Buying a Farm: Researching and Finding the Perfect Plot

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Finding the perfect secluded homestead can be a challenge. Senja V. Valero describes how her family found their Pennsylvania farm.

There’s a wealth of information available about any part of the country you may choose for your back-to-the- land adventure. Here’s how one couple used those facts and figures to guide their move from Miami to an “isolated hollow” in Pennsylvania. — MOTHER

Are you becoming disenchanted with city living? Do you find yourself humming “Home, Home on the Range” as you fight the five o’clock traffic on the freeway? Would you like to move to some little spot in the country where you can have a garden, a flock of chickens and maybe even raise your own unhormoned beef? Are you interested in buying a farm that is perfect for your family?

Well, I’m here to tell you such a place can be found, but it’s a little tricky.

Four years ago our family moved from the suburbs of Miami, Florida to a ramshackle 92-acre farm in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. My husband, Allen — then age 42 — was a successful insurance executive with all the hassles thereof. I was 38, and we had two children — a son, Chris, age 10, and Holly, a seven-year-old daughter.

We didn’t impulsively flee to “escape” the city — we’d been planning the move for three or four years. When the right time came we very calmly bought the Pennsylvania farm we wanted, sold our glass and terrazzo swimming pool-equipped home in Florida, and shifted everything north (including our carsick dog).

At first we went through a period of adjustment — meaning that we fought poverty, leaky plumbing, a broken coal stoker, swarms of cluster flies, blocked sewer pipes, and each other. But we won! We’re here to stay. We love it and even during the moments when our forbearance has worn thin neither of us has regretted making the move.

Now that we’re established and our income — surprisingly — is higher than our former city earnings, people often ask, “How did you do it?”, “How did you decide on your location?”, “How can you pull up roots like that and expect to make a go of it?”

It would be easy to say, “Just lucky, I guess!” but that wouldn’t be strictly true. I give my husband’s passion for research full credit for the success of our move. Without the information, facts, and figures he insisted on gathering, we might have wound up back in the city — as many do — binding our financial wounds. How did we do it?

Picture this. There we were, a couple of “city dudes” as our son would say. We knew nothing about rural living, but we wanted to move out of the city and we thought it would be interesting to go from flatland to mountains, from the tropics to a four-season climate. But where would we settle? And how would we get there?

Pick a State

We reasoned that land would be less expensive in a state with little population growth, so Allen’s first letter was sent off to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for information on population growth and decline in the United States.

Next we sent away for catalogues from Strout Realty and United Farm Agency. Their free directories of farms, acreage, country homes, and even small businesses for sale all over rural United States are the size of telephone directories.

We spent hours drooling over the glowing descriptions and photos of farms (with ponds, woods, streams and 14-room houses “begging for restoration”). The ads fired our enthusiasm and gave us an idea of land prices, geography, and the types of farming practiced in various parts of the country.

Then we made every effort to learn more about the states that sounded most interesting to us. We talked to people, read library books, and ordered material from the US Government Printing Office (you can get all sorts of information from the government).

Although several locations sounded good, we reluctantly crossed off the beautiful western section of the country as being too far away from our families. The Midwest, also, was too far inland–and too flat–for us. Of the Eastern States, Pennsylvania — like the little bear’s porridge — seemed “just right”. And it was one of the states which at that time showed a decrease in population.

Learning More About the Chosen State

We wrote to the Pennsylvania Agricultural Extension Service for publications on soil, climate, farming, wildlife, poultry raising, beekeeping, canning and freezing vegetables … you name it, we ordered everything!

We didn’t want to end up living on a concrete cloverleaf, next door to an airport, or in an area disfigured by strip-mining scars, so we next broke the state of Pennsylvania down to counties, and from our librarian we got the address of every county seat. Then we ordered a map of each county and wrote to inquire about proposed highways, industry, and other developments. This narrowed our search to the handful of counties we found to be relatively unpolluted, unscarred, and undeveloped.

Choosing a Town

Sifting down still finer, we addressed letters to the chambers of commerce of small towns in the areas which interested us most. We asked about schools, churches, libraries, recreational facilities, clubs, and so forth — and interpreted the gleaned information according to our needs.

For instance: A town with 8,000 population and 300 social clubs might offer a diverse social life to one so inclined, but it could also be divided into tight xenophobic cliques. In an area with 36 fundamentalist churches, someone who’s into yoga and Transcendental Meditation could be as welcome as a case of smallpox.

We concentrated on regions that had several churches of different denominations and few social clubs (which indicated that the natives were individualistic if not downright cantankerous). Since Allen and I can’t even agree with each other, we knew we’d fit right into such an area.

Next, we ordered a copy of each small town’s newspaper so we could learn about the local crime rate, social events, food prices, real estate, cost of used farm equipment, and so forth. You can tell a lot about an area by reading editorials and want ads.

The final step was to write for copies of the local telephone directories. The Yellow Pages are fecund with information about business opportunities and/or competition  and we knew that everyone of any real importance in town would be listed, in case we wanted to check further on a particular business or individual for any reason.

What To Do With All This Information

By now, as you can imagine, we’d amassed quite a pile of paper — which Allen had neatly filed away in a stout cardboard carton (he recommends a Campbell’s Soup box for this purpose because it has such a strong bottom).

In writing for information, we always typed our queries on letterheads and enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Psychologically, a reply envelope is almost as hard to ignore as a ringing phone, and a businesslike letter indicates that you mean business.

When requesting maps, telephone directories, and such , we always arranged to pay any cost involved. We also kept carbon copies of all correspondence, so we wouldn’t forget to whom we’d written.

When we didn’t know its exact name or title, we addressed our letters to “The Largest Newspaper” in any small town. And we sent letters to the chamber of commerce whether the town had one or not. Sometimes we even made up an organization to write to, such as “Industry Planning Commission”. Somebody always replied, and told us what we wanted to know. So we soon had a small mountain of information to plow through.

By the time we’d completed our study, we knew more about our chosen area than most of its inhabitants did  even though we’d never even seen the place! We knew enough about farming to realize we couldn’t just jump into it and make it pay immediately. We knew we’d have to have enough money to repair an old house and to tide us over until we became established. (Expenses don’t necessarily decrease in the country — they just take different forms. You may not spend a fortune on parking, for instance, but you might end up paying more for the tires you bruise on rough country roads.)

We knew the move would take flexibility, changing the habits of a lifetime and that Allen would probably have to switch to another occupation. We also knew we’d be in for more hard work than we’d ever done in our lives.

Finding the Farm

At that point, we began making lists of things to look for in our “ideal” farm. Was there an adequate water supply? Drilling a well is expensive. Was the property on a mail and school bus route? If so, roads probably would be plowed promptly in winter. Would we have to install a septic tank, a bathroom, electricity? We learned to take nothing for granted. Many old farmhouses are — to us city types — appallingly primitive.

We realized that we probably wouldn’t find a “dream house,” so we decided to get as much land as we could afford and plan on fixing up an older home. You can repair a building, but you can’t move a piece of acreage. Location was paramount.

Meanwhile, back at our Florida ranch-style home, each time we inquired about a particular piece of property, we found it already had been sold. But that didn’t stop us. We went ahead, wrote to several of the realtors who advertised in the catalogues, and asked what else was available. Many failed to reply but some did, and ultimately it was a United Farm Agency representative who found Failing Spring Hollow for us.

And Here We Are

Now, four years later, Allen makes a handsome income by providing our new community with services (he’s a sign painter and designer-builder). The house is comfortable . . . if not Better Homes and Gardens. We have the organic garden, the non-medicated chickens — even a flock of sheep that’s beginning to show a profit. We grow corn, oats, and hay. Our farming is done with old, used equipment, and Allen has not only learned to operate but to repair a mower, baler, plow, drag, cultivator, corn planter, seeder, and such — and, of course, an ancient John Deere tractor that’s inevitably called “dear John” because it’s apt to change its mind.

Sometimes Allen and I take a walk up Blackberry Hill and look down on Failing Spring Hollow  at the pond, the creek, the sheep in pasture, the sugarbush where the children have stacked wood for next spring’s maple-sapping. So far, we’re isolated in this hollow. No other houses are visible. We feel incredibly lucky.

Was all that research worth it? You decide.

The major sources of information we used to find our “dream” farm:

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Postal Square Building, 2 Massachusetts Avenue
NE Washington, D.C. 20001

US Government Printing Office
732 North Capitol Street Northwest
>Washington D.C., DC 20401-0003

Strout Realty
1711 N Glenstone Ave
Springfield, MO

United Farm Agency
612 W. 47th St.
Kansas City, Mo. 64112

Pennsylvania Agricultural Extension Service
201 Agricultural Administration Building
University Park, Pa. 16802
(Your librarian can give you the address of the Agricultural Extension Service in any state. It’s usually located at the
state university.)

Directories of newspaper and magazine publishers at yo library will give you addresses of many local papers in the,. area of your choice.

Your local telephone company office can name of the local phone company in any other city.