Evaluating Prospective Permaculture Homestead Properties: Estimating Land Area Requirements for Food Production and Assessing Sites


In light of current trends, increasing numbers of people are attempting to establish self-reliant homesteads. Their main obstacles are high-land prices and lack of knowledge on how to proceed. Given that buying suitable land requires a large, once-in-a-lifetime investment, the short- and long-term stakes are high, so acquiring knowledge and carefully proceeding forward is fundamentally important. Devoting great care to choosing, planning, designing and developing a site to its potential is crucial when building a homestead because these decisions will affect inhabitants for generations to come. The benefits or problems with good or bad decisions when establishing the homestead will magnify and accumulate over the decades, making the lives of our descendants that much better or worse.

After carefully stating the homestead vision, mission, goals and operating objectives, the landowner(s) should determine specific land area requirements for implementing the vision and draw a general but accurate function-based design that includes permaculture zones, patches and use-areas within zones. Next, the landowner is ready to locate and obtain a homestead site. Given the stakes involved, the land owner should identify, research, visit, compare and rate several prospective properties and choose one based on explicit preferences and known advantages and disadvantages of each property.

This article describe two methodologies to aid in making good land purchasing decisions – a) a methodology for determining specific land area requirements for food production, and b) a methodology for rating prospective properties in reference to preferred functions. The author has created spreadsheet-based models for each of these methodologies that are flexible to accommodate client preferences for use in consulting homesteaders purchasing properties for establishing homesteads.

This article describes each of these methodologies and the corresponding spreadsheet models.

Table-to-Land Model for Estimating Land Requirements for Homestead Food Production

The table-to-land methodology transforms a sample food plan representing one full year for a household (including pets) into an estimation of the minimum necessary land area for growing the raw food for making items on the food plan. The methodology proceeds with these general steps:

1) Determine long-term production goals

Specifically, determine the percentage of food the household intends to provide on the homestead, what types of food (for example, grains or sugar?), how many people and indoor pets will be in the food plan and what types of food the household intends to purchase on the commercial market.

2) Create a menu of recipes

A recipe includes any food that a person eats directly – from a cup of milk to an apple to a serving of lasagna or roast beef. Any volume unit will work but I prefer cups as standard to describe: a) servings of a recipe (cups); b) food inputs that go into a recipe (cups per total volume); and c) food inputs that go into one serving of a recipe (cups/cup).

The spreadsheet model includes over 220 recipe items, ranging from dairy products to meat, fruit and grain and beans and more. It includes over 110 recipe inputs – mostly raw foods but also prepared dairy.

3) Create a food plan

For one individual or for the whole household, create a daily food plan that will span the entire year, describing in cups of a recipe item (say, lasagna) a person or household consumes in each day of the year. Creating a representative sample and multiplying it to 365 will save time. For example, create a sample meal plan for 37 days (1/10 of 365 days) and multiply it by 10 to get roughly one year (370 days). The resulting meal plan will include volumes of every bit of food the household eats for a year, from raw milk to yogurt. To add context, divide the sample among four seasons to reflect the differences in diet that correspond to the seasons.

The spreadsheet model uses a sample of 56 days divided among four seasons (14 days per season). The multiplier is 6.52.

5) Determine number of living plants and animals necessary to meet the target volumes.

Plants include trees, shrubs and ground perennials, but excludes grain and pulse crops. Production animals include any animal that offers a beneficial function, for example food animals, guard dogs and cats (including retirees).

The spreadsheet model includes several types of animals and a wide variety of plants.

6) Determine the area needs of the live plants and animals necessary for meeting target volumes

This step also requires knowledge of production estimates for relevant plants and animals in the context of regional factors.

7) Compile and summarize the area needs

Group and summarize estimated land-area needs in references to annuals vegetables, animals, ground perennials, shrubs and trees, grains and legumes) and total values.

8) Incorporate these area requirements into a drawn spatial design

I use an open-source geographical information system, but pencil and paper work just as well. Depending upon goals, different growing areas will correspond to different permaculture zones.\

Property Rating System

I recommend combining two approaches to using an indexing system for comparing properties. A site-Rating indexing system can be based on all the factors, sub-factors and criteria involved in developing a homestead site – with each factor and each criterion assigned “weight” according to the owner’s preference. “Factors” in developing a homestead include the major areas of concern, for example, available water sources, soil conditions and building site requirements. “Sub-factors” include the options within a factor, for example, in reference to available water sources, water might be available via spring, stream, well and/or roof-top catchment.

“Criteria” include the observable phenomena that indicate the quality of a factor. For example, in reference to a well (sub-factor) among the available water sources (factor), criteria might include water quality, flow, depth, recharge rate and availability and condition of existing well-plumbing and equipment (pump, etc).

Note, however, that often sub-factors will function as criteria, especially when they are conducive to direct measurement or observation. This paper refers to this subset of sub-factors as factor criteria.

Every landowner will value factors, sub-factors and criteria differently, and a reliable Rating model will reflect these value preferences. The Rating model should assign different importance or “weight” to each factor according to his or her preferences. (An Rating model built for multiple clients and searches should facilitate the process of editing weights to match each client’s mission.)

For assigning weights, assessing conditions and calculating ratings, I prefer to use a scale of 1-10 with a precision of one decimal (0.0-10.0).

For example, a prospective homesteader might be concerned with the three factors listed above – available water sources, soil conditions and building sites, weighting each factor 10.0, 4.0 and 7.0 in importance, respectively. Within available water sources, the homesteader might be interested in the sub-factors listed above – spring/stream, well and rooftop catchment. Within each sub-factor, criteria include water quality, flow, seasonal reliability and existing equipment.

In reference to the above example, a site visit and rating might reveal that the property has no stream, a marginal well and seasonal availability of rooftop catchment. The assessed value of each of the relevant criteria are listed below. Multiplying the value of each criterion by its corresponding weight (preference) yields a rating for each criterion. However, this rating is in 1-100 scale so I simply divide it by ten to express it in 1-10 scale (personal preference). Averaging the criteria in a sub-factor yields a rating for that sub-factor. Likewise, averaging the sub-factors in a factor yields a rating for that factor. Please see Table 1 in PDF format by clicking this link: Site Rating Example, Tables 1 & 2.

The final rating for this example is the average of 4.2, 4.9 and 4.0 (the ratings of the major factors), which equals 4.4. This value provides a reference for comparing other prospective sites with the exact same preference weights but different Rating values. (Each property will have different Rating values.) Site Rating Example, Tables 1 & 2.

Site Observations

Conducting accurate, useful field observations is crucial to successfully rating a site and making good investment choices. “Reading the landscape” is a practiced skill that combines a systematic approach with an experience-based aptitude for making observations. When rating properties for homestead sites, prospective buyers should take enough time at each site to make careful, proper observations. Site conditions can change considerably after a storm or during seasonal changes, significantly affecting factors such as surface hydrology. Careful attention to detail is key in determining such dynamic factors.

Permaculture Site Rating System for private consulting

My own rating system is based on the logic described above and is designed to make revising preference weights or observation values easy for multiple clients rating multiple properties. I rate properties in terms of five general analytical areas that loosely correspond to permaculture zones as described in the table below. I rate each analysis area in the context of several factors, and further dis-aggregate each factor into sub-factors. Some sub-factors function as measurable criteria, while I rate other sub-factors according to criteria that follow from the sub-factor.


Effective site rating combines a knowledge of relevant factors and criteria with the prospective homesteader’s preferences concerning those factors and with an effective, accurate collection of field observations. Given these resources, the homesteader can make objective comparisons between prospective properties and can evaluate the differences in reference to price or other considerations. Such comparisons will greatly minimize the risk and uncertainty inherent in purchasing property for inter-generational development.