Dream of starting a farm? Here’s a guide to what questions to ask and where to find reliable answers, plus resources to help you obtain a farm loan.
For those of us who were born to farm but, alas, not born on a farm, the ache to have your own land can be so intense you feel it in your belly. I thought it could never happen for me.
But now, after 20 years of farming and 15 years of interviewing farmers, I’m pretty sure that almost anyone can find and buy farmland by doing four things:
1. Be clear and realistic about the budget you’ll need to support yourself and your farm, and about how you’ll get the income you need.
2. Do your homework on the neighborhood and the land you’re looking at to make sure it suits you and the type of farming you want to do.
3. Think outside the box: Be open to different options and timetables for buying land.
4. If you apply for a loan, find out what mortgage lenders require from borrowers and get those requirements in order.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that, by far, the majority of new farmers rely on off-farm income to support themselves. If your plan includes off-farm income that requires commuting to a job, finding the job first and looking for the land second may be the best plan.
Next, if you plan to sell some of what you raise, you’ll need to figure out where there are enough potential customers (usually in a city) and how you might sell to them — farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, etc.
You’ll need to narrow your search area by considering which counties have off-farm employment options, markets for your farm products and necessary farm support services. It’s helpful to get an old-fashioned paper road map and draw two circles: one with the off-farm job in the center and a radius as long as the distance you are willing to commute, the other with your customer base in the middle and a radius as long as the distance you’re willing to travel to market. Where the circles overlap is where you should look for land (see an illustration of a market commute map).
A good marketing plan is a cornerstone of any successful farm enterprise. Two solid resources on this topic are Growing for Market, a trade publication for local food producers available both in print and online, and the book Market Farming Success by Lynn Byczynski. The amazing National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (NSAIS) offers a wealth of information to help you decide what to raise and how to sell it. Look through the Master Publication List of more than 300 titles for those that are relevant to the type of farm enterprise you’re thinking of, as well as the more general titles such as Direct Marketing and Planning for Profit in Sustainable Farming. (Also be sure to click on Other Resources, which will guide you to a plethora of related websites.) These publications will give you a handle on marketing options, farm business planning, and what different farm products need in terms of acreage, soil quality, labor and farm support services.
You’ll need to seek other sources to find out whether necessary support services, such as veterinarians or organic feed suppliers, are available in your search area. Find these by talking with other farmers — start with the vendors at the local farmers market — and by picking up a copy of the local Yellow Pages at the phone company (or accessing the Yellow Pages online).
Now that you know where you’re looking, it’s time to start checking out property listings (see “Rural Property Listings,” at the end of this article). Not every property is online — even in this electronic age, plenty of rural land changes hands without being advertised. Contact a local realtor and do some asking around at local cafes or farm-oriented businesses to find out who might be thinking of selling.
When you start walking properties, be sure to ask these questions — and don’t rely solely on answers from realtors or the sellers:
• Is the water clean and sufficient for the needs of both the family and the farm?
• Is the soil farmable?
• Are the buildings, fences and utilities in working condition? If not, how much time and money will infrastructure improvements require?
Water. To learn about water quality as well as standards for the correct construction and siting of water delivery systems (whether a well, spring, pond or cistern), visit the state’s Department of Health or Department of Natural Resources website (whichever handles private drinking water matters). Excellent information is also available at the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water website, at the American Groundwater Trust website, and in Homestead Water Sources and Options.
The state website will also guide you to water-testing labs, which will tell you how to take a water sample, what you should get it tested for, and where to send it for testing. If the water source is a well, then also get the well driller’s report from the county clerk, which will tell you the type, depth and age of the well, and how many gallons per minute it delivered when first put in.
If you have any doubts about the quality, quantity or reliability of the water supply, consult with a well driller or other professional. If you don’t have enough clean water, you can’t farm.
Lastly, if you’re in a state where water and mineral rights are separate from property ownership — generally west of the Mississippi River — you need to get local, qualified legal advice to ensure that you’ll be able to purchase enough water rights with the property.
Soil. Whether land can be farmed is determined primarily by soil type, as described in the USDA and Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) National Cooperative Soil Survey. You can download a map of the soil types on any property using this website, or, if you’re low-tech like I am, you can get a map and soil-type descriptions from the county extension agent’s office.
Read the descriptions of the soil types, because these will tell you the depth of topsoil and subsoil, drainage, degree of slope, and which crops and farming activities that soil is suitable for.
If everything looks good so far, do an online search to find a soil-testing lab in the area (or ask an extension agent), follow the lab’s instructions for taking a soil sample, and have it tested for the basic nutrients. If the test reveals some major deficiencies, talk with a soil fertility specialist — such as an extension soil expert — about what bringing the soil to its full potential may cost.
Buildings, Utilities, Support Services. If you’re uncomfortable with your ability to judge the soundness of buildings and the condition of plumbing, wiring, the furnace, fences and the septic system, find someone who can inspect them for you. You may have a knowledgeable friend or relative, your realtor or banker may know someone locally, or you can go to the American Society of Home Inspectors website to find inspectors in the area.
Neighborhood. Before making an offer on a property, check out the neighborhood. Vacation there for a week if it’s not local to you, subscribe to the local papers, talk to people, drive around, and certainly boot up Google Earth and do a virtual flyover of the area. This free download, featuring regularly updated satellite photos of the entire world, is an excellent tool for spotting bad things about a neighborhood that may be hidden, such as large mining operations, active landfills, or residential development that’s eating up farmland. Be sure to ask potential neighbors of any recent or pending land use changes.
Second, visit the county offices or website for information on land use ordinances (including zoning) and current land uses. Land use ordinances at both the township and county levels may either limit or protect the types of farming and marketing you can do, and they will certainly impact the types and pace of future development. Landowner maps (sometimes called “plat maps”) — also available at the county offices — show the property lines and identify the owner of every parcel of land in the county (except for small residential lots). They are well worth the purchase price if you’re serious about buying land in that county.
There are four traditional options to investigate for borrowing money: your relatives, a landowner willing to self-finance all or part of the mortgage through a “contract for deed,” the government, or a commercial lender (such as a bank). Often, as it did for us, it takes a couple different lenders to make a deal work.
Looking Good to a Lender. Because lenders are primarily interested in how likely it is they’ll get their money back (with interest), your job is to demonstrate that you’re a good risk. To find out what lenders are looking for, check out the Land Stewardship Project’s publication Getting a Handle on the Barriers to Financing Sustainable Agriculture. Also, read the article Financing Your Farm: Guidance for Beginning Farmers on the NSAIS website.
Using Government Programs. Several grant and loan programs assist new farmers with buying land. Most are administered through three agencies: the Farm Credit Administration, the Farm Service Agency and USDA Rural Development.
Thinking Outside the Box. What if you have no money, no experience, no off-farm employment, and so no appeal for a potential lender?
Get a farm internship. Go to the NSAIS website and check its national list of internships; also check regional and state sustainable agriculture organization websites for additional opportunities. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms offers paid and unpaid apprenticeships on farms around the world.
Enroll in classes on sustainable farming, including the business aspects. These may be available through nonprofit regional or local sustainable agriculture organizations, through state extension and universities, or through private colleges. The USDA maintains a list of colleges with sustainable agriculture programs.
Review the listings of foreclosed properties at county offices, local banks or online. If you go this route, do your homework on how these sales work to avoid the many potential pitfalls. For a good overview, see Lin Stone’s book How to Buy Land at Tax Sales.
In many areas, land is too expensive for ownership to be possible for a beginning farmer. Instead, look into leasing or renting land. Check Craigslist and similar websites, or, best of all, contact landowners directly — a landowner map is extremely useful for this.
Check out farm-link programs through the National Farm Transition Network, which connect retiring farmers with new farmers.
What about a group purchase? What one beginning farmer can’t afford to buy, perhaps a group of them could.
Last but not least, don’t give up. Somewhere, there’s a farm waiting for you to find it.
Ann Larkin Hansen lives with her family on an old dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. Her upcoming book, Finding Good Land for Your Organic Farm, will be released in early 2013. She’s also the author of The Organic Farming Manual.
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