The following information on where to locate a small farm comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.
Where to locate is mainly a personal question. In general, however, you will be wise to choose a property in the climatic region with which you are already familiar; for thus you may avoid costly mistakes due to ignorance of the peculiarities of some other region. The type of agriculture you wish to follow—dairying, fruit growing, poultry raising, market gardening, etc.—should also influence your choice of location. In general you are more likely to succeed where the one you prefer is already well established than elsewhere because such a locality has already been proved favorable and you will have neighbors to help you. An experienced man may risk pioneering new to a locality; for instance, the Western New York grape grower who moved to Delaware and established commercial grape production and thus increased the incomes of himself and the neighbors who followed his example.
Before deciding on a farm one of the most important things to do is to consult the official soil survey map and report on the district in mind. This is issued by the Department of Agriculture and may be seen at public libraries or bought from the Superintendent of Documents at Washington for a small sum. The map shows in color the location and extent of each kind of soil within its area; the report describes the various soils, discusses their adaptability to specific crops and their productive capacity under approved systems of handling. The latter also gives a brief review of local farming and economic conditions at the time of publication and thus supplies data upon which to base a rational system of agriculture.
With the knowledge acquired by this means it will be easier to choose among several parcels of locally available land because the map is large and detailed enough to suggest types of soil in areas as small as even a few square rods! But though easily possible to locate each soil type it is important to consider various other factors which may or may not affect the immediate and subsequent value of each property.
The character of the soil depends first upon the way it was formed; for instance, from weathering of rocks in place as on level and slightly rolling plains; from silt carried by streams and deposited in valley “floors”; from accumulations of vegetable matter in swamps as in muck lands; or from glacial deposits of rocks of many mixed kinds.
Even though the original character of the soil may have been any one of these just mentioned or of others it may have been so altered by man that it is either better or worse than at the start. As a safe rule to follow, it is worse because cropping without adequate return of plant food and humus—the popular short-sighted practice—will have injured its texture as well as reduced its fertility. Such conditions are fairly easy for even a novice to determine by personal examination and asking questions of both owner (or tenant) and the neighbors.
One of the most important things to discover is whether or not the land needs drainage or is already well drained either naturally or artificially. (Chapter 16.) Often this information may be discovered with one’s own eyes by noting, 1, whether there are wet spots, often indicated by growths of bullrushes, sedges and other water-loving plants; 2, whether there are brooks or springs, thus suggesting good drainage; 3, the elevation of the land itself, either above or below other levels from or to which excess water may flow; 4, the depth of the soil; 5, whether a rock stratum or a “hard-pan” is near the surface, determined by a soil auger or by digging in various places.
In the last case it is necessary to make sure that the impervious layer (rock or hard-pan) can be economically broken so excess water may descend to lower levels and later ascend toward the surface by capillarity so plant roots may get it. Hard-pan, when formed by plowing year after year at a uniform depth while the ground is wet may be broken by subsoiling or by dynamiting. Directions for the latter may be obtained free from manufacturers of dynamite.
One way to estimate the condition of the soil is to inquire what classes of crops have been grown on the land during several years, how fertilized and what the yields have been. If the sequence of crops for years has been hay and grain continuously without adequate manuring or green manuring both the humus and the plant food may be at such low ebb that several years may be needed to reestablish fertility and therefore profitable crops. On the other hand, if manuring has been liberal—at least 25 tons to the acre annually—or if commercial fertilizers and frequent green manure or cover crops have been the regular orders of management, the land should be in good condition. This will be evidenced by the character of crops growing upon the land.
If there should be no crops to examine the next best thing is to note the character of vegetation already present. Beech, sugar maple, hickory, black walnut and white oak trees of large size and positive thriftiness indicate rich land; white pine, scrub oak, and scrawny trees of most species are typical of poor land; extra thrifty willows, poplars and alder and elder bushes suggest too much water and probable need of drainage.
Weeds, however, are more often telltales than are trees and bushes because they follow cultivation, whereas large trees usually precede it. It is not necessary to identify species, though this is desirable. What does count is the character of growth made by the weeds actually present. Lush, sturdy, very dark green, leafy growths indicate that the plants are well fed, especially with nitrogenous compounds; but if the growth is pale, sickly colored, scrawny and apparently eking out a miserable existence the land is certainly not rich.
If there is abundance of sheep sorrel—small plants with spearhead-shaped leaves with a tart taste—especially if the plants be puny, the land is not only short of plant food but is acid, a condition not favorable to most cultivated crops, but easily corrected with lime. (Chapter 27.) Ox-eye daisy, wild carrot and mullein in abundance and poorly developed indicate lack of humus as well as fertility and prove that the land has been badly mismanaged, for these plants cannot stand either rich soil or rational tillage.
It need hardly be mentioned that if the land is stony, rocky or hilly, it is usually less desirable than land not so encumbered. The cost of blasting out rocks and hauling away stones may be prohibitive and the disadvantages and difficulties of cultivating hilly land without having excessive erosion are so great that these areas cannot usually be cultivated at a profit.
If adjacent land as well as that under consideration shows similar characteristics the whole locality may be judged as either highly desirable or undesirable, as the case may be; but when the specific land shows that its apparent bad condition is due to mismanagement as suggested by good crops nearby there will be hope that it may be reclaimed and made as good as the best in the vicinity.
By keeping one’s eyes open to all these and other objections and drawbacks even the novice may decide many points for himself. For the most important points to discover at the start are the objections; not the advantages!