So you’d like to take your farm off the grid. Well, I am going to share with you how to approach this issue and develop the best strategy to effectively do so. So, who’s the expert? Well, it’s not me. But it is my husband. As retirees, we are farmers, but in my husband’s past life he was a pioneer in the solar energy field and an engineer. In fact, it was he who developed and taught the first solar curriculum at the US Air Force Academy in 1972. Why? It was in Vietnam that my husband realized the power of solar power for remote power generation, eliminating conventional fuel supply lines and the risks of fuel transport. After his time in Vietnam he went back to the Air Force Academy where he had attended school and as a faculty professor, he developed what became the one of the first solar curriculums in the country. He also built the first solar laboratory at the academy as well. He was later asked by the US goverment to work for and develop SERI (the US Govt’s Solar Energy Research Institute) and he was then appointed Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, under George Bush Senior. After his time working for the President, he built one of the nation’s largest solar companies with services nearly worldwide (which was sold later to Kyocera) and was also President of the US Solar Energy Association. Later, he went on to run energy and environmental research for the US Govt in their laboratory complex and was asked by the leadership of China to set up equally innovative scientific research activities in China. So, we just returned from two years in China establishing a world reknowned scientific research institute for China around renewable energy. So, the advice I share now is the advice coming from my husband as we began to plan out how to take our farm off the grid using solar power. I doubt there is anyone any where more qualified to map out an ‘off the grid’ solar strategy for your farm so I hope this helps you think through your own farm strategy.
I will outline the strategic approach in steps we took as defined by my husband.
First, you must assess the attributes of your farm. How much land do you have? What do you want to do with your land? What are the restrictions you must contend with? How many off the grid factors do you want to incorporate (energy, water, equipment)? What are the barriers you are working with?
So, let’s take this first step and I’ll lay out our answers to those questions. For readers who don’t know, we have a 25 acre farm in Upstate NY where the temperature gets negative 30 and winter / non land use is nearly six months of the year. We also have a 15 acre farm in East Tennessee where the climate allows us to truly farm four months more than our NY farm. So, in NY we have 50% woodland with pines and maples for our timber harvest, deer preserve, and our maple sugar bush. We have 40% grazing land for our livestock (goats, sheep, alpaca, horses, chickens, rabbits). We have 10% for our gardens. However, the land is flat and in a water drainage area directly next to a river. Thus we experience a very high water table and often the roots of all our crops simply rot due to too much moisture in the soil. In Tennessee we have about 60% timbered land, 25% pasture, 10% orchards and 5% vegetable garden and house footprint. We also have an ideal growing climate (both warmer and longer). Our pastures are also adjacent to a stream so their stay naturally watered. Our house in on the top of the hill, the orchards and gardens are on the middle of the hill and our pastures are at the bottom next to the stream. So, we have ideal circumstances for natural gravity fed water systems. This is a huge deal. Designing your land for natural water flow is imperative as ‘pumping water’ is expensive and requires alot of energy density over time. So, let’s talk about our TN farm. Our goal is to take our energy use and water use off the grid and go solar. And, have our landscape sculpted to retain as much water as possible where needed and also structure all our growing areas to be easily maintainable without the need for heavy tractors though we do have them. (But in a survival situation your big equipment you’d run out of fuel for.)
So, the above gives you an example of ‘laying out’ your farm’s reality and setting it side by side with your goals/expectations for your farm.
Second, you must determine the tradeoffs you are willing to make. Now this is where my husband is a genius. So, I will just share his insights. Bottom line: Your choices about utilization are choices regarding tradeoffs. Let me give you an example. We want trees as we mill lumber and we use it for heat. However, in Tennessee it also gets hot, so we want shade around the house to keep it as cool as possible. So, while our trees are valuable for harvesting, their value changes in relation to where we place solar panels as trees become a deterrent to capturing alot of sun. And the trees are a problem where you either want a garden, orchard or pasture. So, it is very important to build a plot of your land and then determine how much wood/timber you want over time, how much grazing land for how many livestock, and how much orchard and garden space you want. That determines your percentages of each ‘class’ of use and also location. You also want to consider the topography at this point to determine ‘slope’ for natural water movement throughout your footprint. Ideally, you’d collect water at the top and have natural gravity moving that water down your property into your gardens. We not only have our well at the top of the hill where the garden is and the orchard is below that, but we also have a huge holding pond mid hill and then a stream at the bottom of our land where all the grazing land is. This is a truly ideal set up. Back to the solar panels. We can’t put them on the house for two reasons. We WANT THE TREES around the house as it serves at shade to keep the house cool and no roof angle faces south nicely. We have a big long shop at the top of the hill however that is all south facing, that has no trees around it and thus gets maximum sun and therefore maximum collection of solar. Perfect.
So, for your farm you want to plot your land into ‘classes’ for use and also capture the slope. You also want to determine soil quality but that can be done later as you can always modify that and improve it. At this point you should have a good handle on what you need to clear to turn into fields for grazing or for growing food (orchard or garden) and woodlot. That develops a rather big to do list right there. And you’ve now solidified your TRADEOFFS you are making to get your long term plan strategically correct.
Third, you break the work of each unit into phases. Once you’ve plotted your land use plan, you want to first clear the land that needs to be cleared. Why? Because fence, buildings, and or lines for alternative power, solar panels and pipes require that the land be cleared. So, we take the follwoing approach as we do most all our work ourselves.
- Hire a tree service to limb up the mega trees…this is work we can’t do as it takes real skill to climb trees. Bottom line – take out the dangerous trees, and limb up trees so the top canopy is cleaned up.
- Once the top canopy trees are limbed up to clean up the space, make it more safe and create more sunlight, you cut down and cull the lower canopy of trees with chainsaws and other devices removing trees, roots and shrubs.
- We then put up fence, even before our buildings as we have livestock. They can stay outside if they have to or we can build temporary shelters out of portable dog runs with a tarp. So, we put up fencing first, then build our outbuildings. While we are building our fences, we pen our animals with electric fence netting and solar power chargers. They work great.
- We then build our outbuilding structures, taking in to account South facing roof lines and water collection opportunities and gravity fed watering pathways.
- We last add the solar units in relation to the ultimate amount of power we need for that structure.
Fourth, you begin to optimize your layout. So, above you’ve worked in phases and have achieved a clear area for your timber land, you’ve cleared your pastures and put up your structures and power/water supply. For your fields, orchards and gardens you’ve cleared and planted. All good at this point. But, the farm can still kick you in the butt in terms of sheer maintenance time. So, you then go through and look for ways to streamline, make more efficient, and make weed maintenance an easy thing. So, we go through and begin to retain certain areas to create more beds on sloped land, we place rock on top of landscape fabric for slopes we dont want to mow and dont want weeds on, etc. If you put this work in once, you don’t have to tend to weed overgrowth that destroys all your hard efforts and ultimately takes your fields over you’ve worked so hard to clear. There is nothing that kills me more than seeing abandoned fields with scrappy trees growing in them. I know how hard it was at one point in that field’s history to get cleared in the first place!!
Fifth, you incorporate more off the grid elements. At this point you farm is sort of humming with farm productivity and also alternative solar energy generation and water management for your basic needs. Now is the time to think about passive solar for even more functionality. This is sort of like icing on the cake. You can build solar food dryers, solar cook stoves, cold frames and hoop houses for the garden and have black hoses on the roof heating water for you, all by the sun. This is really a fun area of focus, passive solar.
Sixth, you begin to assess hand tools you’ll need in replacement to your big fuel thirsty equipment. At some point if you HAD to be off the grid, say in a crisis of a large scale, you may not have access to fuels for your tractors and chainsaws, etc. Now that your farm is really humming, and liking thanks to some big equipment, it’s time to think about the hand tools you want in your care that replaces the fuel thirsty chainsaw as an example. So, hand saws, two person saws, axes, shovels, pitch forks, lots of rope, chains, wenches, come-alongs, etc…. all are very very important to have and know how to use.
Seventh, begin to assess new skills that are a bonus to the whole equation. At this point, thoughts on developing additional skills such as blacksmithing, logging, butchering/meat curing & drying, food preservation, leathersmithing, hunting, fishing, trapping, etc. become the focus of attention. When you can run your farm off the grid, you can grow food, capture, store and distribute water and energy, you can work with wood, metal and leather, and you can hunt and treat yourself through natural medicine…….
well then, you’ve arrived and are beginning to live the dream of an off the grid rich life.
We have done this ourselves at HiBar Ranch, Farm and Forest in these seven steps. And, my engineer alternative energy expert husband says this is how you do it every time….and since he’s not only done this for us but for indigenous people throughout South America standing up communities with alternative energy hubs in remote regions, his advice can be trusted through decades of proven execution in the field.
We at HiBar Ranch hope this outline helps give you a sense of how to break this big dream down into logical steps that allows you to develop a strategy that you don’t have to re-visit due to major errors in the planning process and moves you closer to your dreams.
Enjoy your homesteading journey and God Bless! L. Davis