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 cafe 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; and 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 costs 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.
What farms need
Different products require different soils, terrain, infrastructure, and markets. If you know already what you want to produce, use this chart to see what your farm will need.
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 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 XX: 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 XX 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.
Reprinted with permission from Storey Basics, Books for Self-Reliance. The author, Ann Larkin Hansen, also wrote The Organic Farming Manual.