Longterm commitment to this land?
August 30, 2011 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering buying a 21-acre farm for personal (non-commercial) use and enjoyment. What should I know before launching into this endeavor?

I'm considering buying a small 21-acre farm. At present it's only being used for hay, but I hope to build a new home on it within the next 10-15 years and do "something" with it.

It currently has a barn (in good condition), and an abandoned 700 sq ft house that most likely needs to be removed. Here's the thing; I grew up on the ocean and don't know the first thing about farming. I also have limited time to spend on the land over the next 3-5 years. Does anyone have any experiences with this type of situation, or know of any resources I should be exploring?

It would be great if the land could be used in the interim in some manner. Maybe rent it out or some other situation?

Part of me thinks I should just wait until I have more time, but the location is ideal and small farmland this close to our town is quite scarce.

If it matters, we're in our late 30s and I would like to imagine this home as my place of retirement. We're also in the Midwest, about 5 minutes outside a small town with a major university. I wouldn't need to make money from the farm in order to remain financially secure. Also, the farm is only a mile from where I currently live, so I would be able to keep an eye on it until we build the house.
posted by foggy out there now to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
What do you want to do with this land? You need to figure out how much you want to put into it because owning a real, working farm is a HUGE commitment and ALOT of work. Even if it is a couple of acres and you just want large gardens.

If you don't have the time to spend on the upkeep, I'd say this is not a good choice to make.

If you just want the investment, buy the property and leave it as is over the next 3 to 5 years, but it's gonna be that much more trouble when you do come back around to fix it up.
posted by TheBones at 4:16 PM on August 30, 2011

In some places property tax for farmland is very different than for residential land. Look into how property tax is handled in your area. In some cases renting the land out for continued use farming is a big savings.
posted by GuyZero at 4:17 PM on August 30, 2011

I'd say number one is keeping even a 'small' farm up is a helluva lot of work. If you're looking for something to read, try Five Acres and Independence.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:17 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father had a farm like this. He is a sculptor. While he finished the barn, which was to be his home and studio, he lived in a mobile home on the property. The mobile home was really nice. I was amazed, since I had a jaundiced view of them. It had a jacuzzi tub, full-sized washer and dryer, dishwasher, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Where I live now, farmers lease farm land. Perhaps you could do that until you are ready to move to the land.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 4:20 PM on August 30, 2011

You might want to browse the archive of Suzanne McMinn's blog, Chickens in the Road. She's spent the last few years chronicling what it was like to move from a city to a farm in West Virginia. It's been a real learn-as-you-go experience for her.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:27 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have no experience in this either, but if you do go ahead with this I'd suggest planting some nice trees (possibly fruit trees) now so that they'll be fully grown by the time you start living on the property.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:28 PM on August 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

We wanted to do this for a long time and now live in an area where several of our friends live on small-ish hobby farms.

Even at 'hobby' levels of commitment, it looks like a hell of a lot of work. We since sort of changed our minds. Even small numbers of your basic livestock (hey! we'll get some layers and have a constant supply of eggs!) require more time and attention than I'm frankly willing/able to give. One friend of ours raises a few cattle every other year or so and we buy a half-side from him when we can. We also get our eggs from him (when the hens are laying). It's a ton of work - he's semi-retired and basically does it all throughout the entire day.

On preview, I like the orchard idea a whole lot. If you want some interesting reading on a sort of full-scale integrated approach to things like poultry, take a look at Joel Salatin's books.
posted by jquinby at 4:35 PM on August 30, 2011

Sorry - in the meantime, is there enough good pasture for hay? Seems like every parcel around here that doesn't have livestock is cutting hay a few times a year. You might find someone who can cut/roll/sell it. Maybe ask around the local co-op?
posted by jquinby at 4:40 PM on August 30, 2011

(ugh, how did I miss that hay is already on the land? never mind)
posted by jquinby at 4:41 PM on August 30, 2011

You might also ask an attorney about obtaining a conservation easement for your land. The reduced taxes (if applicable) might influence your decision.
posted by workerant at 4:49 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Water is a key part of agriculture, so you'll want to look into any water rights the farm may have. Also think about your future water needs. Keep in mind that rights on paper may have been relinquished through non-use. Similarly, if you don't plan to use that water in the near term you may risk relinquishing the right. Water law is generally complex and varies by state so you'll want a local water rights attorney or consultant to assist you in evaluating the situation.
posted by rube goldberg at 4:51 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I looked into this in a similar situation. Maintaining the property is time consuming and costly in terms of repairs. Is there a fence around the property or on the property? That needs to be addressed regularly. If you are not planting on it and there is a lot of open field, either the grass needs to be cut or there needs to be some sort of maintenance for the hay. My plan was to exchange the work for the hay. I had a local farmer whose property was down the road willing to use my property for the hay in exchange for mending fences, bailing the hay and general basic up keep on the outside of the property. We were also going to have sheep grazing on one portion of the property. (We got outbid for the property.)

Not sure what the status of your barn is, but we also considered having locals board their horses there as a revenue stream. Fwiw, this was in Charlottesville Virginia, also a smallish college town. The only farming experience I had was growing some plants in college for personal use. (Epic fail)

As pointed out, there can be some significant tax advantages as well. IF the house really needs to come down eventually, I would take it down now. That will also help from a liability and tax standpoint.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:52 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a farmwife. Here's what I wish I had known before moving to a farm. More later; just harvested tomatoes and need to process them for canning tomorrow. Tonight's lesson: pound your T-posts to a hurricane-proof level, and throw an extra zip tie or two on each tomato cage. Or else you will be harvesting from the ground at sunset.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:01 PM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Simple, lease it to one of your neighbours in the interim. Either directly or via a real estate agent.

Maybe plant some trees on camping weekends, so they're nice and grown by the time you come to reside there.

Don't be put off by the naysayers, this is a big commitment and may be hard work from time to time, but the benefits are amazing.
posted by wilful at 5:06 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

My sensei owns a larger parcel of farmland here in Nebraska that he primarily turns over to hay. A neighbor farms and harvests it to feed his cows. Any remainder is sold and the profits split. They live on the property - built a nice house and plan to build a second one on the land, and also maintain a couple of small ponds for fishing. I would bet that you could work out a similar arrangement with a neighbor, but I know there are still farm chores that need to get done to keep the land in good condition. He loves it for the independence it offers.
posted by PussKillian at 5:20 PM on August 30, 2011

Are you in love with this piece of land? Is it beautiful? Does it make you happy to walk through it? Can you afford it? If you answered yes to all of these questions then just buy it. You don't have to farm it. You can let it revert to wilderness, and you don't need to fence it. Or you can let a neighbor hay it however many times a year they hay around there. Or you could lease some part of the land to a Community Supported Agriculture group. Or, like others have suggested, plant an orchard, but only do that if you have enough water for young trees.
posted by mareli at 5:53 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

It will be a lot of work. Tending land, or managing those that tend your land will be another (time consuming) job, but it will reward you in ways that are soul-satisfying.

I'd say go for it if it feel right.
posted by roboton666 at 5:59 PM on August 30, 2011

Response by poster: Amazing answers so far, thanks so much!

I asked about the pasture just now. It looks like it is harvested for hay a few times a season by a neighbor and the proceeds are split between the owner and neighbor. It sounds like that situation would easily extend to whoever buys the land. The revenue is very low, but it would at least keep the pasture in fair shape.

I've walked the fence line and it is in good shape.

I do not anticipate raising livestock of any kind. I'm really in love with trees though, so planting fruit trees would be ideal. I'm now trying to check on the status of the irrigation well and pump. And I love love love the idea of having a CSA group use part of the land.
posted by foggy out there now at 6:27 PM on August 30, 2011

There's a lot I could say, but your situation really sounds pretty good, especially having someone do the haying for you. Do expect unexpected expenses. Do secure against fire. Do take that old building down. Don't think of your property as income-neutral but as having needs that will be a drain on your income - maybe a small one, but there's no way you can own 21 acres and not need to spend money on it (that's very, very large in small-farm terms).

And if you hook into your region's local foodie/Slow Food network, you may be able to find some young farmers who would love to use the land in a tenancy arrangement. In my region that's about the only way young farmers can get any land at all. If you go that way, be sure to spell out everything in an agreement - water use, safety practices, vehicle access, what activities are allowed, soil maintenance practices you prefer, beehives or not, etc.
posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

About 20 years ago my parents bought a 100 acre farm to live on when I was in high school . The property is split pretty much 50/50 wooded/pasture. The hay gets cut once, occasionally twice a year. In the past we had a deal where a local farmer would come cut the hay he'd get 2/3s of the hay for cutting it we would get 1/3 typically we would sell our 1/3 minus a few bales to keep around for landscaping. In the last ten years or so they have had a hard time finding someone to cut and bale the hay let alone buy our 1/3. Another thing to watch out for, at least in our area is neighboring fence line. If your neighbors are farmers and the state considers you a farmer (because you sold 1/3 of your hay) you become responsible for half of the fence line so fence maintenance may be an unexpected expense even if you don't intend to keep any live stock.

If you have any thoughts about renovating the existing house Stop.. Stop thinking about it right now! tear it down and start from scratch Go rent the Tom Hanks movie The Money Pit. It's very close to what I lived through when my parents decided to renovate the 100 year old farm house on the property.

It takes a lot of work to maintain land so it looks nice. My father really enjoys that part of it. he keeps about ten acres of grass mowed around the house. He also keeps about 5 miles of trails through the woods mowed. There was a time when the local high school cross country team practiced on those trails. He is now semi-retired and seems to enjoy the property even more now. He has a nice tractor and over the years has acquired a dozer and a backhoe so when I come up the drive way I never know what new project he has gotten into.
posted by jmsta at 7:07 PM on August 30, 2011

Oh! Duh. Contact your state's Cooperative Extension and ask for resources on this question, as well. They may have good online resources too. They're very helpful.
posted by Miko at 7:07 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK, the farmwife returns.

It would be great if the land could be used in the interim in some manner. Maybe rent it out or some other situation?

As mentioned above, there are aspiring farmers out there who would love to get experience on someone else's land. See this question for suggested ways of making contact with them.

It currently has a barn (in good condition), and an abandoned 700 sq ft house that most likely needs to be removed.

It's great that the barn is in good shape. You'll want the names of local/regional folks who paint barns and fix barn roofs. Neighboring farmers may have specific people that they've used; you might also contact your county's ag extension for names. Abandoned house? Agree with the tear-down idea; perhaps your local fire department would be interested in using it for a practice burn? What you don't want is an accidental fire/tornado/other horrendous occurrence to cause it to fall down before you're ready to deal with it, and to cause you expense in the meantime. If it's an old enough structure, there may be salvage/reclamation outfits that might be interested.

I also have limited time to spend on the land over the next 3-5 years. Does anyone have any experiences with this type of situation, or know of any resources I should be exploring?

Yes. Spend this time doing your homework. Contact your local ag extension, or your state ag department, and research which trees will do well for you. I can't say enough good things about Storey Publishing's books, although I have used them mostly for research on livestock. Do have a look through their Country Wisdom Bulletins, especially if you are contemplating berries, grapes. fruit trees, pruning, etc. Arm yourself with knowledge. Also amass a list of basic tools. About those...

I wouldn't need to make money from the farm in order to remain financially secure.

See, here's the thing: Farms get expensive really, really quickly. This question, What are the farming essentials?, has some good answers to the question. But IIRC, it excludes equipment like a tractor, wheelbarrow, shovels, post-puller, post-pounder, chain saw (plus ear and eye protection and Kevlar chaps), loppers, a fence-tightening tool, rakes, etc. You won't be able to buy everything in advance because surprise is part of the basic nature of farm life. However, if you have a plan for your trees, and you do your homework, you can at least get a start by going to auctions and assembling your war chest. Or depleting it, anyway.

At present it's only being used for hay

The common deal where I am is that the farmer keeps half and gives the other half to the farmer that harvests it. Even if you don't use the hay/straw for livestock, you may be able to sell or barter it. PLEASE talk with your ag extension about proper and SAFE storage of hay, as it can be combustible (never stored it myself, but I do note that hay barns have LOTS of good circulation for a reason). You'll also want to check the roof really well, and see how dry your barn floor stays in different varieties of storm before you store anything valuable inside.

but I hope to build a new home on it within the next 10-15 years and do "something" with it.

The quotation marks around "something" make me nervous. Farming is tough on the young and hale, and 21 acres is a lot to take care of. Yes, your fences look nice now, but they won't stay that way, and you'll need to be vigilant about them. How will you feel about tending your orchard when you're 60? Will you be able to continue what you started? Having a five-, 10-, and 20-year plan will be important in helping you decide what to tackle, and when, and I'd urge you to think about what those plans will look like before you make this purchase.

Finally, a question that you haven't addressed: Is everyone in the family on board with this plan? Farming is not solo work, and it's no fun to dream aloud when your partner simply isn't interested. As I said, farm life is a surprising life, and you can't know everything ahead of time. But it's imperative that your family members agree to meet the unexpected--and the unexpectedly fun--together. I wish you luck with this project!
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:56 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

The biggest thing about owning land, and keeping it productive is you no longer have any setting around time (oh you do, but you will always, always have something to do). Repair a fence, fix the roof on the barn, thin the trees-than cut, split and stack the firewood, weed the garden, trim the hedge, whatever. Its like a really, really big yard. If you want to grow fruit trees that are worth a damn you have to keep them pruned and maintained, but they are less work than row cropping. The biggest thing is do you like taking vacations? if so It is much harder with land to take care of-what if something happens when you are gone? like the water lines freeze than defrost and your house floods? or a toronado comes through and knocks trees into the barn... much less the mundane things like the constant care some type of gardening/farming requires. All this being said I am hoping to buy a nice spread (5 acres or less) somewhere in the Willamette sometime before I turn 50. Because I love all the things I listed above. And the best part is looking over a well tended land that is mine after a good meal from that land. The only real wealth over the ages is productive land. Nothing else is a dependable and there is something inherent in our culture (and maybe in our genes) that equates that with a security that is not available any other way.
posted by bartonlong at 8:09 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

If fruit's not your thing, look into tree farming. When Chuck Leavell's not playing with the Rolling Stones, he's a tree farmer down in Macon, GA. Always thought a tree farm would be about a cool a thing there is.
posted by jquinby at 8:48 PM on August 30, 2011

Managing this land shouldn't be that big a deal. If you have a neighbour farmer who'll hay your field for you, then work out a system as others have described here. The hay is usually enough to give your property farm status for tax purposes.

Alternatively (or concurrently), you could lease out your pasture and/or barn to some local horsepeople. If you do this along with the haying, you just have to take the horses off the pasture at certain times. Not a big deal.

(You could also lease it out for cattle grazing but cattle are hard on fences and tend to attract flies, so I wouldn't recommend it.)

If you bury your water lines below your frost line, then you won't have freezing issues. Make sure your electrical is very safe in the barn or that the power is turned off if you're not there.

If you have farming neighbours, you don't need a tractor or other machinery. It will be much cheaper to hire them to do the work and you won't need to worry about your farm vehicles getting stolen (which happens a lot).

I've been doing the farm thing for most of my adult life (I didn't grow up this way) and have never felt chained to my land or livestock. You set it up right and it (usually) runs smoothly. Yes, there are some odd moments of WTF but you forget about that when you're looking out over your fields in the morning.
posted by grounded at 8:54 PM on August 30, 2011

One last thing--if you love trees, request a catalog from Oikos Tree Crops. The hazelnut bushes I ordered from them arrived as sticks, but three-plus years later, they're flourishing.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:56 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to add that it occurred to me that I could easily spend at least an hour every day tending my 625 sq. ft. vegetable garden. ('Could' meaning that I should, but I don't. I'm a bad gardener.)

21 acres is 914,760 sq. ft.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:59 PM on August 30, 2011

You don't have to farm it. You can let it revert to wilderness, and you don't need to fence it.
I'm not a farmer, but farmers I know have an incredibly dim view of city people who own rural property and don't keep it in good order. The extra weed management for your neighbours, for example, from an untended place is a pain.
posted by bystander at 11:49 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

My wife and I bought a 40 acre parcel in the Midwest US in 2006 with the intention of building a house and starting a very small garden farm. We still own the property but have yet to move there from our city place because a few curve balls (like having identical twin girls in 2009) came up. We plan to hold on to it and move when we can.

So far it has not been too onerous. Our property is 1/3 hayfield and 2/3 mixed hardwoods. Our maintenance has been minimal. We keep the driveway graded. We use a flail mower on the back of a 1978 Ford tractor to keep the field mowed. The tractor was $4k and the mower was $1800. We mow twice a year, two ten hour days each time. About $100 each mowing in gas and supplies. The flail is a 6-ft long implement that attaches to the tractor and finely shreds even tall grass into a mulch that sheet composts quickly. It's fun.

We have had offers to rent, but have declined since we want to preserve the possibility of organic certification and in our neck of the woods it's not kosher for the landowner to stipulate no chemicals to a tenant.

Something to keep in mind about selling hay on shares or whatever - it's like strip-mining your land for organic material. If your selling hay off the place for years on end without addressing fertility or plowing in a green manure crop, or manuring, etc you're losing fertility. Better to figure out an agreement for grazing livestock. Then YOU get the manure.

As for taxes, every state is different. Our land changed from "Ag" to "unimproved" and our property taxes doubled. But...this is in a big dairy state where ag taxes are very low. The taxes we pay now on 26 acres of oak, maple and walnut and 13 acres of mixed legumes/grass are still far less than we pay on a modest cape cod on 1/8th of an acre in town. We can swing it. We went into this knowing it would cost something.

If you're serious about buying, start digging into the local government, ordinances, tax structure, community, voting records, building code enforcement...the list is endless.

If you are going to be an absent owner, be the nicest, most considerate one you can be. Keep the weeds down one way or another. Make friends with the retired guy down the road. Help a neighbor any way you can. Give hunting permission to a trustworthy family. Respect local knowledge. Trade phone numbers.
posted by werkzeuger at 7:50 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

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