From the Ground Up

What Type of Home Loan Is Best for Farms and Homesteads?

James White


A few years ago we bought a house in the rolling farmlands of Pennsylvania. After some initial research, I thought the USDA loan that's specific for buying rural land especially for agriculture was going to be best. But after I started comparing all loans, I realized just a local credit union's conventional loan would save me more money over the long run.

Of course, every person is going to have a different situation. However, before you decide what type of home loan is best for your needs, please make sure you ask around and get all the details on fees, interest rates, etc. before deciding.

Below you'll find some of my research on the different types of mortgages and when they might come into play.

USDA Loans

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) offer loans for farms and homesteads. A USDA/FSA loan to purchase a farm is called Farm Ownership — Direct. There are also USDA/FSA guaranteed loans, which are insured.

USDA/FSA loans require either no or a low down payment. They are intended for low- to moderate-income people, so part of the application will require that you don’t exceed the income limit.

Currently, the interest rate for a USDA/FSA farm ownership loan is 3.875 percent. Bear in mind, though, that interest rates can vary each day and depending on your credit score. The interest rate is not firm until you receive the mortgage loan from your lender, and the rate can go up or down from the current rate. A higher interest rate means you will be paying more in interest. A lower one means you will be paying less in interest. 

The USDA loan also requires a fee that is added to your loan amount. You'll also have to pay mortgage insurance if you can't pay 20 percent of the farm upfront.

FHA Loans

The United States Federal Housing Administration (FHA) also has loans available for first-time home buyers. The FHA does not itself make loans, but guarantees loans that are made through regular lenders such as banks. Participating lenders display signs or other information indicating they participate in FHA loans.

FHA loans require less of a down payment than so conventional mortgages for a home. FHA loans, depending on the lender, can be 5 percent or less.

Even though that might be great news upfront, over the long haul you'll pay more since the interest rates are higher than conventional loans and you will have mortgage insurance, which is an extra $100+ per month tacked onto your bill for the life of the loan.

Conventional Loans

It's a common misunderstanding that conventional loans are only for those who can pay a 20 percent down payment. Not true. We actually only paid 10 percent and we could have gone done to 5 percent even! Keep in mind, how much down payment you can afford will determine your interest rate on the loan. So a 5 percent down payment may come with a 4.24 percent interest rate but with a 10 percent down payment you could secure a 3.75 percent interest rate.

If you do pay less than 20 percent down payment, you'll have to pay private mortgage insurance, but unlike USDA and FHA the mortgage insurance is not for the life of the loan. It's only until you can get 20 percent equity in your land. 

Loans and Grants

When you own a farm, equipment and other buildings are crucial and they are often very expensive. The USDA also offers a number of smaller loans for buildings and equipment.

They also offer grants. Grants are monies given for improvements, but the monies, unlike loans, never need to be paid back.


Choosing what type of loan is best for you is only the beginning. There are several other things to think about when applying for a mortgage that can affect your finances for years to come.

• Down Payment and Interest Rates: The amount of the loan you take out and the interest rate will determine how much you pay each month. It’s a good idea to use a mortgage calculator to compare rates and amounts. Only you can figure out if it makes more sense to pay more in your down payment so you carry less debt to be paid off.
• PMI: In exchange for a low down payment, you may be required to pay a private mortgage insurance (PMI) cost every month. The PMI is required because, proportionally, USDA and FHA loan holders begin by owning no or little of their property. The insurance is to cover the lender in case of a default. In most cases, once you have made enough payments to own a certain percentage of the property, the PMI is removed from the monthly payment.
• Loan Term: Besides your down payment, how long your loan term is also impacts your interest rate and monthly payment. You definitely don't want to agree to a monthly payment you can't afford or stretches you to the limit. A 30 year term is pretty typical. 

There are several options for farm and homestead home loans that require no or low down payments. There are also smaller loans and grants available for improvements and equipment. Folks considering these loans should carefully compare available loans and rates.

Low-Stress Cattle Handling Secrets

James White

low stress livestock handling tips
Photo by Fotolia/davidhewison

I’ve recently been reading through Humane Livestock Handling by Temple Grandin to better understand and move my growing herd of cattle. I’m learning how low-stress cattle handling is the key to better profits and less risk around my herd as my staff and I get older and a little slower!

It has become a topic of discussion within my community.

Here are a few highlights I’ve learned and wanted to share with you:

• The position of a cattle's front hooves will indicate the direction they are most likely to go. For example, if their right front hoof is back then the cow is most likely wanting to go back that way. So you can change their direction by how you position their front feet. This also drives home the point that it’s important to keep your eye on the cattle and they will tell you where you need to be to move them.

• Before trying to get close to a cow, you want to make sure the cow calms down. Each cow feels differently about how comfortable it is with your proximity. You can get your cow to move and react based on your position to the cow. See this video.

• Cows are a natural prey, so make sure you don’t act like a predator by being aggressive around them. Respect them, and they will soon become OK with your presence. Then you can better handle the cow without stress on the cattle or more work for you.

• When driving the cattle from the rear, use a zigzag technique as outlined by Bud Williams here.

• Use white, translucent skylights and quieter equipment to keep cattle calm. Remember that a cow’s first time in a squeeze chute needs to be low stress or else they will hate the squeeze chute in the future.

Since we’re on the topic of low-stress livestock handling, particularly when the cow is in a squeeze chute, I wanted to share some insider knowledge on a new squeeze chute being tested.

I currently have a manual squeeze chute that I bought used several years ago. While it’s a good squeeze chute, I do sometimes have issues getting access to the cow’s neck. I heard this was a common issue among squeeze chutes. Some catches are too narrow, some are positioned in an awkward way, and others don’t exist at all, forcing us to use side access gates to get here. Not really healthy for me or the cattle.

I was on the phone with a buddy last week who is a rancher in Alberta, and I asked if he had any ideas of how to make neck access easier. Turns out he has been testing a new cattle squeeze chute that solves my problem. I asked him where he got it, but all he could tell me is it’s built by Arrowquip.

He wasn’t able to give me many details since it hasn’t been released yet ... but he did send me some photos.


The squeeze chute I have now allows for about a 6.5” branding area. Looking at the image, I bet that the size is easily double on the new one.

From what I could prod out of him, it’s also fully removeable, allowing us to remove a bar at the top or make the area completely open by removing the entire bottom panel. He didn’t say how it all works, but it sure looks like an upgrade.

Here are a few other photos of the new cattle squeeze chute he sent over.

New Rubber Flooring being tested in Alberta canada




He mentioned he was testing a new rubber floor that doesn’t buckle, an overhaul of the head holder, and an anti-swing latch on their vet cage, too. For those interested in quiet operation, he said it was by far the quietest squeeze chute he’s used in the last 20 years.

Many of these improvements will help lower our livestock’s stress levels and make it easier for ranchers to handle cattle in squeeze chutes.

Has anyone else heard anything about Arrowquip’s new squeeze chute?

For more about Arrowquip and their cattle equipment, see:

Build a Garden Fence to Keep Animals Out

James WhiteConstructing your own garden is both relaxing and rewarding. Whether your goal is to plant award-winning roses or succulent vegetables, a DIY fence will protect your coveted creations from unwanted guests. All you need is a free day and a few common tools to build your own garden fence, with the total cost coming to approximately $800.

Tools Needed:

• Hammer
• Leveler
• Shovel OR Hole Digger
• Wood Saw
• Wire Cutter

Supplies Needed:

• 4 boxes of nails
• 39 1" x 4" x 16' boards
• 9 4" x 4" x 6' boards
Field fence
Gate latch & handle

Plotting Hole Placement & Digging

Begin by scoping out a flat, 30' x 30' piece of land to place the garden. Next, dig nine holes for the fence posts, creating a square. Each hole should be 12 inches wide by two feet deep. You should separate the holes by 14.5 feet on each side. On the side where you'll want the entrance to the garden, dig one additional hole halfway between one of the 14.5-foot lengths. Place one 4" x 4" x 6' boards in each hole and pack dirt to fill it.

Cutting the Wood & Fence

Next, cut 32 of the 1" x 4" x 16' boards to measure 14.5 feet in length. Cut the remaining seven boards to four feet minus two board lengths, or about eight inches (using board length for this will save time measuring). Then, cut two of the sixteen, 14.5-foot boards in half and trim an additional two inches off of each piece. To finish, cut the field fence using a wire cutter. Make eight 14.5-foot sections, and then cut one of those eight sections in half.

Creating the Fencing

Build a side of fencing by nailing two, 14.5-foot 1x4s to two of the smaller-cut 1x4s to create a rectangle. Repeat this process until you have seven sides of fencing total. The long sides will overlay the two smaller sides.

Next, nail a 14.5-foot section of field fence to one side of each rectangle. Finally, place a respective 1x4 over each side, covering the edge, and nail it in.

Repeat this entire process with the two smaller sections for the garden entrance. Now you’re ready to put everything together!

Constructing the Fence

Flush each fence side onto a fence post (4x4) and nail it into the top and bottom of each side. Use a level and mark each post to ensure accuracy before nailing it in. If possible, get the help of some friends or family, as the overall construction process may be daunting for a single individual.

Finishing Touches

For your garden entrance, leave one side of the fence unattached to the fence post. Pick an attractive, partial overlay hinge to complement your garden aesthetic. Install the hinge and latch where the handle feels most natural. You can add additional touches like paint to take your garden fence to the next level, or simply enjoy the beauty from your garden.

Now that you’re done, give yourself a pat on the back. This garden fence will help keep your garden intact by preventing animals from invading the space and sabotaging weeks of growth. Best of all, you built it yourself!


4 Tips For Developing A Solid Cattle Feed Plan

James White

No matter when you're reading this post, somewhere in America, a hamburger is being eaten. That might be a slight exaggeration but not by much.

Total U.S. beef consumption hovers around 24 billion pounds. That breaks down to around 71 pounds of red meat eaten by each citizen, vegetarians excluded. By any definition, that's a lot of beef. It also puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the nation's cattle farmers. Feeding cattle should become a matter of routine, but that starts with a solid cattle feed plan. Here are some of the things to keep in mind:

Here's a cattle feed planner printout created by Arrowquip (great for encouraging kids to take part in homestead activities):

cattle feed plan by Arrowquip

Beef Needs Protein

In one of those "circle of life" moments, beef cattle are a great source of protein. They also need protein in their diet. For cattle, that source of protein could be from legumes. We're talking soybeans. Added to the soybeans would be cottonseed meal and linseed, both of which provide an extra protein boost.

Other nutrients that help support growth in beef cattle are minerals and vitamins. Unfortunately, there isn't a ginormous Flintstone Chewy Vitamin for cows. Instead, a mineral block can be placed in their shelters. To cows, these are like salt lollipops that will give them the minerals they need.

Taking the Cattle Out to Pasture

As any good cattle rancher will tell you, "Good pasture makes good beef." Cows that are put out to pasture for feeding require a bit more labor. However, cattle that can be promoted as grass-fed will also fetch a higher price.

You can't just turn a cow loose in a field and say, "Tuck in." You have to constantly monitor the seed mixture and soil. Pastures also have to be rotated. It's kind of like moving the herds through a grid. While they're eating in one zone, the next one is resting and growing back.

Make Sure the Hay Stays Dry

If you need to bring your cows in for the winter and will be feeding them with hay, then make sure you've got good storage for that hay. A well-ventilated hay shed needs to keep the hay dry to avoid mold. Moldy hay isn't good for the cows, but it can work as compost.

Don't Forget the Water

Cattle can drink anywhere between three to 30 gallons of water during the winter. When the weather turns warm, they need to drink at least one gallon for every 100 pounds of body weight. It's not enough to fill up the trough and let them have at it. You have to make sure that source is free of algae and manure. It might be better for you to control the water than to let them drink from a stream, where there’s too much risk of added bacteria.

Once you've worked out your cattle feed plan, you can also plan your schedules for the day, month and year. Make it a good plan. Your cows are counting on you.

Photo by Fotolia/Željko Radojko

5 Delicious Meals to Make with Veggies Fresh from the Garden

James White



zoodle recipe
Photo courtesy of DIY Home & Health 

My garden has bloomed into full glory. I have tons of ripe zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans, and romaine. My herb garden is bursting with basil, thyme, dill, parsley, and rosemary. The bounty is ripening so fast, in fact, that I can barely keep up with picking everything that’s ready to eat.

I know. It’s a great problem to have.

To get the most out of my garden, I created a weeknight meal plan that uses as many of these fruits, vegetables, and herbs as possible in each dish. Check out the below recipes for some serious garden-fresh inspiration:

Thai Zoodle Recipe

There has been at least one enormous zucchini hiding in the vines practically every day for the last few weeks. Just when I think I picked them all, there’s another that just appears!

I used to be a one-trick pony when it came to zucchini. In the summer, I liked it on the grill as a sidekick to steak. The end. That was before I discovered the culinary phenomenon known as zoodles. After reading DIY Home & Health’s zoodle recipes, I bought a spiralizer and started cutting my zucchini into long, noodle-like strands. In this form, zucchini is so versatile.

This meal is a real winner, as it allows me to use not only a giant zucchini from the garden, but it’s versatile enough that I can include one of my red bell peppers and a few carrots. Cut the carrots into strips and sauté with the rest of the veggies, or put them in the spiralizer and add some texture to the zoodles. If you don’t have access to wild-caught salmon, use chicken instead. Either way, this is a delicious dish bursting with color and flavor.

Beef Over Garden-Fresh Salad

Simple salads make for a great summer dinner, especially when served alongside a steak. Ceramcor created this awesome infographic to show you how to grill a steak perfect. Afterwards, just add it to a bed of chopped lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and sweet peas. Fresh basil and balsamic vinaigrette dressing complement both the meat and the veggies.

Cucumber Salad With Greek Yogurt

While I’m on the topic of garden-fresh salad, this one is really easy. I toss three to four thinly-sliced cucumbers (I use my spiralizer also for this!) with a small, diced red onion with a cup of Greek yogurt, a few tablespoons of lemon-infused olive oil and chopped dill and parsley.

Garden Tomato and Basil Soup (With Grilled Cheese, of Course!)

I know what you’re thinking. Soup?! In this heat?!

Yes, I believe in eating soup in the summer, but only if it’s made with fresh tomatoes and basil plucked from the garden. Tomato basil soup is simple and delicious, and it helps me put to use the mountains of ripe tomatoes and basil in my garden.

Bonus points if you make the accompanying grilled cheese right on the grill.

Summer Veggie Quinoa Bowl

Quinoa needs a heavy dose of added ingredients to pass the test in my house. That means — you guessed it — lots of vegetables and herbs.

My favorite quinoa bowl recipe is super simple. While a cup of quinoa is cooking, I dice and sauté two tomatoes, a bell pepper and half of a red onion in a lemon and thyme and rosemary-infused olive oil. I then snap the ends off a few handfuls of green beans and add them to the sauté along with a handful of edamame. When the quinoa is tender, I add it to the saucepan, toss and serve. If there is any left over, this dish is even better the next day, hot or cold.

There you have it — five recipes from the garden guaranteed to satisfy your summer taste buds.

5 Creative Garden Design Ideas

James Whitehanging strawberry vertical garden

A garden can be an outdoor refuge that allows you to escape the stress of everyday life, show off your gardening skills to family and friends, or even be an outlet for your creativity. You can make your design truly unique with labyrinths made from tall hedges, cobblestone paths and strategically placed water features. There are many different ways to create a garden. No matter what your design preferences, you’ll find something that speaks to your gardener’s heart and soul.


Hugelkultur is a process for composting. Basically, fallen wood and other natural debris is used as the base of a raised bed with a growing compound placed on top. The process is similar to what happens in the forest naturally, creating a nutrient-rich, moist environment for plants to grow. This type of gardening works well for areas that are a challenge to gardeners, such as urban lots or areas with poor drainage.

Hanging Gardens

If you don’t have a lot of ground space, hanging gardens may be the perfect addition to your home. Hanging gardens are a beautiful accent to your indoor or outdoor décor. The best veggies and fruits for hanging gardens include: lettuce, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, peas, some smaller types of peppers and Asian eggplants. Herbs also make excellent plants for hanging.

Keyhole Garden

Keyhole gardens are popular in Africa, but have made their way to the United States in areas where it is hot and dry. If you were to look at a keyhole garden from above, it looks like an old-fashioned keyhole, round with a notched area on one end. This notched area is where a compost pile is kept to add rich nutrients to the raised-bed structure of the garden. Use stones for a natural look to build up your keyhole garden. You can also add a pipe down the center for better irrigation.

Vertical Gardens

Urban areas in particular can benefit from vertical gardening. This means utilizing a wall and allowing plants to vine up it. One example might be to place a long rectangular container against a wall and plant tomatoes in it, but to also have cucumbers vining up a trellis that is placed against the wall.

Hanging vertical bags can be used to grow strawberries. You can also build a vertical herb garden out of two-by-fours and rectangular planters. A PVC pipe with holes drilled in it can hold a variety of smaller plants.

Enchanted Food Forest

This is a design that is meant to mimic food being grown the way it would in nature. The key to this type of garden design is to make sure everything is working well together, including anything living in the garden — plants, animals, bugs. For an enchanted forest garden to work well, you must plan out how each plant works with others and place them so they help one another. For example, you have to create layers of vines, tall trees, shrubs and groundcover.

These are just a few of the garden designs you can use to overcome gardening challenges and make the most of the space you have. Today's gardening focuses on sustainability and making maintenance easier. The right design will allow you to get the most out of your garden and feed your family healthy foods for a fraction of the cost of store-bought.

5 Tips to Keep the Bugs Away When Gardening

James Whitebugs away when gardening

I hate bugs. Just hate ‘em. Too many legs, too many eyes, too many wings. I hate them.

Did you know that researchers have identified more than a million different types of insects? That’s not all: Scientists estimate that 30 million more bug species haven’t even been classified yet.

Surprised I have all these facts? I know my enemy. I have to. There are probably about 10 quintillion individual insects in the world. In case you’re wondering, that’s 10 followed by 18 zeros.

I do my best to keep bugs out of my house, but I especially can’t stand having them around when I’m gardening. I know, I know … not all bugs are bad for your garden and I wouldn’t have amazing veggies growing without those pollinators. But there are some things you can do to just keep the bugs away when you’re outside gardening.

1. Dress for Success

When I’m working in the garden, I always wear boots, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. An extreme bug situation calls for clothing that’s been sprayed with peppermint essential oils. You can even buy clothes pre-treated with bug repellent.

Manufacturers add permethrin, which drives off a wide variety of bugs. The Environmental Protection Agency considers this clothing as safe to wear. However, wash it separately from everything else, because some of the permethrin might come off in the laundry.

2. Spray Your Way

Bug spray seems like an obvious and effective choice, but there are so many kinds. Which do you choose?

Repellents that contain DEET are at the top of my list. I know some people worry about side effects, but recent studies don’t find any problems if you follow the application instructions.

A product doesn’t need to be more than 50 percent DEET to keep mosquitoes away. You need at least 20 percent DEET to repel those nasty ticks.

If you’re still leery about DEET, other effective product ingredients are lemon eucalyptus oil, catnip and citronella.

3. Clean Your Scene

Mosquitoes are one of the worst offenders. They’re terrifically annoying, and some carry diseases.

I take steps to make my property an unattractive breeding ground. Mosquitoes love standing water. Even a little is enough for them to lay eggs.

• I don’t leave anything lying around that can hold water. No empty bird feeders, flowerpots, buckets, wheelbarrows, hollow logs or old tires.

• I clear my gutters of decaying leaves and other gunk every spring.

• I level off any low-lying areas that crop up during the winter.

4. Lifesaver Flavor

In terms of annoyance, gnats are not far behind mosquitoes. They’re so tiny, and they get everywhere. Have you ever inhaled one?

I rub a little vanilla extract along the brim of my hat. This seems to help keep them away from my face, at least. No more nose gnats.

5. Vent the Scent

Bugs like strong floral scents, so I never go outside smelling like a piece of fruit or a flower. My soap and shampoo are fragrance-free, and I don’t try to impress insects with cologne anyway.

Same deal for laundry detergent. It doesn’t need to make my clothes smell like a spring bouquet. It just has to get them clean.

I wish bugs would adopt the motto “Live and let live.” Leave me alone, and I won’t bother them. Until they have a change of heart, though, I’m going to go after them with elbow grease and a little ingenuity.

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