Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cupboards and Pitbulls

We are currently evaluating a farm from over 350 miles away. This is a new experience for us. Our Realtor has emailed pictures and has even taken a video to help us get a better idea of what it is like. It was interesting watching this video with my wife. The Realtor, a man, is narrating the video as he pans around the kitchen. He pauses briefly, filming (or does one now say “videoing”) the wall of pantry cupboards. My wife speaks to the video, “Open the pantry doors. Show us inside the pantry.” But the man, moves on to the “large” laundry room giving us a 10 second panoramic sweep of that room. As we watch, I think to myself, he’s a guy, and I find myself wondering how the video might have been different if a wife and mother had been behind the camera. However, we are able to pause the video to see some details better, although we aren’t able to get the video to open those pantry cupboards, no matter how hard we try!

We find ourselves in the situation of trying to evaluate a property from afar through unique circumstances. Normally we would arrange with our Realtor to visit several properties whenever we were out visiting family in western PA, and that is what we were planning to do when we went out over the Fourth of July. By the time we arrived, we found that one of the two properties we were scheduled to see was already under contract, so we only had one place to look at.

This place was over 50 acres with a couple of run down trailers, an abandoned two-story cement block garage, and 3,500 feet of creek going through one corner of it. The pictures on the listing showed us not to expect too much from the buildings, but perhaps they would prove serviceable as shelter and storage while building the main house. We arrived before our Realtor early Friday morning, and as we pulled into the drive-through driveway (it was a corner lot), we noticed that the property looked like the kind of neighborhood where you wouldn’t want to be alone at night. The combination of several abandoned vehicles and abandoned buildings, all added to the effect.

We therefore decided that we would continue driving through the driveway and see how much we could see from the road. It was then that our Realtor showed up, and we followed him as we cautiously entered the neighborhood a second time.

Who Let the Dogs Out?
We parked our vans outside of the abandoned garage, and left the safety of the vans behind as we all got out (we had our two boys with us), and with the Realtor in front, started to approach the less run-down of the two trailers in case someone was home. We were about half way to the trailer when suddenly, from the far side came two large pit bull terriers barking wildly. As they careened around the trailer, they spotted us.

My wife, sensibly said, “I’m getting back into the van.” And not wanting her to be alone and unprotected, I decided to go along. The boys, and our Realtor, followed suit.

As the five of us sat in our vans, the two dogs began to set up vigil outside. You have to remember, we had an appointment to see this property which they were trying to sell to us. Makes you wonder how uninvited guests might have been treated!

Providential Serendipity
Realizing our Realtor wasn’t going to get out of his van anytime soon to go knock on the trailer door, we decided to drive back out to the road and see what we could of the property. After we noticed that there was a lot of cattails around (a good sign of swampy ground) and that the 3,500 feet of creek was totally stagnant (no water flowing even though it had rained the day before), we decided we had seen enough. It was then I mentioned having seen a “Farm for Sale” sign on the way to this place and we all decided that our time might be better spent looking at that place then spending anymore time here.

That is how we came across the place we are currently considering. No one was at home, so we were only able to look at it briefly, and because of scheduling, we were unable to get to see it again before we had to head back home to eastern PA.

As with any farm, you have land and you have the house (and you have the other barns and out buildings). This place is probably a “9” as to the land: 35+ acres tillable, about 30 acres pasture (fenced), and about 10 acres woods, with a 2 acre pond and a smaller spring fed Koi pond and a small stream. The house is an 100+ year old farm house with an addition that has been nicely kept with an updated kitchen and 2 full bathrooms. However, including basements, it is a little over half the size of our current place, which means making sacrifices and choices.

And that is where we are right now, trying to decide if we are willing to make the necessary adjustments to move into a smaller place. If we decide that we are, we will probably schedule a visit out west to give the place a thorough going over.

Afflicting the Comfortable
Perhaps you’ve heard the quote (I think it was from Spurgeon), “My ministry is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” We have often heard that Christians can lose their effectiveness when they become too comfortable. I find these thoughts have new meaning as I contemplate choosing a less comfortable house and perhaps a less comfortable lifestyle. It is interesting to think that this current house would probably have seemed palatial to those who built the original farmhouse over 100 years ago. But we have become used to comfort and to having room for all of our things.

And so we pray for God’s grace and direction. May God give us the grace to understand and to choose His will as we seek Him in all of this. May we find our comfort to be in Him, and in Him alone.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Deciding Where to Move

After one has decided to pursue an agrarian lifestyle, the next question becomes, "Where?" For us, we knew that this would necessitate a move. We wanted more land and to retire our mortgage debt. Since Bucks County, Pennsylvania is fairly expensive (remember that 28 acre farm that sold for 2.2 million dollars?), we knew that we would have to move to a new area.

We have been looking now for several years, and I'd like to share the different priorities we've used to help us decide where. Perhaps this will help others as they also look to the Lord for land to fulfill their agrarian dreams.

Good Church
This was one of our first considerations. I am surprised how often Christians consider this as an afterthought when they are making a decision about moving. God doesn't want us to be isolated from the Body of Christ, and since the change from suburban to rural was going to be enough of a change, I did not think it would be spiritually healthy to try and add starting a church plant as well. I will save for a future post my measures of a good church. I used a combination of Internet searching, emails, and phone calls to pastors to help check out potential areas. The bottom line is that we are looking in the Grove City and Harrisville areas of western Pennsylvania, over an hour north of Pittsburgh. This area has four Reformed churches, at least one like-minded pastor, and several like-minded families.

Good, Affordable Farm Land
This priority probably goes without saying. However, it's important to keep these first two priorities in their proper place. We often hear of inexpensive land available in different areas, but unfortunately, it is often the case that while the land may be cheap and plentiful, if there is no good church in the area, we're not interested.

There was one time we were visiting a prospective church in the Lancaster, PA area, which is known for having the most fertile, productive, non-irrigated land in the country. A friend we had met at this church told us about a farm auction he had just attended. It was for a small, 15-acre, Amish farm. The house needed work, and would need to be upgraded for electricity. At the auction, our friend and another man bid back and forth until the price got up to about $400,000. At that point our friend dropped out of the bidding, letting the other man think he had won. That's when a lone Amish man, who hadn't bid yet, began bidding. The other man just gave up. That little, 15-acre farm sold for $410,000. That’s over $20,000/acre! That's when we decided to stop looking in the Lancaster area!

The area we are looking in has land in the $1,500-4,000/acre range.

Closer to Family
Another priority for us was to be near family. My wife's family (except for us) all lives within 2 miles of each other in western PA. Her sister lives next door to her parents, who live next door to one brother and his family. A second brother lives a little over a mile away. Several nephews and nieces live less than a mile away. My family, on the other hand, is scattered between Seattle, New York, and Connecticut. It would be impossible for us to be near them all, so we opted to look in western PA. We then started looking for a good Reformed church near family, and kept expanding our circle of search until we came upon a good church.

We are now looking about an hour from family. This will be a lot better than our current six-hour distance, and will allow us to take day trips to participate in family get-togethers and such.

Access to Good Markets
Even if one is planning to homestead, it will still be worthwhile to consider your accessibility to local markets for selling your produce. For us, we would be in close proximity to Grove City and Slippery Rock—two college towns, less than a half hour from two county seats, and a little over an hour from Pittsburgh and Erie.

Good Employment
This is usually the first consideration for families considering a move, and I think that has caused much heartache for many families. It is not without reason that God’s Word contains many warnings against making money our goal. “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).

Now I’m not saying that supporting our families is unimportant. After all, we are told that “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). However, I am cautioning those who would uproot their families (especially if they are already part of a solid church family) simply for the sake of a promotion or a “better job.”

Fortunately, this has turned out not to be a consideration for us. I work as a software developer, and most of the work I do—from designing software, administrating our company databases, to web application design—can be done from anywhere with a high-speed Internet connection. Several months ago, I was given the official OK to work remotely.

At the Present
And this brings us to where we are in the present, looking for a farm. In a future post, I’ll have to share our various experiences with our Realtor involving ex-cons, pit-bulls, and why realtors prefer the owner not be around during a showing!