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Published August 03, 2009, 12:00 AM

Handbook is guide to country living

The Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District has recently co-published the North Dakota Rural Living Handbook, Considerations for Country Living. It's a guide to living in the country.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

So, you’re planning to move from the city and build your dream home in the country, where the children and Fido can run free all day, where you can plant a big vegetable garden and sit on your deck with your favorite beverage and watch the sunset, yet be just a 10-minute drive from work or the shopping mall.

You picture yourself living the good life, a modern-day cross between the 1960s television families from “Father Knows Best,” “Bonanza” or the “The Big Valley.”

But if you don’t plan right, rather than living the storied life of the Andersons, Cartwrights or Barkleys, you could end up more like Oliver Wendell Douglas and Lisa, the New York City attorney and his high-society wife who traded the “Times Square” city lights for the comedy-filled “fresh air” country-bumpkin misadventures of rural life in Green Acres.

Well, the Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District can help.

It recently co-published the North Dakota Rural Living Handbook, Considerations for Country Living, with the Cass County Soil Conservation District and a handful of partners.

“It’s designed especially for people who are new to the countryside, or are planning to move to the country,” said Nedra Hoberg, operations and education coordinator of the Grand Forks County SCD. “We started it because of the huge explosion of suburban residents in Grand Forks and in Fargo.”

The 28-page, full-color booklet is a step-by-step guide to living in rural North Dakota, filled with practical advice on a wide range of topics, such as:

-Rural utilities.

-Zoning and setbacks — how close to the road or property line you can plant trees or build sheds and garages.

-Snow removal and maintenance of gravel roads.

-Pest control.

-Soil health.

-Protecting water quality.

-Weed management.


-Choosing the right trees.

-Raising livestock.

-Wildlife in your backyard.

-Outdoor recreation.


-Septic systems.

-Solid waste disposal and recycling.

-Emergency preparedness.

“One of the things we want people to do is make a plan, map out where the utilities are buried, so you know where you can build or plant trees,” Hoberg said. “It’s those little practical things that can make a big difference.”

The handbook includes a grid-lined worksheet, for residents to draw the setback lines and to plan how they might want to develop their property. The example points out a 4.6-acre lot, after the setback requirements are drawn, leaves less than 2.8 acres for development.

Census and county officials do not have solid data on the migration of people from cities to suburban rural areas.

In Grand Forks County, the migration started in earnest after the flood of 1997. It continued in the early- and mid-2000s, when mortgage interest rates were at historic lows and the economy was buzzing.

The pace has slowed, but Grand Forks County Planner Lane Magnuson said the county is averaging about 30 rural building permits annually. The people building are just as likely to be moving from some other rural area as from the city.

The county Soil Conservation District gets involved when new residents decide they want to plant windbreaks. The SCD offers free landscaping and tree-planting advice and paid services.

“We’re planting a lot of trees for these new rural homeowners,” Hoberg said. “It used to be that 90 percent of our tree plantings were for ag producers and 10 percent were for rural homeowners. Now, it’s 90 percent rural homes and 10 percent agriculture.”

In 2008, the SCD planted trees on about 60 rural sites in Grand Forks County, the vast majority within 10 miles of Grand Forks. The number this year, so far, is about 40.

“You’re really limited as to where you can plant your windbreak,” said Paul Bjorg, a Natural Resource Conservation Service soil conservation technician in Grand Forks County.

Hoberg and others at the county SCD have stories to tell about country-life newcomers.

They know of people who have planted rows of trees for windbreaks, only to be forced to dig them up and replant them because they were too close to roads and violated setback regulations.

They note that if roots from trees planted in violation of setback requirements damage underground utilities, the companies can remove the trees, repair the damage and send the bill to the landowner.

Others rural landowners have called in frustration because their recently planted trees are dying.

“Just because crops grew on the land doesn’t mean trees will,” Hoberg said. “There are salinity issues to deal with. A lot of trees just won’t grow there.”

Then, there’s the time Hoberg was called to a rural residence to help the homeowner determine why, after 8 years in the country, he still couldn’t get trees to grow.

“I started walking around the yard, and the ground was squishy,” she said. “He was trying to grow his trees on and around his drain field. He had no idea it was a drain field, what a septic system was or how it worked, so obviously, he hadn’t had it emptied in all that time.”

Hoberg originally got the handbook idea after seeing a similar one from Oregon. The project planning started in 2006. The Grand Forks SCD partnered with the Cass County SCD.

They formed a committee that included representatives from the NRCS, regional planning organizations, rural electric cooperatives and other organizations.

The committee included people who had grown up on farms, people living Grand Forks or Fargo who never have lived in the country, some who had moved from the farm to the city and others who had moved from cities to rural areas.

After a short time, it was expanded for statewide distribution, with inserts providing information for local or regional resources.

“I’d like to work with Realtors and planning and zoning groups,” Hoberg said. “I’d like to get this information into the hands or people before they buy property and move to the country. It works for people living in the country, too. They could avoid so many mistakes, and save themselves a lot of time and money.”

Funding for printing the handbook came from the NRCS, the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, the Red River and Lake Agassiz resource conservation and development councils.

The handbook is available online at: or by stopping at the Grand Forks office, located at 4775 Technology Circle, just off of University Avenue west of I-29.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to