This week, we continue the Finding Home Series and explore environmental factors impacting your search for a new home. You will notice many of these factors are interconnected, which helps decide the best place for you. No links are affiliated with this site and are used as reference only.
A general average precipitation map of the U.S.
Water is the most critical factor in determining a suitable property and what is not. In many places of the U.S., too little water is a constant threat to the local inhabitants. Generally, the middle part of the country and the southwest tend to be more susceptible to long-term droughts. A few miles in from the pacific coast, there is plenty of water for year-long habitation, but as soon as you go further inland, the rain shadow of the mountains causes deserts to dominate. When looking online in this area, the land may be cheap, and there is a lot of it, but most are worthless for building a sustainable property. I agree with Mr. Kunstler that the southwest is a waste of time to inhabit. Likewise, places like Nevada and Utah are equally poor places to live. Joel Skousen, the author of Strategic Relocation, rates Utah as his number one place for relocation. I find this perplexing. Check out the Current Drought Monitor Map, and you'll instantly see the problem with living in that drought-stricken land. Below is a map showing trends of increasing drought occurrence- shaded in tan. Pink and yellow spots show forest fires.
Brown areas increasing in drought occurance
I'm located in the Appalachian mountains and prefer areas with around 40+ inches of annual precipitation for agriculture and food forestry purposes. However, droughts do occur, so it's a good idea to look for land with access to reliable water. Year-round springs are the holy grail that can provide you with gravity-fed potable water. Springs can be enhanced to provide a variety of functions—from potable drinking water to irrigation to potentially hydroelectric power. On our current 11-acre property, we have a stream that runs for 8-10 months of the year. From around mid-July to September, dry weather kicks in, causing the stream to dry up. Fortunately, we dug our well last summer using a hand auger for a second water source. We installed a pitcher pump purchased from Home Depot, and this has been our primary source of water on the farm. We eventually want to install rainwater collection from the roof to increase our drinking water resilience. This water backup will be a little expensive with how materials are costing these days, so it may be a while before this idea becomes a reality.
Sometimes, some areas have too much water instead of too little. Flooding is not an environmental factor to ignore. Here in Appalachia, most homes and towns are situated in narrow valleys where heavy rain can cause significant damage.
Destruction from a summer storm
I would also encourage prospective buyers to look up possible flood zones along watercourses, no matter how small. Freak 1000-year flood events may become more commonplace with weirding weather, so do not risk your or your loved one's lives living in these disaster-prone areas. Generally, county GIS maps will show areas in flood zones for insurance purposes. How much more damage do you think rivers can cause if small streams can kill? Stay away from rivers, please! The idyllic views are not worth flushing your lives or hard work down the drain. Likewise, rising sea levels are a concern for the local inhabitants along the coasts. You do not want to put in years of hard work building up the soil and establishing your home only to have the ocean threaten your farm if sea levels continue to rise. Find a suitable property far enough out of these zones for long-term security.
Regardless of where your opinions lie on the global warming spectrum, damaging storms are an ever-present reality. Whether you are inland dealing with the possibility of a tornado or along the coast battling hurricanes, choosing a good location can significantly help minimize your exposure to these horrific weather events.
Along the Gulf and Atlantic coast, hurricanes are an annual force to be reckoned with. In addition to sea-level rise, hurricanes can quickly destroy a homestead and everything in it. Living along the coast in these states will be a poor decision regardless of perceived benefits. I see resource scarcity seriously affecting the state's ability to rebuild these coastal communities after hurricanes. Local areas will have to get by on salvaging what's left after a hurricane or migrate inland. Can you imagine the mess these places will be in if multiple storms come through in a single season? I do not see the capital or resources being available (personal or institutional) to pay for such reconstruction.
Further inland, Dixie Alley in the South or Tornado Alley in the Plains are annually subjected to destructive storms. I would stay away from these locations too. I realize you will not always avoid a damaging storm, but my point here is to avoid known areas that receive a higher-than-average amount of damaging storms from the onset of your search. Even outside of these tornado-prone areas, it's always prudent to make sure to build your home or structures with high winds in mind. Make sure to build beyond the local building codes to be safe.
Winter and Summer highs & lows are essential factors to consider when looking for a new home.
My "ideal" is zones 6-8
The USDA zone hardiness maps are valuable tools in finding zones across the United States with similar winter lows. Depending on your climatic preferences, this will give you a rough idea of how suitable a location is. In the context of this series, however, we are looking for places in our country that will support a sustainable lifestyle based on agriculture. I will mention again that the southwest is not a good place to live, not only for the lack of water but also the climate. Scorching hot days without AC can be deadly. Likewise, in the "sunbelt" of the south, the lack of reliable electricity in the future makes life miserable in this super humid region. Look for places that have a more hospitable climate. For us, we enjoy USDA plant hardiness zone 7. The Winter lows are around 0-5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Summer highs stay around 90 for three months of the year. The rainfall is usually approximately 40 inches so we can grow a diverse array of edible plant species. This climate is also suitable for a diversity of livestock and poultry without significant temperature stresses on the animals. I would also consider average first and last frost dates when growing crops. Plant maps have a variety of valuable maps for each state that covers these topics and more.
Unfortunately, we currently live in a frost pocket (one of the tradeoffs of having"flattish" land in the mountains). This is because all the cold air from the mountains above us comes down at night and pools in the valley. This causes colder air around our home than in surrounding places. Moreover, this makes the local micro-climate warm up later in spring and cool down earlier in fall. Knowing this, we have shifted to growing edible plants that can either handle light frost or bloom later in the spring. Some examples of plants that tolerate light frost are strawberries, burdock, salsify, parsnip, potatoes, lettuce, collards, and cabbage. In addition, we have planted late-blooming fruit varieties to avoid most late frosts, such as Arkansas black apple, domesticated American persimmons, and thornless blackberry varieties. When we look for a new location, I will select a site with better cold air drainage to help avoid the current frost pocket issues.
Location matters in the landscape
When my partner and I searched for property, we wanted to find land with good access. Houses around us are incorrectly placed high on the side or top of mountains, making access challenging all year round. Any rain event creates huge ruts on these steep driveways and requires constant maintenance. These driveways will become massive liabilities in a future of de-industrialization and limited resources. Placing a home on top of a mountain is a poor design idea. People did this because readily available fossil fuels enabled cheap home upkeep. I have a feeling ego plays a part as well. Making their owners feel like they are their own "king of the hill" overlooking the landscape. The infamous words "long-range views" in real estate listings show just how disconnected our society is from our current and future realities. Views do not feed you, so do not prioritize them. Views only matter in a world of abundant fossil fuels, so it's time to adapt and choose your topography wisely. The ideal location is mid-slope with the ability to capture rainwater above to gravity feed to your home. The low country can be used for grazing or annual crops with food forests going upslope. Check out Geoff Lawton's Property Purchase Checklist video for further details.
Another problem with placing a house high on the side or on top of a mountain is wildfires. Fire actually increases in speed and intensity as it spreads uphill. Creating a fireproof habitation in these locales would take a lot of time and money. Removing trees and shrubs within 100 feet of the house is generally recommended in addition to building with fireproof materials on the exterior of the home. Pine species are naturally flammable, so these would be a top priority to remove. Although you can create a fire exclusion zone around your property, it's easier to pick a property not located up a high slope or on top of ridges. For those living in wildfire country, we saw firsthand this past summer (2021) how many people incorrectly built and lived in homes surrounded by super-flammable trees. Lives and property could have been saved if they had the foresight to build in a better location. When it comes to a home site and property location, ask yourself: is the juice worth the squeeze in annual maintenance and fire protection?
In Permaculture: A Designers Manual, author Bill Mollison explains how to create and maintain the soil. Using his expertise, I was able to turn our destroyed soil into life-giving abundance over time. When we first arrived, the land had been in constant cultivation from conventional farmers planting GMO corn and spraying toxic chemicals for decades. The soil life had utterly collapsed with no organic matter, hard compacted clay, no insects, and high soil acidity. I began by using the mowed native grasses for mulch around fruit trees and in the garden beds. I created a DIY compost tea system (which you can see on our (Instagram account) and continue to apply generous amounts of liquid compost to every plant I am growing. Next, I added organic minerals and chicken bedding around any edible plant. The first year in the vegetable garden, I couldn't even grow tomatoes. By year two, after implementing Mollison's soil-building techniques, I was able to grow sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, and peppers! All of these vegetables require a lot of nutrients, so the soil building is working.
The book that changed my life
Building soil is not necessarily complicated once you understand the methodology, but it does take time. However, in as little as one year, you can see tremendous results if you keep at it. Due to the soil being so depleted by previous mismanagement, it's crucial that all organic matter on the farm is recycled back into the system. That even includes our human "wastes." We bought the Humanure Handbook and designed a composting toilet system that breaks down our humanure into rich compost for our fruit trees and berry bushes. Although research shows that properly composted human "waste" can be used in a vegetable garden, we use it on trees and shrubs. No, our humanure does not smell. You can stand above the humanure compost pile and not smell anything, even on a hot day. The secret is to add enough carbon to help soak up and break down the waste. If it smells, add more shredded carbon (i.e., moist wood chips, shredded straw or cardboard, any organic matter brown in color). Our urine is also collected daily and watered down in watering cans at a ratio of 12 parts water to 1 part urine. This adds a nice dose of nitrogen to plants and gives back to the land in a hygienic way.
When it comes to our chickens, we clean out the coop once a week and put their old bedding in the vegetable garden, around fruit and berry plants, and in the food forest. Then, three months before planting in the vegetable garden, we will stop adding their bedding to give sufficient time for their fertilizer to break down. It's all about seasonal management, proper composting, and common sense when working with these beautiful forms of organic matter.
The miracle of nature
Planting nitrogen-fixing plants further add to soil building through a symbiotic relationship between nitrogen-fixing bacteria coexisting on the roots of certain plants. Most legume family trees and shrub species have these relationships, such as Black Locust and Siberian pea shrub. Some plants outside the legume family (Autumn olive) also fix nitrogen. Autumn Olive is a shrub that is frost tolerant, provides early nectar sources for honeybees and various insects, and produces delicious edible berries in Autumn for yourself and your chickens.
Earthquakes are another critical natural process to consider when searching for a place to call home. Looking at the map, you can quickly see where seismic zones are located in the United States. In California, for instance, not only do you have little water, disproportionately high population density, and wildfires, but you also have the threat of extreme earthquakes. On the other hand, in the center of the country, Missouri has a reasonably active fault zone to consider. If you decide to live in a high-hazard seismic zone, care should be taken to build appropriate structures, so you are not crushed when an earthquake occurs.
Earthquake zones in the U.S.
The solar aspect is often overlooked when searching for land so let's illuminate its importance. For example, my neighbor's house is located on the north side of a small hill, which in winter (due to the lower sun angle) only receives sunlight from 11:30 am to around 2:00 pm. Trying to run a house off of solar for them would be difficult, if not impossible during winter. Ideally, you would have an open location for your panels to receive as much solar light as possible. On a less technological level, passive solar is helpful on sunny days to warm your house during the winter. Having an open exposure to the south side of your home enables you to receive the maximum amount of sunlight. From a vegetable garden perspective, your gardens should also have a south-facing exposure. Tall trees, hills, and structures located to the south significantly inhibit your energy needs—solar electricity, solar hot water, passive solar, and food production. Try to find a homestead that affords you open southern exposure for these purposes.
Alice Friedemann of Energysceptic.com offers some of the best data sources on our energy predicaments. Friedemann's website is bursting with information on a vast array of topics. It may take you a while to read through all of them, but it's worth your time. She has been interviewed by Dr. Martenson, James Howard Kunstler, and many others. In her "Where to Be or Not to Be" section, Friedemann provides multiple articles with detailed maps from peer-reviewed sources explaining the best places to live in a de-industrialized world. One of the most concise reports on suitable regions to inhabit is Sustainability and place: How emerging mega-trends of the 21st century will affect humans and nature at the landscape level. These authors take into consideration climate change, population, resource scarcity, and many other factors affecting our future. The National Risk Index map is another great tool to determine what potential threats could impact your future home site.
Click on the maps above to be directed to the corresponding website to check out which areas interest you the most. These are some of the most helpful maps I have found to quickly determine which areas should receive your attention. You will also notice that, once again, the southwest, deep south, Atlantic coastal areas, and many western states are not ideal locations for long-term stability. Furthermore, the authors of Sustainability and place: How emerging mega-trends of the 21st century will affect humans and nature at the landscape level recommend readers avoid mega-regions due to their fragility and unsustainable population density. Yes, even you, Asheville.
Shaded areas with varying-sized circles indicate mega-regions with large population centers. Living within these brown-shaded areas will prove to be complicated. According to Friedemann:
"The cities most dependent on cheap energy will be the most affected. The maintenance of large urban mega-regions requires enormous and continuous inputs of energy and materials. Modern industrial society and modern cities are inherently unsustainable."
In the "Under-performing Regions" map, Friedemann advises people to move to these areas in the country. Unlike the highly urbanized regions that consumed all of their local resources, the disinvestment of these areas has left the population in poverty, but this has also preserved the resources:
"These are regions that have not kept pace with national trends over the last 3 decades in terms of population, employment, and wages. Note that with the exception of the Great Lakes mega-region, the under-performing regions are outside of the 11 mega-regions. These under-performing areas generally have high natural resources and agricultural production."
I believe it's crucial to research environmental factors when deciding where to look for a home. I firmly believe government aid will not be available, and deteriorating supply lines will make reconstruction near impossible from hazardous weather events. Make sure to choose your location wisely so that you can create a sustainable home site with dependable water, soil fertility, and food production. These will be some of the most essential resources in a de-industrialized world. You may notice that all of these topics discussed today are interconnected on some level. Here, I listed some of the fundamentals of finding an area to prosper in. Of course, there is a diversity of pros and cons for any place you would like to settle, so it is up to you to decide which area best suits your goals.
Food for thought
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