Written By: Tasha Greer , MOTHER EARTH NEWS Blogger
When I first started homesteading, I lived in a master planned city just outside Washington DC. It had many environmental and community well-being programs such as being walkable, maintaining a large nature preserve, re-wilding wetlands, lots of parks and community spaces, and free electric car charging stations. But, as a former farming community, turned upscale suburb of DC, the city also had many regulations intended to make it difficult for home-owners to become self-sufficient homesteaders.
Bee friendly lawns were prohibited as part of city lawn maintenance requirements. Extensive permitting and aesthetic requirements existed for building structures and fences. Although cats and dogs were allowed, chickens and mini-goats were not. Home butchery was prohibited. Edible gardens were limited to backyards. Hanging laundry to dry on outdoor lines was a fineable offense.
Now that I live in rural North Carolina, there are fewer aesthetic regulations and most people around here farm or homestead. Yet, there are still a lot of regulations to contend with at the county, state, and federal level that impact our choices as homesteaders.
I am not a lawyer and am by no means an expert on laws relating to homesteading. And unfortunately there are so many laws and regulations and different enforcement agencies, that even when you do your “due diligence” there is still no guarantee that you’ll uncover all the potential legal hurdles. But, the following is a summary of some of the legal concerns I have encountered with a few ideas for how to navigate them.
Outbuildings and Fences
Many homesteaders need outbuildings such as animal shelters, storage sheds, greenhouses or hoop-houses, or other structures. We also need fences to keep livestock in or deer, rabbit, and other critters out. To live without refrigeration, you may also want a root cellar or a spring house.
Before you make plans for any kind of permanent structure, you may want to check your property deed for any right of access provisions that may limit the location of your structures. For example, if your property neighbors a land-locked property, you may have an obligation to allow your neighbors to install a road in a certain location on your land. If you bought property that had previously deeded rights to minerals or natural gas, you may be obligated to give access and allow installation of extraction equipment in specific areas. Utility companies usually have right of access to any lines they’ve installed, or plan to install, so calling 811 to have utilities marked before construction or digging or building is a must. There are also usually areas of easement between properties or along public sidewalks and roads.
After you’ve ruled out unsuitable locations, make a trip, or a call, to your city or county building inspector’s office. Where I live, there is almost no information online, but inspectors are happy to answer questions by phone or in person. Although there are written regulations, individual inspectors tend to worry more about some things and less about others, so starting with a conversation can save you hassles down the road.
Property tax values may also be impacted by the addition of outbuildings. For example, we installed a shipping container to hold our solar panels and batteries. The entire cost of that installation was added to our property value and increased our property tax rate. We live in a rural area without public services, so our tax base is low, but over the life of that installation, we will have to pay thousands of dollars in additional property taxes. Checking with your property tax assessment office prior to building is a good idea if you are trying to keep your tax base low.
Towns, cities, counties, and home owners associations (HOA) often have regulations on the kind and quantity of animals you are allowed to keep on your property. Check with your local legislatures and HOA agreement before ordering your batch of chicks or ducklings. Even if you can keep animals, there may be laws relating to slaughtering on site, aesthetic and orderliness ordinances, waste management requirements, and other concerns. Make sure your plan for using animals on your homestead meshes with local livestock ordinances. (Or, be willing to face the consequences if you choose to ignore them as many backyard chicken keepers are now doing.)
If you can work with (or around) your local requirements, any “livestock” (regardless of whether you see them as pets) are subject to state and federal regulations. The USDA maintains a list of state agricultural departments for your reference. Some state websites offer useful resources, but many regulations are so obscure (to the layperson) that it’s hard to know what search terms to use. In my experience, by explaining your livestock plans and goals to your agricultural agent, they will direct you to the applicable regulations and permitting processes.
In my case, I wanted to process ducks on my homestead and sell them at the farmer’s market. North Carolina is pretty lenient on this, but does require twice annual inspections, water tests, and certain levels of care to meet animal welfare requirements. I found the basic requirements online. But, there were no specifics on what kind of water testing was required. By talking to a state agricultural agent, I learned that a $40 pass/fail test for E. Coli and Coliform by a certified vendor was sufficient, in lieu of the $400-$700 tests offered by the state laboratory.
There are also regulations on safe transport, cooling and storage to point of sale, and to whom you can sell your poultry meat. For non-poultry animals, processing at a State or USDA inspected facility is required and in many states a meat handlers certification is needed. For homestead and USDA processing, there are very strict Federal, and sometimes State, laws on labeling. If you want to sell live animals, then there are entirely different regulations such as ear-tagging, transportation rules, and permit requirements.
State laws tend to either echo Federal requirements or be more stringent, so State law is a good place to start your research. But Federal laws cover things like interstate transport and requirements for special claims (e.g. organic, pasture-raised, and even “local”), and the kinds of feed and medications you can legally administer to your livestock. Depending on your tax status and location, federal, state, county, and city taxes may apply to the sale of meat and animals as well.
For those living in, or familiar with, places that do not allow rain water collection, you already know how tricky water laws can be. But, there are also laws that relate to pond building and the use of water that passes through your land to other areas. As an example, our property came with a spring fed pond. But the water that feeds it actually belongs to the state. If I wanted to enlarge the pond or make a series of smaller ponds linking up the larger one, I would need to get the state’s permission to use their water that is running on our land. Also, you generally need permits to install wells, septic systems, and sometimes gray water systems.
Particularly if you are applying permaculture water management principles (catch it, slow it down, sink it in, etc.), you may have to be concerned about drainage laws. If you make modifications to your property to either divert or sink water and inadvertently negatively impact a neighboring property, your neighbor my have recourse to make you pay for damages or reverse your changes. Paying attention to how your water choices might impact your neighbors and letting them know your plans in advance can help you avoid drainage law issues.
You would think that growing the food on your own land would be a basic right. Yet in many places it is not. Many cities prohibit the growth of food on your front lawn. These kind of regulations are often directed to things like fields of corn or obvious vegetable beds, but can usually be navigated by growing edible landscapes that mimic traditional landscaping techniques. In drought areas, water restrictions may limit what you can grow to drought-tolerant varieties and using work around like catching used water from your kitchen drains for garden watering.
There are also laws about what you can grow and where you can import from. For example, I dreamed of growing lots of currants in our edible landscapes. However, some varieties of currants are hosts for White Pine Blister Rust. Since white pine is a significant crop in North Carolina purchasing, planting, or even leaving pre-existing currants on your property are against the law. I had to replace my dreams of currants with Aronia berries, which are tasty, but not a perfect substitute.
Wildlife restrictions may also impact your ability to grow a garden or edible landscape. Nearly every day, a group of nine deer run across our property and eat some of the food we originally intended to grow for ourselves. We are able to get depredation permits to hunt deer out of season here, if the problems are serious enough, but this is not the case in all areas. Also, many species of birds are protected, including crows that are capable of devastating a garden. Wildlife protection is important, so knowing the restrictions in your area, and planning accordingly, will save you hassles later.
If you plan to sell your produce, tax laws and food safety laws come into play. The USDA has finalized its Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Rules. Growers selling less than $25,000 in produce over the last three years are currently exempt. However, if you intend to sell raw produce down the road, you may want to design your food growing systems with these regulations in mind. If you sell CSA shares for $500 per year, you would only have to sell 50 shares over a three year period for these regulations to apply.
Farmer’s markets may also have their own regulations on produce practices. For example, my market requires we apply GAP – Good Agricultural Practices – to our growing areas. These practices include water testing of irrigation water, sets aging requirements on manure based compost, and mandates hand-washing practices.
Foraged, Hunted, and Prepared Foods
In general, if you plan to make homestead income from foraged, hunted, or prepared foods, you will face a lot of regulations. Selling of hunted, or foraged foods and by-products, is frequently illegal. Additionally, there are many regulations on what and when you can hunt and forage. Many public lands specifically forbid foraging for certain items for ecological reasons. Prepared foods often require permits and may have specific training requirements such as acidified foods training or use of pet-free inspected kitchens.
Bartering and Gifting
Bartering is taxable at “market value” according to the IRS. Under current regulations, it could be argued that if a lawyer with a billing rate of $350 per hour accepts a basket of produce with a farmer’s market value of $100 as payment in full for an hour of advice, the farmer has to report and pay applicable taxes on $350 in income. There are certainly people who don’t treat barter like income and do not report it as such. A lack of record-keeping by all parties makes it difficult to enforce this tax regulation.
Personally though, rather than engage in a barter economy, I prefer to participate in a what I call the economy of gifting. If I have something I no longer need or harvest more than we can use or sell, I give it away to friends, strangers, anyone I come across who can put those things to good use. I don’t keep track of what I give and don’t expect anything in return. A gift is simply that. And gifts of up to $13,000 are not taxable according to the IRS.
The reason I call this the “economy of gifting” is that I inevitably both gain and save so much by using this method. For starters, it feels good to give and lighten your own burden of having more than you need. Next, the person that receives gets the joy and excitement of a surprise gift and having a need or want met which just compounds my joy at giving. And then even though I never intended to receive as a result of giving freely, so much free stuff has shown up in our live that it’s kind of incredible.
I gave a friend some extra eggs and forgot all about it. A year later, he gave me 80 pounds of plums! This happened to be a year when we had a late frost after an early spring and lost every bit of tree fruit we had growing. This gift was not only incredibly generous and much appreciated, but it came at the perfect time.
Unlike bartering, there’s no accounting in gifting. My friend wasn’t trying to pay back the eggs, he was just looking for a good home for his extra plums and knew I could benefit from them. Certainly 80 pounds of plums is more valuable than a dozen eggs, and in a barter system, I’d owe my friend big time. But when you participate in a true economy of gifting, you can’t use the scales of commerce to qualify gifts and figure out whether you owe someone. You must give freely and receive freely as well, with no calculations, and nothing in return except appreciation and honoring the gift by putting it to good use.
Food for thought. Some of our laws are crazy, outdated, and dangerous. Quite a few are so clearly directed at making it tough on the little guys that there’s big temptations to become an outlaw. I certainly feel that way at times. Instead, I try to channel my energy into finding ways around them.
For example, there’s a permitting process for growing perennial plants in my state. It’s not a big deal, but it’s another $20 and another inspection to deal with annually. However, there’s no regulation on growing plants intended as annuals. So, a way around this law is to make plant arrangements in ornamental pots that are intended for annual use. I may ultimately opt for the permit, but I like to know the laws, my options, and make informed decisions.
When there is no work-around, you can try to change the laws. This takes effort and legal savvy. You can start with your local and state representatives to initiate the process. And if you are successful at changing the laws and also make it easier for the rest of us to homestead and make related income, then like giving gifts your joy is compounded by knowing you have helped make it easier for others to make a living as a homesteader.
This is the tenth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.