Buying farmland is a major investment, so be sure you make an informed choice. This practical guide covers every factor you should consider before making a purchase, including government regulations, residential concerns from the surrounding area, soil conditions, and savvy financing. Whether you intend to grow abundant crops or graze a robust herd of livestock, Finding Good Farmland provides a roadmap to the land that’s right for you.
About the Author
Ann Larkin Hansen is the author of The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner, The Organic Farming Manual, The Electric Fencing Handbook, Finding Good Farmland, and Making Hay; coauthor of A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods with consulting forester Dennis Waterman and master logger Mike Severson; and coauthor with her husband, Steve, of Maintaining Small-Farm Equipment. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specializing in organic agriculture and sustainable forestry. A homesteader and a small-scale organic farmer, she lives with her family on a farm in northern Wisconsin.
Read an Excerpt
Why not begin searching for land now, even if you're not yet in a position to buy? Looking will clarify what you want for your farm and what is available.
The more you know about farming in general, your targeted locales, and how real estate ads compare to real estate reality, the better you'll be at spotting opportunities and avoiding problems. Drive rural neighborhoods, vacation where you hope someday to live, subscribe to the local paper, seek an internship or job on a farm, watch real estate ads, and go to small farm conferences and field days. Talk to everyone: real estate agents, Extension agents, farmers' market vendors, and the appliance repair guy. The Internet won't tell you which farms have poor wells or where the next big pig operation is getting built; the retired farmers hanging out at the local café might.
Commercial Farm Types
Aside from the subsistence farm, there are five basic types of commercial farms raising five types of products: vegetables and/or small fruits; tree fruits; field crops; dairy; meat or fiber animals (poultry, pigs, and grazing livestock).
There are many specialty crops as well, but in terms of what markets and land base they need, they will generally fit into one of these slots.
The type(s) you focus on will determine how much land and what sort of climate, soil, terrain, and rural neighborhood you will be seeking. You can, in fact, raise almost any category of farm product almost anywhere, but if you intend to make money, or at least not bleed yourself dry, you must have land appropriate to the enterprise and a reliable market where you can sell your products for more than it cost you to raise them.
Four Key Questions at the Start
As you look for land, define where and what kind of land you want by answering four questions:
1. Do you want to generate most of your income on or off the farm? Does access to off-farm employment or to good farm infrastructure and markets have priority?
2. What would you like to produce? If your intent is to sell farm products, you need land appropriate for your enterprise, and good markets.
3. What are the other people involved in your farming venture looking for? You may not care whether there are friends or a decent job close by, but your spouse or partner might. Children (whether present now or a future possibility) might want to live close enough to town to avoid hours-long school bus rides.
4. How will these needs and wants change in the long term? Consider whether an area will also suit you when you are older — when adventure becomes less important and convenience more so.
Where to Look
If you don't already know where you want to farm, your answers to the above questions should help direct your search. The next step is to target a particular region.
You may already know the general area you're going to target in your search for land. You might already have a job, or want to stay close to familiar places and faces, or like a particular climate. But if you're open to living anywhere, the first thing to consider is the climate, for these three reasons:
Farming is an outdoor occupation and you'll be outside every day. Look for a region where you like most of the weather and can tolerate the rest.
Many fruits and field crops do better in some climates than in others. The plants and animals you plan to raise will be most productive where the climate is right for them. The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service site at www.nass.usda.gov is easy to navigate for state-by-state information on crops; state agriculture department websites and county Extension agents have useful information as well.
Climate determines the predominant farm types in a region, which indicates the availability of infrastructure. This is especially important if you're thinking about a field crop, large livestock, or dairy operation. Off-farm processing, trucking, storage, and distributors are most often needed by these types of farms.
County by County: Markets and Jobs
Once you've targeted a state or two within your chosen climate region, narrow the search to the county level by going back to the first question on page 4 ->: Will most of your cash income eventually come from the farm, or from off the farm? If the job comes first, then you'll need to have good access to the job. If the farm comes first, you'll need to have good access to markets appropriate for your product. Often the two coincide, but sometimes they don't.
If the Job Comes First
Statistically it is a rare farm, and an even rarer small-scale farm, where no one works off the farm. If all or most of your cash income will come from off the farm, then the best plan usually is to get the job first and then the farm. If you don't already live there, consider renting in the area while you search for land within commuting distance. If you can work at home, or have to go into the office only occasionally, then you can search a much wider area.
If the Farm Comes First
If getting the right farm for your plans comes first, then identify the counties where there is both suitable land and good access to markets and infrastructure. The two charts on page 13 -> define what's needed by different types of farms.
How close you must be to those markets and infrastructure depends on how frequently you'll have to drive there, and how much time and gas you can afford. Be careful about overestimating your long-term tolerance for the driving; a four- hour trip to the weekly farmers' market may be tolerable for the first couple years, but after that it gets to be a bit much for most farmers.
A Few Rules of Thumb
Distance from customers can be critical. The rule of thumb is that every added mile and turn means fewer customers willing to drive regularly to your farm. A location close to town and on or near a major road is essential for on-farm sales.
Your market must be big enough. If you're planning on direct sales, you will need convenient access to a sizable pool of potential customers. Small towns don't usually generate a lot of sales. If you aren't close to a bigger town, consider looking for a middleman. Using a broker, distributor, or processor will cut your profit margins by quite a bit, but that will be balanced by your having more time to farm.
Figure out what you can live with. There is always a drawback or a problem. Many problems can be tolerated or fixed, but if there are three or four big items lacking, that is probably a good reason to look somewhere else for a farm.
Drawbacks vs. Deal-breakers
Once you've learned to identify the drawbacks of a property, the next step is to separate deal-breakers from negotiating points. Deal-breakers are unacceptable problems with a property: either you can't fix them or you can't afford to fix them, and you refuse to live with them. Negotiating points are those things that you can live with or you can fix. The prospect of dealing with these drawbacks, however, will influence how much you are willing to pay and how soon you will have the time and money to turn most of your attention to where it belongs — farming. Which items appear in which category will differ from buyer to buyer: one new farmer's deal-breaker may be another's opportunity to apply some elbow grease and creativity to reveal a hidden gem.
How to Look
It's essential to investigate widely and creatively as you search for rural properties for sale. Don't rely exclusively on the Internet: many sellers are older people who don't use computers much and prefer more traditional channels.
How Property Is Put Up for Sale
Property is advertised and sold through a variety of channels:
"For Sale by Owner" (FSBO) ads are found on the Internet, in local papers, and often those of nearby larger towns and cities. The owner may stick a sign in the yard as well, or do nothing at all to advertise, simply passing the word among friends and relatives. If you see a promising farm with no "For Sale" sign, you might politely ask the owners if they are considering selling. Property frequently changes hands in the country by word-of-mouth, never appearing on the market.
Real estate agents and brokers are often your best bet for finding the right farm. Though legally they work for the seller of the property, and their fee comes out of the sale price, a good real estate agent will work hard for you as well. Check listings at different real estate agencies and especially the locally owned ones that don't have national or regional affiliations. The independent agents may know the area better.
Land auctions can be conducted by a county when property taxes are in arrears, by the Internal Revenue Service for other delinquencies or crimes, by U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and by banks and credit unions foreclosing for failure to make mortgage payments. Owners, estates, and business entities such as timber companies may auction land as well. Be sure to research the protocols and legal requirements for each type of auction before participating, and never, never bid on land that you haven't seen! Consult expert advice on any legal concerns. Some useful books covering this topic are listed in Recommended Reading, page 121 ->.
Developers of rural properties may offer "large lots" of 20 acres and more. Be sure to do your homework when looking at this type of property; buyers are often restricted in what they can do with their land. Other pitfalls include poorly built roads (for more on this, see chapter 6 ->), inadequate surveys that leave property lines in doubt, and the chance of the developer going bankrupt before promised improvements are finished.
5 Places to Look for Property Listings
Once you've defined where you are looking for a farm, it's time to start looking at ads and making contacts. You can find property listings by:
1. Checking organic and sustainable agriculture websites that have classified ads — these sometimes include farms for sale. Start with the website National Farm Transition Network at www.farmtransition.org, a clearinghouse for state sites that link retiring farmers to new farmer's.
2. Checking the local classifieds, such as Craigslist and other regional electronic want-ad websites, and local print media including newspapers and advertising "trading post"–type circulars. If the region or state has farm-specific newspapers or magazines, get a subscription. Find these by Googling "agricultural newspapers" with the name of the state.
3. Contacting local real estate agents and telling them what you're looking for. The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers at www.asfmra.org can connect you with real estate agents who are also appraisers, a nice combination.
4. Checking county government and local bank websites for listings of foreclosed properties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a national "clearing house" website at www.resales.usda.gov for government land auctions and properties for sale, which includes farms and rural acreage. Agriseek at www.agriseek.com lists government and bank foreclosures as well as land available for rent or lease. Government Auctions at www.governmentauctions.org has state-by-state foreclosure listings that include land. Auction.com at www.auction.com lists government and bank foreclosures, mostly residential but some acreages.
5. Watching Internet rural real estate listings. Start with:
* LandAndFarm.com ->
* LandsofAmerica.com ->
* RuralProperty.net ->
* United Country Real Estate ->
* RanchandCountry.com ->
* Rural Property Finder ->
* U. S. Land and Home ->
How to Read a Farm Real Estate Ad
You may encounter some unfamiliar terms when you first begin reading farm real estate ads:
* Tillable, arable. Describes land (usually stated in acres) that can be worked with machinery and used for growing field or garden crops.
* Open. Describes the number of acres that are not wooded but not suitable for tillage; usually this means pasture, and not always good pasture.
* Wooded. Describes the number of acres with trees. This does not give you any indication of species, age, value, or number of trees.
* Other. This means wetland, rock, brush, or some other type of acreage that is unusable for farming.
Real estate ads rarely match real estate reality. Never make an offer on a property without seeing it a few times and doing your homework on the soil, water supply, soundness of the buildings, neighborhood, and local regulations!
"Ask an agronomist what plant nutrient is the most important, and you will be treated to a short course on nitrogen, phosphorous, potash, and a host of trace minerals necessary for plant growth. Ask a farmer that question and he will unhesitatingly answer: water."
Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, 1993
The very first thing to look at when visiting land for sale is the water supply. If there isn't enough, or it's contaminated, or it dries up every summer, then you won't be able to farm.
Water problems are common in rural areas and have numerous causes. If there is a problem with the water supply on a property you're really interested in buying, you must determine if you can live with the problem or fix it, or if it's time to walk away.
Many state health departments and/or departments of natural resources have excellent general information on private water systems (a few are mentioned below), as well as the most common or intractable problems in the state, such as atrazine contamination in some Wisconsin wells. Be sure to check the website for your state, or stop by the local office.
If you are considering buying undeveloped land, the sale should be contingent on whether the land has an adequate supply of good-quality water. This may involve drilling a test bore to see how deep it is to water, which may cost several hundred dollars or more. Then you can get an estimate from the driller for how much it will cost to install a well. Do not accept an owner's or real estate agent's verbal guarantee that there is water — make the contingency part of the written sales contract, so if no water is found, you won't be left paying for land you can't farm.
Assessing the Water Supply
1. Determine the type and age of the system. If a well, obtain the well driller's report from the County. If another type of system, ask the owner to find out how old it is.
2. Have the water tested for quality. Labs can be found through the state health department.
3. Assess quantity by getting a seasonal history and by running several taps for several minutes to see if flow rate is maintained.
What's the Source?
The first step when assessing a water supply is seeing where the water comes from, and if that source meets state water quality standards. Rural water can be supplied by a well, spring, surface waters, rainwater and storage cistern, or a public system. Find out how old the system is since this will give you a notion of how soon it might need repair, renovation, or replacement.
The most common source of water in rural areas, and the most likely to be clean and reliable, is a well. There are three types: dug, driven, and drilled. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards (state and local standards may vary), all should be located:
* At least 50 feet (15 m) from septic tanks, leach fields, livestock yards, and silos
* At least 100 feet (30 m) from any petroleum tanks
* At least 250 feet (76 m) from manure storage
A well too close to any of these contamination sources is suspect. The well should also be uphill from the barnyard and the septic system.
All types of wells should have a watertight casing rising at least a foot (0.3 m) above the ground, and be securely capped. There should be no cracks or wiggle in the casing and the ground around it should slope away at least slightly. Dug and driven wells have external surface pumps; this should be inside the house or in a secure well house.
Fixing Well Problems
Wells don't last forever: the intake screen at the bottom of the pipe may clog or rust up, the pipe may rust out, the pump may go out or leak lubricant into the well, or the groundwater source may run dry. This could happen over a couple decades, or you might get lucky like us and the original well will last more than 50 years. The fix may be simple (such as replacing the pump), complex and costly (such as putting in a new well), or downright unsolvable (the water might be gone). If there is any sign of a problem, it is important to diagnose it and, if the solution will be expensive, include the cost in your negotiations with the property owner.
Excerpted from "Finding Good Farmland"
Copyright © 2013 Ann Larkin Hansen.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Finding the farm that's right for you
1 Location: Where to look for land, and how to begin the search
2 Water: Source, quantity, reliability, ownership, and quality
3 Good Land: Soil type, fertility, aspect, slope, drainage, and field histories
4 Building and Utilities: House, outbuildings, fences, septic, electric, driveway, and a few other things
5 Neighbors and the Neighborhood: Finding out who the neighbors are and what they're doing, now and in the future, and the overall quality of life in the area
6 Government Regulations and Services: Permits and codes, land use planning and zoning, property taxes, protections and programs for farmers, roads and other government services
7 Financing a Farm: Finding a lender and convincing them to give you a loan
8 Alternative Ways to Get onto Land: Additional ways to acquire land to farm