Can I Really Homestead On One Acre?

Homesteading an acre

In reading and analyzing articles claiming it is possible to homestead on one acre I have yet to see an article accurately depicting the amount of land that can be homesteaded on after taking into account common Health and Safety Regulations.

When looked at this way homesteading on one acre is not nearly as easy as even the articles in a nationally recognized back-to-the-land Magazine claim it to be.

Can I Really Homestead On One Acre? Not in the traditional sense unless you live in a suburb with water and sewer services, you have public utilities to keep you warm in winter, there are no Regulations prohibiting a garden and having animals such as chickens and you have an independent source of income.

To really understand what a Homestead is and the limits to homesteading on a single acre in the country requires much more than a diagram and researching how much land it takes to grow crops and support some small animals.

It also takes understanding the realities of country life and the Health and Safety Regulations governing those living on a country homestead. Common Health and Safety Regulations take a big portion of a one acre lot in the country away from usage as a homestead.

How Big Is An Acre

A square acre is a plot of ground that is 208.71 feet by 208.71 feet having 43,560 square feet. A rectangular acre is slightly smaller than a foot ball field. The Old English definition of an acre was the length of a chain (66') by the length of a furlough (660').

For the sake of this article we will use a square acre of 208.71 feet on a side as an example.

In many areas of the United States there are Zoning Regulations that prohibit having a dwelling on parcels of land as small as one acre outside of a town. This is a reality that many One Acre Homestead article writers either omit or do not know about.

Health Regulations In Rural America

Even the remotest Counties in Rural  America have Health Regulations. A few Counties may not enforce them very well but they are there nonetheless. They are based upon sound scientific principles designed to protect the health and well being of both humans and the animals they keep and raise.

The most important regulation involves the proper location of a well in relation to the other areas of a homestead or farm. A well should be at least 100 feet from a barnyard, septic system or other potential sources of contamination.

Additionally a well should be 50 feet from the nearest corner of a house and at least 15 feet away from an outbuilding, fence or driveway. This gives room to work on the well and pump without damaging other structures or blocking the driveway. A typical regulation also requires a well to be 10 feet from any property line.

The next important regulation involves the placement of the septic tank and field lines also know as Leach Lines. The size of the septic tank and drainage system from the tank depends on the number of bedrooms planned for a home and upon the ability of the soil on the property to perc.

Determining the percolation rate is done by a percolation test where holes are dug, water is placed in the holes and the time it takes for the water to drain down through the soil is recorded. This determines how well the soil percs.

Not all soil passes a perc test. When the results of the perc test are known and that result is placed with the number of bedrooms, (a rough indication of how many people will live on the land), then the size of the septic tank and drainage system or field lines is calculated.

The safe recommendation is to set aside an area twice the size needed since septic systems do fail and can need to be replaced.

If the septic system is uphill from the well's location there needs to be more than 100 feet separating the well from the septic system. Likewise, if a barnyard is uphill from the well there needs to be more than 100 feet separating the well and the barnyard.

The reason is to have a sufficient amount of soil between the well and septic system or barnyard to filter out the harmful bacteria and other pollutants that can cause sickness in humans.

If the septic system or barnyard is uphill from the well there also needs to be more than 100 feet distance between them to compensate for the increased chance of contaminants being washed into the well after a rain. If you lived in a rural area where it was allowed to have one dwelling per acre these distances would also be necessary between your well and a neighbors septic system or barnyard.

Likewise your neighbor should know that your septic system or barnyard is the recommended distance from his well. A common regulation requires there to be at least 200 feet between a septic tank and a neighbor's house.

For health reasons it is not recommended that you grow crops directly over your septic system. Plus, what if the septic tank needed pumped out. You would not want the big tank truck needed to pump out the septic tank driving through your garden.

If your septic system had field lines as the drainage system you would not want roots from fruit trees or other crops whose roots tend to go deep clogging up a portion of your field lines.

A typical Regulation requires the septic tank to be set back a minimum of 10 feet from the house to allow room to work on the tank when necessary and that the field lines are at least 20 feet from the house and no closer than 10 feet to a property line.

How far apart the field lines should be depends upon the soil characteristics but at least 5 feet apart is the usual normal distance.

Regulation Governing House Set Backs

Regulations governing house set backs can vary from County to County and may be non-existent in some remote Counties.

A typical set back is at least 50 feet from the road, 15 feet from a side property line and 30 feet from the back property line.

These Regulations Need To Be Factored In Before Planting

It is easy to see without a diagram that a house, driveway, well, septic system and the regulations on distance takes up close to half of the acre when a second area is allocated for a replacement septic system.

With essentially half of the acre taken up in health regulation distances, house set backs and driveway there is half an acre left for the business of Homesteading.

Planning A Homestead On Half An Acre

With about half an acre taken up just meeting Health Regulations and set backs for house, well, and septic systems there is half an acre left to homestead. The lay of the land has to be taken into consideration. Land for a garden needs to be fairly level to prevent rains from removing top soil by washing it away.

In addition to the lay of the land it is best if the land is situated so that there are as many hours of sunlight on the garden as possible. The best location for a garden in the Northern Hemisphere is facing south.

If south facing is not practical then a south eastern facing is second best because it takes advantage of the morning sun. A south western facing garden is fine but be aware of the fact that the warmer afternoon sun can cause drying and wilting if the garden is not properly watered before there is direct, hot sunlight shining on it.

Our garden on our small homesteadOur Garden Area

The garden area on our homestead is 70 feet by 100 feet. There is a gentle slope of about 12 to 15 inches over the 70 foot width of the garden. The entire 100 foot length of the garden faces almost due south. So we have the longest dimension of the garden facing the sunlight from early morning until evening.

There are woods to the south of our garden which is on the parcel of land next door. That woods is about 125 feet away from our garden spot so we have no problems with those trees shading our garden for a portion of the day.

Our garden is divided into two portions. The eastern most portion is 40 foot long and contains 6 rows of raspberry bushes and 2 rows of blackberry bushes. The westernmost 60 feet is where we grow strawberries and vegetables. 

This entire portion of our garden is made up of raised beds. Some with trellises for plants to grow up on and others to make it easier to cultivate and harvest the produce.

In this 60 foot long section we have two hoop house style greenhouses. The smaller hoop house is 8 feet by 12 feet with four large plastic barrel planters made by cutting a 55 gallon drum in half and four smaller planters.

The larger hoop house is 10 feet wide by 32 feet long. It has raised beds along the sides and back and down the middle. There are 3 planters a few feet inside the door in front of the center raised bed.

A garden area this size can supply much of the fruits and vegetables we eat during the growing season with some left over to can or freeze for the winter. This 70' by 100' garden area is a little under 1/6 of an acre. It takes up about 1/3 of the area not taken out of an acre by the Health Regulations discussed above.

Our Animals

Four of our chickensWe raise our own chickens and eat their eggs. We have 12 hens and 1 rooster. They have a fenced in area that is roughly 25 feet by 25 feet where they are free to run.

A portion of that area is covered so they are not confined to a chicken coop during the winter when we can have several feet of snow on the ground.

There are eagles and hawks in our area so we have covered the top of the chicken area with 2" wire Chicken Fabric to protect them from these winged predators and to keep them from flying outside of their area.

There are a few small trees and other places where they can be up off the ground when outside of the chicken coop.

They keep us supplied with all the eggs we eat and during the late-spring to mid-fall there are extra eggs we can sell to friends to help off set the cost of keeping the chickens.

Our two German ShepherdsAdditionally we have two German Shepherds that are indoor/outdoor dogs. Because of the deer, elk and wild turkeys in our area we keep them inside a large fenced in yard. Because we enjoy watching the wild life we do not want the dogs chasing them away.

We have not had problems with deer getting into the garden and eating plants and produce. This is probably because the deer know we have big dogs.

Even though our garden area is fenced, it is only a 5 foot high fence which the deer could easily jump. The dogs have the run of the back and side yard areas which includes the area over the septic tank and field lines.

Orchard Area

On our homestead the garden, chicken's area and fenced in yard for the dogs equals close to 1/3 of an acre in size.

To have dwarf fruit trees for enough fruit for 2 people requires a space of 10' x 10' for each apple, peach, cherry or plum tree planted. A dwarf pear tree needs a space of 12' x 12'. Semi-dwarf and full sized trees require much more space.

So in a 50 foot by 50 foot area you could get between 20 and 25 dwarf fruit trees depending on the mix of fruit trees. You'd get less than 25 if some of them were dwarf pear trees.

A One Acre Homestead

It is possible to get a garden, small orchard, place for chickens and have some yard for dogs to run in along with the Health Requirements and distances between septic system, well and house as mentioned above on one acre.

Several articles I have read say to have a milk cow on a one acre homestead. The advantages listed include having milk to drink and manure for the garden.

A one acre plot of ground is not sufficiently large enough to homestead on with a cow unless that acre is completely separate from the parcel of land containing the house, well and septic system.

One cow alone, needs half an acre to graze plus you would need to buy around a ton of hay to feed her through an average winter.

Additionally you would need a shed or small barn to shelter her in at night and during the winter..

Things Needed On Even A One Acre Homestead

Most homesteads need some type of outbuilding for storage of garden tools and supplies. If the homestead is in snow country or in the mountains there is the need of a source of fire wood to heat the homestead or supplement the heat for the homestead during cold weather.

Homesteads require a certain ability to repair and build things. To be able to repair things in rainy or cold weather it is nice to have a sheltered area such as a shop to work in.

Shops built over areas containing septic systems are not the best of ideas. Repairs to the septic system could not be done without damaging the shop. Building a shop over an area where a septic system would have to go if the current system needed to be replaced is a gamble at best and poor planning at its worst.

In many of the "Homestead on One Acre" articles I have seen there has been the same illustration showing a shop, house, garage, a cow in a pasture, and lots of garden areas. But this illustration, when looked at closely, does not match the description of a one acre homestead as written in the article.

Every article mentioned the need for half an acre for grazing the cow. Yet the area for the cow in the illustration was about 1/8th of the homestead area. This is an area much too small if the illustration was depicting a one acre homestead.

If this illustration was drawn to scale then about 1/8 of the illustration set aside for one cow would mean this illustration, that was in almost all of the One Acre Homestead articles was actually an illustration of a 4 Acre Homestead! There was nothing on or under this illustration telling what size of a homestead it was depicting.

In the American Mid-West and West there is the danger of wildfires. One of the protective measures against wildfires is to have a covered area away from the house under which to store fire wood.

Then there is the problem of a wood lot for firewood where that is a necessity. If wood heat supplements the heat of a homestead it can easily take 3 or more cords of fire wood each winter.

If the homestead house is heated by a wood burning stove or wood burning furnace it will take 5 cords of wood or more for heat during the winter.

As any homesteader knows, the rule of thumb is it takes a 5 acre wood lot to have a sustainable source of fire wood to heat a 1500 square foot home. For this rule of thumb to be correct the home has to be properly insulated and have a proper sized wood stove placed in the center of the house.

If these 2 conditions are not met the house will have cold areas all winter long.

Traditional Homesteading Was Sustainable

The traditional idea of homesteading was to be able to live a sustainable life style without depending upon anyone but the General Store for items not grown or made on the homestead. The sustainable part meant that the Homesteaders were able to grow, hunt, trap, fish or make most everything needed for a sustainable lifestyle.

Plus they had extra they could sell to have the funds necessary to buy those things they could not obtain from their homestead lifestyle. So sustainable meant they could live, survive and thrive without an outside job.

A homestead, which is on a parcel of ground much larger than 1 acre can require an income originating outside of the homestead for survival.

We know some homesteaders who say that their flock of 12 hens lay enough eggs in a course of one year to pay the cost of their upkeep. Those same homesteaders feel that in another growing season or two they will be able to grow most of the food they eat in a years time.

It takes a few growing seasons to learn what needs to be done to the soil and which plants grow best in the homestead area. Don't be discouraged if it takes a few years to reach a level of sustainability.

If you can not afford a parcel of land large enough for a good sized garden, chickens, maybe a milk cow and a couple of goats and still have at least a 5 acre woodlot, don't let that stop you from living your homestead dreams.

If you live near a U.S. Forest Service Forest or a State Forest, check to see if you can obtain a permit to harvest fallen and standing dead wood for firewood. These permits are very reasonably priced. None of us will live long enough to pay anywhere near the cost of even one acre of land in permit fees.

Not Everyone Can Live A Traditional Homestead Life

I appreciate those good people who are not in a position to live on a homestead of any size but who do as much as they can to live a homestead lifestyle.

Everyone of them is to be commended and I wish more people would live as close to a homestead lifestyle as was possible. I believe the world would be a better place if more people lived that way.

Can I Really Homestead On One Acre?

No, not in the traditional sense of sustainability. Not even if you live in a suburb where there is public water and sewer that frees up your entire acre to grow gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. No, not even if you can raise chickens in that suburb or even if they would allow you to have a cow on your one acre lot.

Can you live a healthier lifestyle by living as close to a traditional homestead as possible on that one acre? Absolutely!

Again, everyone who lives the best homestead lifestyle they can on the land they have is to be commended.

Now if only all those blogs and back-to-the-land magazines would point out that Homesteading, in the traditional sense, is not possible on one acre.

Not possible unless, you have an acre of land in an area where the winters never get cold and the weather gives a perfect 12 month growing season.

Not everyone can afford a large heated greenhouse or thousands of dollars worth of lights, and elaborate set ups to grow crops all year round and make a profit by selling what they don't need for their own use.

Not everyone is able to live on a traditional homestead. but everyone can adapt their situation to living as close to a homestead lifestyle as their circumstances permit.

About The Author

John Brownlee

A retired Lawyer and Health Care Provider, he teaches people how to locate, evaluate, and purchase Country and Homestead Property. He and his wife, Linda, have taught hundreds of people how to suture wounds in an emergency. He teaches both Preparedness and Health Care Classes and has been a Presenter at Sustainable Preparedness Expos. He holds a General Ham Radio Operator's License.