A Fixer-Upper Farm

Reader Contribution by Renee-Lucie Benoit
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I remember the first time it hit me. I was standing on the back porch after a long day’s work and all of a sudden reality set in. This is never going to end.

Let me pause here and say this is not going to be a doom and gloom story. There’s reality, and then there’s truth. Reality is what gets you in the day to day. Truth is what keeps you going to find the rainbow at the end of the storm. I have found my rainbow and let me tell you how I did it.

In 2016 we bought an acreage where we intended to keep our horses, have a household garden from which to feed ourselves, and for simple room to breathe. Some days I think all the work we have to do will do me in. It seems like just as I get one thing fixed another thing breaks.

Most days there are many, many things broken all at once and it’s hard to figure out where to start. My farmer uncle from Illinois said, “Don’t buy a place of your own unless you like fixing things,” and he was right.

Who can afford to buy bare land and then build from the ground up? Most of us, and that’s including me, have to buy something that someone else’s grubby little paws have messed with (I’m laughing I hope you know!). If you’re lucky whoever they were did it the right way but I’m here to testify that most of the time they don’t!

Not only that but the current owner is very likely to be the 3rd or 4th in a succession of owners and never did know, for example, where the water lines were or where the electric lines to the barn, the arena or the yard lights are. They just always worked until they didn’t so when you buy the place they’re still broken!

Here’s an example: when we managed a cattle ranch in Northern California prior to coming here we were shocked to see that how they fixed broken electric lines. Since they had no clue where the real lines were they just strung heavy duty extension cords!

Anyway, that was the predicament we found ourselves in three years ago when we bought our 2-1/2 acres in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. Everything was in disrepair. But we knew that then and we accepted it.

We knew that the bones of the house and outbuildings were good and we got it at a fair price. Our plan was to put in a lot of sweat equity, sell it in about two years so we didn’t have to pay taxes, and move up to something even better.

Two and a half years later…

I should have known. Everything that we have worked on has become more complicated than I thought or could have imagined. Nothing goes the way it is planned.

Some days we laugh. Other days we cry. We soldier on. This is our dream, after all. This is what we signed up for and we can’t quit until we succeed.

So, like I said, we’re currently half way through our “Two Year Renovation Plan,” and it’s been two and a half years. Marty keeps saying, “Next year when we finish…!” And I keep saying, “Yeah, right!”

Let’s go back to the day we moved in. Just to keep it interesting, that very evening the well quit on us. Home warranty insurance took care of the majority of the cost to put in a new pump and we only had to go without water for a couple days.

Fortunately the livestock troughs had been topped off the day before the well broke and the weather was cool so the animals could make it. Good and auspicious start, don’t you think?

Roofing and windows

OK, well fixed. Now what? Clearly the roof and windows had to be replaced. We had a 35 year old shake shingle roof and there was no way we were going to take a chance trying to make it through the winter. This was one thing we did not want to fix on our own.

We got a HERO loan so we could pay for it and then we got a window contractor who subcontracted to a roofer so we could get everything done at once. The windows were original single pane, metal builder grade and covered with dirty screens which made the interior of the house dark like a cavern. The hippie in me started singing, “Let the sunshine in!”

A “before” picture of the windows and roof.


So, while that was in the works, we turned our attention to our rotting infrastructure. Nearly all the fence posts and many rails were rotten and the only thing that kept them from falling apart was the no climb fencing wire.

However, we had to put our horses some place right away and could not afford to replace all the fencing at once. The first thing we did was put up hot wire inside all the horse pens to prevent the horses from pushing down the fences until we could get to a more permanent fix.

One of the reasons why the posts were rotted is that they were inundated with water every spring.


The next thing we did was rent the T1000 version of a “terminator” lawn mower to take care of the hip high weeds. Finally things were getting under control. When we were out and about we discovered ReStore for many of our materials (thank you, President Carter).


I did a sediment test to see what soil composition I had and it was mostly clay and sand with a little bit of loam. Then I sent another soil sample to a laboratory to discover all its other qualities.

When that returned, I found I had what I thought I had all along: very little organic matter and low calcium. So I added gypsum and put down heavy mulch in the area where I planned to plant next spring.

Then it started raining and we got almost nothing done all winter. It was a 100 year deluge.

My vegetable garden starts out nicely fenced but that’s about it.

Some days it’s exhilarating and other days it’s overwhelming, but in the end it’s satisfying. I can go to bed at night and sleep like a log satisfied in the knowledge that I have accomplished something even though the progress is glacial.

We have improved our land and by extension our planet. Even a little bit of progress is progress and that’s what I remind myself. I am content.

Next chapter: Some details of renovating a broke-down ranch.

Photos property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.