acreage is comparatively small. Large acreage takes tractors, riding lawn mowers, and a host of other equipment. Some of it you can rent. Others you might need to buy. Let’s just say this right out loud: learn to be frugal or go broke. The good thing is once you’ve accumulated your infrastructure and learn how to take care of it you won’t have to buy a lot. After the initial start-up expenditures will go down.

ranch home
Photo by Pixabay

Shopping Is Different

The next thing that is very different from town life is the proximity of the store or the availability of goods. This is why Amazon is so popular with those who live in the country. The nearest decent store might be an hour or two away. You have to start compiling a list of supplies and postpone the trip until you have a lot of things to get all at once. It’s becomes quickly apparent that you can’t waste the gas or the time for one thing. Here’s a tip: when you go to the store (especially the hardware store) get two of everything. This is so when you need something you have a spare ready and waiting. This goes for animal feed, too. Always buy in bulk. Learn how to cook with creativity when you run out of an ingredient.

Health Services Are Different

If you live way out in the sticks you will have to fend for yourself most of the time. If you’re smart you will buy a rider on your insurance policy for helicopter medical service. We had an old gentleman fall off his horse once and get stomped by a cow. His ear was hanging by a thread and his arm was hanging limply by his side. And yet, despite this, he said, no, I’ll drive myself to the emergency room. He didn’t have health insurance much less a rider on his policy for a Medevac. We didn’t let him, of course, and his dog stood in front of his truck and wouldn’t budge so the old man couldn’t go anywhere. But we knew that it was futile to call for an ambulance because the ambulance would be slower than letting him drive himself to the hospital. We cleaned him up and drove him to the hospital ourselves. But what if his injuries had been life threatening?

Exercise Is Different

You don’t realize how much driving you will actually do. In the city you walk more. You walk home. Maybe up-hill if you live in a hilly city. You walk to the bus. You walk to the corner store. You might walk to your neighbors. The gym is close by. In the country you hardly walk at all. The kind of exercise you get in the country is the “weight” lifting kind. Lifting hay bales. Lifting water buckets. Lifting animals. Pulling weeds. Hauling lumber and fence posts. You can get as much aerobic exercise as you want but you have to make it happen.  You can take up cross country skiing, off road biking or running. Your lifestyle will not naturally enfold this type of exercise. You will have to make it happen yourself.

The House Is the Same

I write only a paragraph about the house because the house is like any other house you might want to buy, city or country alike. The things to investigate are the same things you would investigate if you were buying a home in the city. City or country but especially country, I counsel my buyers to purchase a home warranty policy. This kind of policy covers smaller things like the air conditioner, dishwasher, and well. When we bought our property I am glad we had a home warranty. The day we moved in the pump on the well failed. Instead of paying thousands we only paid a little over $1,000.

The Right Agent Is a Necessity

Once you’ve determined your area, have your must-have list and your finance ducks in a row then it’s time to find a good real estate professional from the area you want to look at. I don’t like to malign members of my profession but not all real estate agents are created equally. Most agents sell homes in the city. They don’t know anything more about country property than you do and the house is not the most important part of your country property. When you look at the listings on the search engines you might see a description that says it’s great property for livestock but no pictures of the land. Why is that? Because town agents don't think it's that important. Even real estate agents who live in the country may not know that much about the country. They live in the country, yes, but that’s all they do. They commute from the country to sell homes in the city. When we bought our property we engaged the services of a local agent. We had a simple list of what we wanted. Flat or nearly flat land, mature trees, and NO rock. What did the agent show us? Houses on the side of hills, lots of rock and immature trees. Some agents think you don’t know what you really want. If you can, make sure you get an agent who has lived a rural lifestyle similar to the one you would like to live.

Living in the country is a wonderful life. The birds truly do sing. The air is definitely sweet. It’s a very peaceful, fulfilling, natural and healthy choice of lifestyles. I recommend it to anyone who goes in with their eyes wide open. I know then that they will enjoy their life and not regret it.

I see you there waving from the porch as I drive by! Howdy, neighbor!


Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.

Buying Your First Country Property ā€“ Part Two

ReneeIn this part I want to talk about how to evaluate your property once you find it. Here’s where my real estate and personal experience comes into play: there are no 100% perfect properties. Let’s say that again for emphasis: there are no 100% perfect properties. If you have your list of must-have, do-or-die then you are in a better position to know what imperfections you can tolerate.

No matter what you want to do the kind of soil the property has and how much water it has is extremely important. Please don’t pick a property because it has a nice view unless all you want to do is sit and look at it.

Let’s say you want to raise goats or sheep. Perfect, fertile soil is not necessary. Most breeds of goats and sheep can subsist on forage grown on poor soil with a little supplementation. However, if you want to grow vegetables you absolutely must have good soil. Unfortunately, when you look at property it’s not always obvious what kind of soil it has. It could be a thin layer of topsoil with hard pan clay underneath or—god forbid—granite rock or even lava! When I look at property where the goal is to grow food I bring a shovel with me. I find the potential garden area and see if I can dig holes. If I can dig holes, then, yay! If I can’t then I have to find out why. However, digging a hole is just the start. That just shows you that the land is friable enough to get a spade into. What is the condition and quality of the soil? The area County Extension can give you more information about this and it’s wise to investigate.

veg garden

When we lived at The Ranch in Northern California I could not think of a worse soil for growing vegetables. I tried to improve the soil with loads of compost but ultimately I gave up because it also turned out that the soil—and the water—was highly alkaline. My tomatoes developed blossom end rot because they couldn’t get the calcium they needed. I had to buy a few yards of topsoil so I could grow what I wanted and had to supplement to offset the alkalinity. It was an expense I did not have money for.  If I had looked into this before we would have a saved ourselves a lot of grief. Take a sample and have the soil tested for the mineral and acid/alkaline condition. You can do a quick sedimentation test for basic information on clay, silt and sand components.

Is the land in a flood plain? Before you make an offer go to the FEMA Flood Plain website and see for yourself. If you’re looking at the property in the dry time of year the conditions during the wet time of year may not be apparent. Ask the neighbors what the conditions are year-round. People who have lived in the area will know what the history is.

Size Matters—But Only to the Budget

If you can’t afford a big piece of good, arable land it is better to buy a small piece of good, arable land. You might get a “deal” on the larger acreage but you’ll pay for it in spades with all the work you have to do. Get the best quality land you can afford and if that means buying a small piece then that’s best. You can get a lot out of a half-acre of land. After you develop it you can choose to sell it later for a profit. If you’ve handled your finances and credit wisely you will be able to leverage that into more land. You’ll also have a ton of experience to make an even greater success. John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables on Less Land Than You Ever Thought Possible is indispensable.

He Who Controls the Water…

Water issues surprise many people who move to the country. They are used to turning on the tap and not thinking about it because their water comes from a seemingly endless supply. In the country water can be big issue because you will be dependent on your own personal source—the well. Even on a property in an abundant rain area it’s always a good idea to have the well thoroughly tested. What is the flow? Flow is also known as GPM or “gallons per minute”. If you have a well that produces only 5 GPM you might find you are trucking in water if you go through an extended dry period.

What is the quality of the water itself? Is there agricultural runoff or bacterial contamination? Hire a good well expert. They can test the well for all these things and more. You can make an offer on a property and within the 17 days contingency review you have time to find out all you need to know and if it doesn’t work out you can rescind your offer and not lose your deposit money.

If there is a water storage tank give that a good once-over. On our ranch we were dismayed to find out that the in-ground storage tank was an old fuel tank. It had been installed before anyone realized that was a bad idea and had been there so long it had rust-throughs around the cap. We took the lid off and saw a snake swimming around. Needless to say, we got bottled water to use for drinking!

The last thing in evaluating the water on a property is the water delivery infrastructure. If you’re lucky enough to have water lines and hose bibs that go right to where you will want your water then that’s a great property. If not, then you have to consider do you have the budget and ability to do what you need to do to make it right.

In the next part I will talk about how your lifestyle will be different in the country.


Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.

Buying Your First Country Property

ReneeMy friends, there is so much I want to tell you about buying your first country property I almost don’t know where to start. So many people have this dream but they absolutely don’t know what they’re getting into and then, realizing the truth of it, they pack up and leave before they ever get to the joy. There is joy in living in the country. I can tell you that for sure. If you are prepared and go in with your eyes wide open you can make the best of it and get to the joy all that much faster. Living in the country comes with its own set of challenges and I’m here to tell you what they are from my point of view.

country home

Living on their own rural property is the dream of many people who live in an urban setting. I don’t blame them at all and I’m right there with them. I don’t feel “at-home” unless I can see the horizon and I also feel better if I can’t see my neighbors. Don’t get me wrong. I love people but I love wide open spaces even more. However, if you’ve never lived in the country – and especially remote country – I’m here to tell you that it’s a whole other kettle of fish when compared to living in the city. Let me give you a few insider tips if you’re thinking about making the jump.

What Do You Want to Do?

The first thing to do is decide what you want to do. Do you want to grow vegetables? Do you want to have livestock? Do you just want to sit on the porch and admire the view? Maybe you want all of this. Whatever you want to do informs you of what you should be looking for. Then get the map out and start taking road trips. Find an area that inspires you. Find an area that lifts up your heart and gives you peace. I really feel that it’s important to find an area or two or three that makes you feel happy first.

The Internet and Finances

While you’re driving around and you see an area that particularly appeals to you make a note of it and then go to the internet to one of the big search engines and see what’s available and what it costs. You can make adjustments to your dream then. Maybe you can afford to buy it outright with cash. Or maybe you’re most people and you can’t. You need a loan. There are programs through the United States Department of Agriculture called USDA loans for people who want to buy rural property. If you have the right income – or lack of income – you may qualify for assistance and not even have to pay a down payment. Meet with a qualified lender to find out details on what’s available to you.

Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Now it’s time to make your must-have list and your want-list. I’m telling you at the outset that there are almost no “perfect” properties. There’s going to be give and take. If you have these two lists you have a reference point from which to evaluate each property you look at. The first thing on your want list should be what kind of land you want.

Geography

Let’s talk about terrain. If you want to grow your own food, it’s best to have level land. If you can’t find level land within your budget then try to find rolling hills. Take a look at Switzerland. Do we find the Swiss farming? Of course, we do. What are they farming? They have livestock that doesn’t mind going uphill and down. Dairy cows and goats. The food growing is done in the valleys. You might find inexpensive land on steep hills but you’re going to get really tired really fast of schlepping everything up and down. Mechanical equipment helps but is that in the budget? Even so, if you can afford it, mechanical equipment can be challenging on hills. The Incas did not invent the wheel and for good reason. Wheels go where gravity wants them to. Did you remember to put the brake on? Is the incline too steep and then you’ll have a rollover and get squashed? If you can’t find flat land then rolling hills are next best. You can have success gardening with a little terracing on rolling hills. Still and all, flat land is best.

I’m going to end Part One here but I want you to notice that I have not talked about the house even once. This is because in the country the house is the least of it. Not unimportant. Just not the most important. Grampa always said "You can make a house but you can't make land."

Next up in Part Two: Soil and Water – The Foundation of a Country Property


Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.

One Hour Body Scrub

Renee headshotI am an inveterate do-it-yourselfer. I like making my own cosmetics. I like growing my own food and making my own clothes and household items. I began doing this years ago when I was growing up in Iowa. I got a bee-in-my-bonnet, so to speak, about making soap from scratch, and my mom helped me find a little old lady who lived out on a farm and cooked on a wood stove. Her name was Lily, and she was one of those amazing old-timey people who knew how to do everything and did it. She generously offered to show me how to make soap from beef tallow. I gathered the beef tallow, and she got the lye, and there in her warm kitchen on a wintry day near Iowa Falls, Iowa she and I made homemade soap. I was hooked.

In keeping with that do-it-yourself tradition I am making homemade body scrub today.

As usual my system is flexible as to what ingredients I use. I always try to use ingredients I have on hand or, barring that, that are easily gotten from local vendors. I believe in supporting local business and reducing packaging waste.

Here are my guidelines for making your own body scrub. I say guidelines because there are many acceptable variations.

The basis of this scrub is organic salt. I don't use sugar because it dissolves and becomes mush. You can use organic sugar if you don't have to store it. It's for a one-time use. This salt-based scrub can be stored.

The other ingredients are an organic oil, some kind of unpasteurized honey (although regular honey will work, too), an essential oil for a good scent and soap.

Here is my basic recipe:

supplies

  • 1/4 cup oil (sweet almond, olive, sunflower, avocado. A fruity oil. Not corn or safflower.)
  • 2 tablespoons organic honey (unfiltered, raw, unpasteurized if possible)
  • tablespoon soap, grated coarsely (castile, goat milk, pure)
  • 1 cup salt, fine grain (any organic salt is good; I used Himalayan pink salt, don't use salt that has additives)

Mix everything but the salt together.

ingredients

The oil and honey will not cooperate, but do your best. You can use a wire whip. Try to mix it thoroughly. It may take some elbow grease.

 stir

Then stir in the salt. I put my scrub in a plastic container with a wide mouth. I am going to store it in the shower, and I don't want any broken glass in there. I don't usually advocate the use of plastic, but for things where safety is a concern I will recommend it.  I don't think we can get rid of all plastic, but we sure can minimize its use. When you want to use the scrub, grab a handful (keeping water out of the container) and rub it all over on your wet skin. Avoid getting it in your eyes, mouth, and sensitive areas. Rinse it off with warm water and enjoy your smooth skin!

Cooler Yogurt

Renee headshotYou might be wondering about my choice of words in the title. It's just a little joke or play on words. I'm not talking about yogurt that is hip or more hip than other yogurts. I'm talking about the device in which to incubate the milk to make it turn into yogurt. Get it? I guess I could have called it "Picnic Cooler Yogurt," but what would be the fun in that?

There are all sorts of fancy devices on the market today that incubate milk and turn it into yogurt. I can think of at least two right off the top of my head. While these fancy contraptions are great and make the job easy, they are not available to everyone and especially folks on a budget. That's me! Besides, my granny never used these fancy contraptions and her way is good enough for me!

with honey

All you need is milk and culture, a picnic cooler, sterilized jars with lids, and a milk thermometer. The optional things are rennet and gelatin.

I like to start my yogurt about an hour before bed time. That way I can leave the milk to incubate over night. Yogurt in the morning!

pot

Here's what you do: Heat the milk to 180 degrees in a heavy bottom stainless steel pot. If you only have an old electric stove like I do, you must keep a close watch on the temperature gauge. Using an old fashioned electric cook top to heat milk makes it a necessity to have a heavy bottom pot. Otherwise, it is so easy, too easy, to scorch or burn the milk. If you have a gas stove, you have an easier time controlling the heat. When grandmother made yogurt on a woodstove, it must have been challenging indeed! As you stir the heating milk, you'll see that the temperature on the gauge rises. This is because the milk is hotter in the bottom of the pan, and you are mixing that hot milk throughout. Once it hits 180 degrees, take the pot off the heat. (If it rises past 180, don't panic. Going above 180 is not a disaster. As a matter of fact, sometimes it is recommended to heat the milk to 190 and hold it there for 20 minutes. This makes the final product thicker. Because I have a temperamental electric stove, I have a very difficult time holding the temperature steady, so I don't do it.)

Cool the milk to 112 degrees. I put my pot in the sink with water and a bunch of ice so it cools faster. Again, keep an eye on it. When it gets to 112 degrees, add a packet (1/4 tsp) of yogurt culture to the milk and let it dissolve for a couple minutes. (You can also use plain, organic yogurt that you already have or that you buy from the store. Use 1/2 cup if you're using pre-made yogurt to culture.) Stir the culture in well. (If you want, this is the time to stir in a couple drops of rennet to make it turn out thicker. You can also use some organic gelatin to make it even thicker. With Greek yogurt being so popular, we are all used to super thick yogurt. Ordinary, highly probiotic yogurt does not have to be thick! Still tasty!)

jars

Pour your milk into jars, cover with lids and place them in a picnic cooler. Take a pitcher, fill it with hot tap water, and pour it into the cooler until it reaches about a inch below the top of the jar. Don't pour the water over the lids! Pour it in from the side! And then don't disturb! Tuck your little jars to bed and let them sleep! No peeking! The children are all right.

cooler

Incubate your yogurt for about 8 hours. You can let it incubate longer up to 12 hours if you want the taste to be tangy. The longer it incubates, the thicker and more tangy it will be. I like mine mild after about 9 hours. I like it with a little bit of organic, unfiltered honey drizzled on top. Trés simple!


Photos by Renee-Lucie Benoit.

Good at Not Falling

Renee headshotNear the warmth of the woodstove we listened raptly as Gramma told stories about life-threatening experiences on the Illinois farm when it was dangerous to go out in a blizzard to take care of animals in the barn. You had to know how to get back to the house. There were stories of men who froze to death because they got lost in the white-out conditions. My Grandpa strung a clothesline from the house to the barn so he could navigate safely.

We kids had a different viewpoint of a blizzard. It was not something to be feared. It was a time of rejoicing! Invariably, school would be cancelled, and we could go out and play after the blizzard had done its worst. The sky would be crystal clear blue and so cold. We blew giant puffs of condensation out of our mouths into the air like steam locomotives, puff, puff, puff, and the snow would be deep and powdery. Sometimes the whole family would go to the timber and pick a strategic slope that seemed clear. Steering your Flexible Flyer sled was not a precision event. Laying on your stomach with your hands on the wood steering bars or sitting up with your feet on them you could avoid tree trunks and unknown obstacles if you were planning ahead, but if you didn't plan, and you saw something at the last minute, you were toast.

FFWikimedia

Old Timey Flexible Flyer sleds. Photo by Wikimedia

Sometimes we would pile in the car and go sledding on the local golf course. This worked really well, because the golf course was clear of tree trunks and hidden stuff that could spell disaster and injury for the careless. We took our Flexible Flyer sleds, but we also took inflated inner tubes, and once we had a toboggan. The snow depth was perfect. Not too deep, not too shallow. Deep snow is not good for sledding. At the ski lifts in the Sierras' they tamp down the snow for the skiers and people sledding. The snow in Iowa would not be deeper than a foot and, boy, you could go fast! We kids would be airborne most of the time on those long slopes. A little bump and whoo-wee, up you'd go, sled and all if you were holding on. If you weren't, you were ejected and flying on your own. I wish I had a video.

ice skate

Our Weimaraner dog Heidi (in silhouette), my sister, my mom and me. Photo by R.L. Benoit.

My dad had the brilliant idea to take his tractor with the scraper attached and scoop out a shallow depression out behind our house in the near field. He did it just before he knew it was going to freeze hard and then he let the water hose run to fill the depression with water and make a small skating rink. Then with our classic white figure skates we girls would tentatively swoosh around. My brother would swoosh around on hockey skates, because no self respecting boy would be caught dead in figure skates.  We were all right at skating, but it was not very smooth ice, so we never became experts. I mostly got good at not falling.

 

 

Beat Winter Blues!

Renee headshotAre you huddled by the wood stove? Is a blizzard raging outside or has the thermometer plunged off the bottom end of the read-out? Then it's time to thank the postal worker who goes out in every kind of weather to bring us seed catalogs! "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." I would add polar vortexes!

Don't you love seed catalogs? I do! They are a bright little light when the skies are gray for days at a time or when it's clear blue and cloudless, and venturing outside makes you want to scurry back in because the snap of the cold hair takes your breath away.  Seed catalogs are like a little garden you can hold in your hand that fills your eyes and your hands with warmth, imagined delicious scents, and anticipated textures. When I get one it reminds me that this (winter), too, shall pass, and pretty soon the lilacs will be in fill bloom and planting season will be here. They remind me that it's time to plan my spring garden on paper and start my sets indoors. What shall I plant? My mind goes crazy and I want to plant everything! How to choose?

catalog

First and foremost I have to think about what grows well here. What tolerates hot daytime temperatures? What tolerates less than stellar water availability? Will I want to save seed at the end of the growing season? I have to know my climate and my soil. Do I want plants that will bear all season, or do I want my harvest to happen at one time and then be done. Determinate happens all at once and then ends. Indeterminate bears all season long. Don't get hybrid seed if you want to save it later for growing next year. Get specialized hybrid if you've been going going mano-a-mano with certain diseases and insects and you'd rather not do it anymore or ever.

Read the descriptions. Study other sources to make sure you've got the low-down. Talk to your neighbors about what is successful in their gardens. This is a good time to meet at the local coffee shop and talk shop. Then plan your garden. Sounds like a very fun thing to do when the weather is a challenge. 

 


Photo courtesy Renee-Lucie Benoit






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