Basics: Water Supply

When I think about what it takes to build a homestead, my #1 priority is the water system. Without water, you have no garden, no livestock, and no home. Fortunately there are a lot of ways to address this. Here are some of my thoughts about water.

There are two kinds of water on a farm. Water for animals and gardening, and water for household use (showering, washing). Drinking water is a step beyond this, but still counts as household use.


Farm use

River/creek

Either you have one or you don’t. This is a high priority when choosing land. Any number of self-pumping arrangements can be made, my favorite is the hydraulic ram pump. Alternately, a gasoline trash pump is good for moving a lot of water quickly, for example refilling a large storage tank in a short time.

Dams and Ponds

Every square foot of the property can contribute to the whole. Flat areas will be better for pasture land. Hills and hollers are ideal sites for creating water dams. The steeper the valley, the cheaper it should be to dam it up. Rainfall runoff will refill the dam frequently, and there should be an outlet at the base of the dam to make use of the stored water. If the hilly country is high enough above the flat land, you will have free pressurized water across the whole pasture. In a severe drought, the dam can be refilled manually, using a gasoline pump. This is only needed if there are fish stocked in the pond.

For further reading on planning dams and ponds, I highly recommend the Keyline Plan, and Water For Every Farm, books by P.A. Yeomans.

Tanks

If the land is totally flat, or just for temporary use, having several large tanks around is extremely useful. They should ideally be sited higher than the livestock or garden, to provide water pressure. These together with a gasoline pump make a reliable temporary water system. However some care must be taken to check the tanks, because they are all at a relatively small volume and when connected to automatic waterers, you can run out without realizing it. This is especially true in case of a leak.

Piping

The cheapest pipe is black poly tubing. For buried line or permanent runs, this works quite well. Keep it away from vehicle tires, and chewing or rooting animals. It tends to last for many years even in direct sunlight.

Garden hose works well for the end of the line, where you may need more flexibility. It’s very easy to kink, and tends to break more easily than the poly tubing. Very susceptible to cracking in cold weather.

For simple flood irrigation, of a pasture for instance, no plumbing is needed at all. Keyline furrows should be in place, and then simply release the water from the dam, and it will find its way up the slopes and down the center, in a maximum spread.


Household Use

Well water

This is the best drinking water, and the most expensive. Most wells produce water in good quantity all year round, but you can’t be sure until you’ve already dug it. Some areas have sulphurous ground water, some wells produce hard water, and some are very low producers. In a dry spell, too many people on wells can dry things up. Water is limited in any case to the amount the well produces. A storage tank can alleviate some of the demand. Wells also rely on large electric motors to pump, and can be your biggest load when going offgrid.

Rain water

This is the best washing water, always soft, easy on your pipes. Very cheap to collect, assuming all building roofs are used. The first rain should be discarded, to get rid of dust and debris. Does contain some bacteria, and is usually stored in cisterns which allows some growth. Can be filtered and treated for drinking water.

Of course this only works if it rains. During a long dry spell, it would be prudent to have other sources of water.

Any water with Slow Sand Filtration

This is an interesting alternative to the usual options. Slow sand filtration works like this: A container has a gravel base, with coarse sand on top, and fine sand on top of that. Water flows from the top down. As it percolates through the fine layer, small organisms lodge there, and begin to form a biological layer. As more bacteria come through, they are “hunted” and consumed by the predators waiting in the biolayer. This strengthens the bio layer in a self-reinforcing cycle, until it becomes so thick that the water passes very slowly (occasional maintenance is therefore needed).

This type of filter is nearly 100% effective at removing viruses, bacteria, and algae’ basically all organic matter stops with the biolayer. This is drinking-quality water. While it is very slow, it can operate at any scale. Several 55 gallon drum filters are reportedly enough for a household of 4.

What this means, is that surface water is no longer off limits to the household. When properly filtered, river or pond water can be used in the house, thus avoiding the expense (wells) and uncertainty (rain) of the other options.

Charcoal Filtration

Activated charcoal can clean up odors, tastes, and chemicals. Whole house systems are easy to install, and last for some time. Charcoal is easy to make, too. May be used with other filters, or reserved for drinking water.

Distillation

High energy inputs, but very effective. Equipment is also expensive. Useful only for drinking water. Very high purity, but noted for it’s lack of taste.

Water softener

If the water is hard, possibly well water or city water. Better to avoid if possible, uses purchased inputs (salt) and energy. Water is slightly salty.

About this blog

Our mission

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

“…aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.”

I decided to write this blog to chronicle my adventures in building a family homestead. My goal is simple. I want to grow food and eat it; I’ll generate cash by other means. Growing food for money is a lot of work, and doesn’t pay well. The quality of life on a homestead is worthwhile even if it doesn’t pay for itself.

I haven’t got the land or the capital to actually build anything yet. So, it’s a good time to plan, dream, save up, and decide exactly what I’m trying to do.

Back story

This isn’t my first rodeo. In 2005, our family moved to a farm in rural Kentucky, with the same goals in mind. We wanted to determine a) could we make a go at farming, b) was this the life we really wanted. At the time, I was the oldest at 16, and didn’t have much experience (or motivation) with farming. Dad was fairly busy running an internet bookstore, and towards the end people were switching to ebooks, and buying less paper. We were burning through savings, which wasn’t sustainable. In 2012 we sold the farm and moved into town. But that’s a story for another time.

Even still, we made a thorough tour of homestead life. In the seven years we lived there, we raised milk cows, beef cows, egg layers, broilers, sheep, pigs, guinea hens, dogs and cats… along with a garden that peaked at 1/4 acre. From the kitchen came milk, butter, ice cream, cheese, fresh bread, smoked meats, chicken broth, apple cider and sauerkraut. We heated with wood, built and operated a 20’x50’ greenhouse, fenced in 6 acres of pasture, cleared overgrown fields, gathered apples from very old trees, hauled untold bales of hay from a neighbor’s field, and completely restored the converted Amish farmhouse.

After we left, I began to notice the permanent effects on our family. We never eat out. Our food is simple and made from ingredients. Entertainment is not a priority. We stay home a lot, and enjoy each other’s company. When things break, I fix them. I have a bad habit of collecting useful ‘junk’ that others throw away. But the biggest effect was on my sister Maggie. She decided to actively seek out a farm, to work as an intern and learn the business side of raising meat animals. She spent a year working on the Eggleston farm in Mendota VA. And along the way, she regained her heart’s desire – a family milk cow. I’ve been to visit her on the farm several times, and it’s part of my inspiration for this project.

In January of 2016, Maggie asked me if I’d ever thought about living on a small homestead with a workshop. I had been planning to do exactly that, but had no concrete goals in mind. I decided the time was right. This is a big commitment, taking years to build and grow. Clearly the first step is to generate enough cash to buy the land. This itself will take a few years.

It has now been 11 months. During that time, Maggie has continued on her farming journey, and is now working at a small meat processing plant in Moneta VA, and will soon be a salaried farm manager on a nearby farm. I’ve been working a job with DJ Hammond’s company, installing display fixtures in Food Lion grocery stores across North Carolina. Recently, I’ve decided to add to this, by expanding my computer skills into programming and web development. While it’s not a farming skill, it should accelerate things financially, and it’s possible to work from a remote location.

Conclusion

Am I just another starry-eyed urbanite looking for a way out of the city? Perhaps. But the experiences I’ve had, and the other farms I’ve seen rise and fall, have set a very realistic view of what to expect. Electric netting fence is a joke. Weeds are not. Cows get out, and head for the hills. Calves die. Pigs are hard to catch, and sheep can run very fast. Mastitis is always a risk for milk cows. Heat lamps can set a chicken brooder on fire…. and so on.

These are not reasons to stop.

A quiet, productive, independent, family-centered life is still a possibility for those of us who truly want it.