Finding Farmland or Gardening Space

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Finding farmland can be difficult in America, but being innovative with how and where you farm can help you overcome those difficulties.
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“Farms with a Future,” by Rebecca Thistlethwaite, is a valuable book for anyone aspiring to get into small-to-midscale market farming or improve the efficiency and sustainability of their existing farm.

What does a sustainable and resilient farm look like? Farms with a Future (Chelsea Green, 2012), by Rebecca Thistlethwaite, introduces readers to some of the country’s most innovative farmers who are embracing the entrepreneurialism of farming. This excerpt, which discuss innovative methods to begin farming, is from Chapter 3, “Finding and Securing  Land.”

Buy this book from the GRIT store: Farms with a Future.

Finding and Securing Farmland

The overall picture of farmland in this nation is pretty bleak: We are losing a million acres a year to development; land prices are going up in nearly every region; ownership is consolidated and more often in the hands of nonfarmers; property taxes and estate taxes can be staggeringly high; and more and more farmers are renting, with no real opportunities in sight for secure land tenure. I have been interested in land tenure issues ever since I read the literature and saw firsthand how lack of land tenure leads to poor resource management decisions. Soil erosion rates are higher on rented ground than on owned land (Fraser, 2004). Likewise, the business viability of being a tenant farmer is often short-lived, with limited options to build equity or retirement security.

On a more positive note, there are more organizations today that help farmers find and secure land and more land trusts conserving farmland. Even land in urban areas is increasingly being converted to gardens and small farms, sometimes on ground that used to be paved over. Incrementally, many of these organizations are seeing their role as facilitating the next generation of farmers and forming a critical link in a sustainable food supply chain, joining a discourse that much of America has entered around local food (Beckett, 2011).

If you are already farming a piece of land that you like, some of this information will be unnecessary, but you should still read the sections on Family, Owning versus Renting, and Tax and Legal Issues.

Finding Land

Although you may drive around and see a considerable amount of land sitting fallow, planted to lawns, or growing low-value crops, it can actually be extremely hard to find suitable farmland to rent or purchase. Here is a laundry list of places to look and people to talk to when searching for land, starting at the microlevel.

1. Start in your own backyard, front yard, or rooftop! Start by experimenting in small spaces in and around your house (sprouts on the kitchen counter, potted tomatoes on the flat rooftop!). For example, our first year we purchased about a dozen different breeds of laying hens to raise in our side yard to find out which ones were the most productive egg layers and whether or not they were broody or flighty and to learn other characteristics of their breed. That experimental year next to our house allowed us to settle on a breed that suited our laying-hen operation for years to come once we scaled up to more land.

2. Try your neighbor, friend, or nearby family member with the 3-acre yard. See if they would be willing to give up some lawn (and save themselves the time and expense of mowing it all the time!) to allow you to plant a large garden, sow a grain, or even raise a couple of beef steers. You never know until you ask. And they may even be willing to let you experiment on their land rent free (since you know them and all). Even though this all sounds very informal, still write up a little contract stating what piece of ground, how long (end date), what you will grow or raise, and whether or not any form of payment will exchange hands, as well as a dispute-mediation process. Maybe they just want you to mow the other 2 acres of lawn in exchange for your tearing up the third acre. Labor is a great form of exchange, especially when you are cash poor but ability rich! However, you should specify what the labor exchange would look like so the landowner’s expectations don’t spiral out of control.

3. Talk to a neighboring farmer. Perhaps you could rotate a crop or animal with her crops or animals or rent some extra land that she isn’t using. One example of this was when we were invited to rent some land of an organic strawberry farmer who had to fallow his fields for five years between strawberry plantings to control soilborne diseases. He would rather not have to pay rent on that land for the five years while he wasn’t producing a crop off it, and he thought the weed control and fertility enhancements of running animals on the fallow ground would be a good idea.

The only reason we did not take the farmer up on this creative idea was that the land was just too far away from where we lived and kept the rest of our animals. The advantage of renting land from an actual farmer is that he will usually have more understanding of what farming looks like and the risks involved. Maybe he will tolerate your junk pile a little better or charge a more equitable rental price than a nonfarming landlord.

4. Start making a wider circle. Contact your state land-linking program if there is one, and call your local USDA Farm Services Agency office, all your local land trusts, and even state parks. Let all of the local farm organizations know that you are looking—the Grange, the Farm Bureau, the Cattleman’s Association, organic certifiers, and any other groups that may be out there. Also, tell every farmer that you know that you are looking for land—much land is rented or sold via word of mouth. I learned one idea from beginning farmer Nathan Winters (see his narrative in chapter 1): He posted a wanted ad on Craigslist that said he was looking for land to rent. His future landlord was looking for a couple who were into gardening and rural living to rent the house—Nathan’s wanted ad description fit the bill!

5. Consider public lands. One word of caution: although much federal, state, and privately held lands are indeed farmable or appropriate for livestock production, the agencies and organizations controlling that land may struggle to visualize agricultural production on those lands. Perhaps they see farming as a threat to nature or wildlife conservation. It might be necessary for you to educate them on how farming and nature can coexist in relative harmony. Furthermore, if you embrace some form of public access or benefit, such as farm tours and children’s education, your farm might be a good fit with the mission of these public land partners.

6. Work with a developer to find land. Farming or ranching might also be a good fit in a housing development in which they are required to maintain an element of open space or farmland uses. I have seen models of this in which the houses are clustered up against the trees and the open land in between the houses continues to be farmed under a long-term lease arrangement. Usually, the developer or neighborhood association will determine what kind of production practices may be utilized; however, lower rent prices and longer-term leases often offset these constraints.

Geography and Other Land Considerations

Where you farm will have a big impact on your economic viability, your choice of crops and animals, your production practices, and your quality of life. It may be convenient to just start farming where you already are, but it might not make sense in the long run. Here are some key farmland variables to consider when making a rental or purchase decision, broken out into farmland production considerations and those beyond the farm fields.

Production Considerations

Soil type and quality. Is it pure clay, clay-loam, loam, sandy-loam, sand, or other? Are there heavy metals, disease pathogens, or other deleterious things in the soil?
Acreage available. Will there be the acreage available at this property or nearby to satisfy your land needs 10 years out? If you want to start small, can you just rent or buy a portion of the land, then expand into more acreage if you decide to scale up?
Climate and microclimate. Is it Mediterranean, temperate, hot and dry, or four real seasons? Is it a frost pocket, a windswept ridgetop, or a cold and wet north-facing slope? Can you practice rain-fed agriculture, or will you need seasonal irrigation? Is there a history of drought?
Drainage. Does it flood regularly? How quickly does it drain? Does it drain too fast? Are there wet areas such as standing water or springs in the fields?
Topography. Is it flat, concave, gentle hills, steep hills, or a mixture?
Water source and quality. Is the source a well, a spring, a creek, a pond, an irrigation ditch, or a city connection, and what is the quality? Are there any bacterial or heavy metal issues? Is there a recent water test you can look at?
Irrigation infrastructure. Is there underground piping with risers, hose bibs, flood gates, well pump, storage tanks, pump from creek or pond?
Water costs. Is the well metered? Will you have to pay for city water? Do you pay for each acre-foot of water from the ditch? What does the electricity cost for pumping? Who controls the water? (This issue can seriously come back to bite you if you don’t do the research: I have some friends that nearly bankrupted their farm when an extreme drought forced them to use expensive city water to irrigate more than usual to keep some tender crops alive. Under normal summer conditions they used about half as much irrigation water.)

Beyond Production Considerations

Neighboring land uses. Is it agricultural? Organic or not? Residential, industrial, wildlife habitat? Will the neighboring uses harm your farm because of thievery, vandalism, pollution, complaints, pesticide drift, and so on?
Distance to markets. I like to draw a two-hour radius around my farm because that is the maximum I am willing to drive to get to markets. Most of my markets will be much closer than that, but an occasional two-hour drive for a good sale might be worth it here and there. On the flip side too close to population centers might limit your land options, too.
Real estate prices and development pressure. Are real estate prices in your area driven up by development pressures, land speculation, high commodity prices, or high-value crops such as wine grapes? How are farmland rental prices or purchase prices behaving? Erratic and inflationary real estate markets might jeopardize your lease or cause your rent prices to rise.
Tax rates. What is the property tax rate for the land? Is the land enrolled in some sort of agricultural value program or long-term protection program to reduce the property tax rates? How much will the property taxes add to the cost of the land? It helps you to know the base rate the landlord needs, because often the renter pays the taxes directly.
Quality of life considerations. These are entirely up to you, but are there people and places nearby that enrich your life? Are there the cultural, educational, recreational, and spiritual opportunities that you desire to balance out your life?
Other land types. Will you have access to or use of a woodlot, sugarbush, rangeland, hunting areas, swimming hole, fishing pond, wildife habitat, and so forth that will bring diversity to your farming enterprise, allow you to be more self-reliant, or improve your quality of life?

Want to learn more about turning your farm into a farm with a future? Read Soil Management Practices for Your Farm or Garden for advice on keeping your soil healthy and giving your plants and crops the best environment to grow in.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Farms with a Future by Rebecca Thistlethwaite and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Farms with a Future.

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