So, I’m land rich and cash poor. What should I do?
January 6, 2020 2:46 PM   Subscribe

My siblings and I inherited the lot where my grandmother’s house stood in a small city in East Texas and 40 acres of rural land. We've been paying property taxes for 20 years because we don't want to sell some of the last land owned by African Americans. However, this ongoing expense is a bit of an issue and we haven't been able to figure out what to do.

My parents moved to the Midwest for jobs in the 60s and that’s where we grew up. As children, we spent summers in Texas visiting my grandmother and relatives. Two siblings still live in the Midwestern city where we grew up and the other two are in Texas, (Dallas and Houston). I’m in California.

We’ve sold the Pine timber once or twice over the years and done a few hunting leases. My siblings and I are all near 60. Paying taxes indefinitely makes no sense and the next generation, who have little to no exposure to the area, will be even less likely to want to take this on. I’m willing to move but I need a source of income and I’m doubtful of my ability find a good-paying local job. I could perhaps work remotely.

I love the idea of having a small farm but starting a farm at 60 seems a bit much, especially since I have no experience beyond having nice vegetable gardens. We’ve thought about clearing the land to grow hay or Christmas trees. Taxes are lower if the property is used for agriculture.

It would be great to have a family home in the country where everyone could get together. I’ve also thought about building a home on the city lot and living there or making it a rental property (regular lease or AirBnB). (In my dreams, the house would have a lovely pollinator garden.)

With climate change, I want to be a good steward of the land. I’ve thought about building a small home in the woods with a huge garden, a few chickens, a couple of cows and goats or sheep and leaving the rest of the land mostly as is and wooded. I’m all for living off the land but I need hard cash for mortgage payments and bills and I want more than a subsistence standard of living.

So, what would you do with 40 acres and no mule?
posted by shoesietart to Home & Garden (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I like these RVs that look like cabins. You'd have to check on the legality of living in one full time (more difficult on the urban lot than in the country), but they're really well built. Is it possible you could lease some of the rural land to a nearby farmer? I also wonder if you could make a deal with an environmental group that would want to preserve/restore a forest in the area and then maybe responsible harvest timber.
posted by pinochiette at 3:02 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Is there any land conservancy operating in the region?
posted by spitbull at 3:03 PM on January 6, 2020 [8 favorites]

Imagine that you didn't own this land, but could purchase it for a fair price with cash you've got in hand. Would you do it? If your answer is "no way," maybe selling the property would allow you to pursue some of the same goals/aspirations you noted in a somewhat less life-disrupting way.
posted by pingzing at 3:05 PM on January 6, 2020 [7 favorites]

To be honest, this sounds a like a sunk-cost fallacy. Ask yourself this: If you didn't own this land already, would you go out and buy it? Could you sell it and use the money to set up some other fitting tribute to your grandparents who owned it?

If you really do love the land though, could you explore leasing out part of it to an adjacent ranch or farm, allowing you to still have usage rights?
posted by chrisamiller at 3:09 PM on January 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Can you lease the land to one of the neighboring farms to grow crops/livestock on? The rent should be enough to pay the property taxes. That's what my friends with farmland that they can't farm themselves do.
posted by monotreme at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2020 [6 favorites]

I guess I'm a cold-hearted bastard, but at your ages, your fantasies about making the land emotionally useful or fiscally useful, seem to me just...fantasies. Imagine I gave your family that land and you had no family connection to the land: what would you do?
posted by tmdonahue at 3:24 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The rural land is all thick brush and Piney woods, not farmland. It's filled with deer, feral hogs, and whatever else lives in the woods. It would have to be cleared before anything could be done on it. There are cattle ranchers nearby but not many crop farms.
posted by shoesietart at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Folks are always looking for space to park their tiny homes.
posted by oceano at 3:35 PM on January 6, 2020

It sounds like it would be expensive, hard work and likely unprofitable to convert the scrub land to economic use. What about donating to a group that will converse the land in its natural state? I would start with Nature Conservancy - if they aren't right, they probably know who it. You and your sibs would get a tax deduction and land would be protected. If were me, I would also try negotiated to have the family name associated with the property going forward so there would be a small remembrance as well.
posted by metahawk at 3:39 PM on January 6, 2020 [16 favorites]

Have you thought about selling the land to another African American family, maybe one with ancestral connections to that area, who would be interested in living on or farming it?
posted by BlueJae at 3:45 PM on January 6, 2020 [18 favorites]

Best answer: we don't want to sell some of the last land owned by African Americans.

I think people are skipping over the emotional import of this because it doesn't resonate with them personally. It's a very important factor.

So, on a practical basis, how much property tax are we talking annually?
posted by DarlingBri at 3:49 PM on January 6, 2020 [46 favorites]

The rational thing to do is probably to sell it, but that doesn't address the emotional situation. I mean, a 40-acres-and-a-mule parcel dating back to the end of the civil war is an awesome piece of history, and its meaning gets lost if you convert it into cold, hard, useful cash.

Maybe there are some things you can do to respect this history when you sell it? E.g., have a photographer take some great pictures of the land, that you can put up on the mantel wherever you go? Donate some of the proceeds to charities working in the African American community? Sell 39 acres and keep one for building a vacation cabin?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:55 PM on January 6, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Just some brainstorming -
If the land is suitable for agriculture, I wonder if you could get in touch with an organization for young farmers and work out some arrangement where the young person would do the work in exchange for free use of the land or profit-sharing, etc. (And you could either live there or not, depending what you work out.)

There are such orgs in the southwest for people with Native American heritage, and there must be similar orgs that focus on young African Americans who are interested in farming but need land access. Might also try reaching out to the local agricultural extension office and see if anyone's doing any work like that in the region. This page has a list of black-led farming organizations, might be a good starting point for finding such a person or org.

Another option might be donating it for educational use somewhere -- e.g. if there's a historically black college or university nearby, or a community college or state university nearby that has programs that could be related. E.g. it could be used for research by biology students. A house on the city lot could be offered as inexpensive housing for black students in related fields, or researchers on topics relevant to your family history, or for a service organization if your grandparents had connections to a church in town, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:12 PM on January 6, 2020 [15 favorites]

40 acres of untouched land in texas is practically a bioreserve. I personally would try to conserve it along with your families name by placing it in a conservancy, donating to the town or a college etc

I think you will also find there are likely people who already use and love the land recreationallyand might be willing to buy it. Perhaps even friends of your family.

It doesn't sound viable as a farm anymore but one option is to grow really high end timber and selectively log. It might make your kids or grandkids rich though, not you.
posted by fshgrl at 5:18 PM on January 6, 2020 [12 favorites]

There's a new book called Farming While Black that you might enjoy. The author runs Soul Fire Farm in New York; it seems to be an organization as much as a farm. I think you might find some rich connections if you looked at what they were doing. Maybe you could find some young black farmers or homesteaders interested in this land.

I'll also say this: if your goal is to be a good steward of the land, then bringing it to someone who wants to actively manage it might be better for the land and the local community. Absentee owners aren't always the best for the local community. So doing the emotional work of letting go of this property might help you achieve a few goals (in addition to eliminating some of the expense).

If the property taxes are a stress when you're all paying them as a group, it'll be even more difficult for you to pay them on your own. I'm guessing you'd have to buy out your siblings? That's a huge shift. It could be a huge investment of your time and livelihood when a lot of it is a rural fantasy. But I get why this dream is hard to let go.

My suggestion, if you can swing it: connect with some black farmers and start a conversation (it may be that this land isn't ideal for the kind of farming you'd want to do anyway, but I'm not sure if you know that right now) that leads to some sort of sale or transfer. Then get the family together on the property and have a lovely reunion. Take a lot of photos and videos and talk about your childhood. Say goodbye knowing you are leaving it in good hands.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:43 PM on January 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: OK, so I am in a similar situation, though I was the sole heir and I am in Europe and white (but Jewish enough to be a spectacle in the community). I have siblings and cousins, but my grandparents decided it would be better that there was only one owner. In that sense, I am probably a bit more free to make decisions. From the beginning, I have done a lot to make everyone in the family feel at home here, and actually I'm a bit overwhelmed in a good way by how much my siblings and the young ones want to use the place. My own kids and my nephews feel very close to the land now, and are interested when I explain how it works. I looked at selling it and buying something closer to home, but nothing made sense.

We had a house, actually a whole farmyard of buildings, but they were in such a bad state I might as well have torn them down. I renovated instead, but it makes no difference in economy.
In the beginning, I had planned to put it on airbnb as a holiday home, and did the interiors accordingly, but it turned out the family uses it all the time. I have a cottage on the land that I rent out through a local holiday rental company with international associates, and after a dry first year, it is going very well, even out of season. The cottage was also kind of a ruin to look at, but the fundamentals were good, so it wasn't as expensive as the main building to get in shape. I asked the rental company what they preferred and went 100% after that, rather than my own taste or style. (I'm an architect, so I have opinions, but here I was only thinking about my pension). I told my ex about this, and he did something similar in his home town in the opposite end of the country, and it's working really well for him, too.

I also rent out some of the land to my neighbor. He grazes horses there. But the great thing is that he also maintains the road and the fences. The rent just covers the taxes, but that means I can relax and develop my ideas slowly. (We have a similar situation to yours where I get a rebate for agricultural use, but it's another country so I won't go into the details).

I have many of the same ideas as you, and perhaps also the same worries. I've come to realize that I can find a job out there, if I really want it, so now I'm trying to figure out if I really want it.
The loans I've taken out to pay for the improvements will be payed out when I'm 70, so from then on all the income will be something I can live on. It won't be a huge income, but it will be there, and I'm pretty certain I will move there full time then. It's important that right now, the income I get from rents cover all the costs, including taxes.

If you want to live off the land, you need to do more than just grow things and raise animals. You need to transform your produce into something interesting. Or you need to work part-time with something else.

Just a silly detail that taught me a lot: the first year I had an abundance of plums, and I made some nice jellies, but not a lot. Since then the harvest has been almost non-existent and whatever grew was harvested by the birds because there was so little else to eat. So I wish I had made 50 jars of jelly that first year. And if I were to live off of it, I should have made 500, and saved the money I earned from selling them for these bleaker years. Since then I've had plenty blackberries and raspberries but they are a pain to harvest, I'd hate to depend on them for my living.
I guess mostly I want to say with that is that there is a learning process, and you can't get that knowledge from books or even your neighbors because the circumstances will be different. None of my neighbors have as many fruit and berries as I do, so they can't tell me anything about why some years are good and others are bad.

One of the things I'm thinking about is to start a restaurant-ish thing. There are several miles to a good place, and they are in a way an inspiration. But I know that if I do that, I need to make a business plan from the outset, and hire people. It's a risk.

A lot of people have suggested I make it a hunting destination. Shooters could come for a weekend, cull the deer, and some birds, and have a good time with rustic food etc. They tell me it pays well. I wonder if there would be an opportunity in your unique heritage here?

I've already begun to make it a refuge for artists, but I don't really get a lot of income out of that now. Maybe it will come. I let artists live there for a very low or no fee out of season wether I'm there or not, and they spread the word that it is a special place, which leads to more interest.

I've probably forgotten a million things, but one thing I'll recommend: I watch a lot of videos about forest gardening, and I've bought some books on the topic as well. I haven't really figured it out yet, but there are the beginnings of a very diverse and special habitat on my land already. And people come just for that.
posted by mumimor at 5:50 PM on January 6, 2020 [31 favorites]

If you're interested in creating some kind of arrangement around what's done with the land in the future, the Land Trust Alliance might be a good resource for finding a local land conservancy organization. Or these folks?
posted by aka burlap at 5:51 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Texas Land Conservancy

You may not have to hand over the property while you’re alive to benefit from this sort of arrangement. It can lower your taxes a lot and involve others in managing and protecting your land, and you can make stipulations about its future use and disposition, perhaps including something (a name, a marker, etc?) that made it a memorial of African American presence in perpetuity. It’s moving to think about that history.
posted by spitbull at 6:46 PM on January 6, 2020 [7 favorites]

Also just to check: Have you asked any of the “next” generation if they are interested? In my family, for example, I bet my aunts and uncles would guess that I would not want to be involved in owning farmland or moving, but I actually would love to.
posted by Charity Garfein at 7:58 PM on January 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

I inherited 100,000 acres of tribal-adjacent land in Montana and the tribe bought everything for a very good price because I contacted them and asked if they would be interested. I did keep the mineral rights which have been very profitable. My mother was a honorary member of the tribe.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:04 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm late to the party as usual but this sound like a good base for a small-ish conservation subdivision. Probably not something you'd do yourself directly but attractive to the right kind of developer. Obviously I don't know your state law but...

What are the lands' attributes?
What's the zoning? still agricultural or surrounded by town?
What's terrain like? gentle rolling makes nice interesting home sites.
What's the stormwater code?
What is a nice sale-able lot size there?
40 acres (thinking 16.6Ha, -15% for roads = 14Ha, even half acres lots is 28 lots)
So it has an existing house?
Are there any protected species reserve nearby - sometimes the right kind of development can leverage that adjacency.
Who owns surrounding roads? county or federal? What are the limitations around new egress?

I know of cases where the original owner has worked with a developer to retain a domicile site as payment\part payment. Retaining a few lots for leasehold or land-banking for easier liquidity is a good idea too if you can include it agreement.

Or sell and include in agreement say an acre as a public park entrusted through one of the organisations others have listed above and retain some sense of legacy connection.
posted by unearthed at 8:11 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Could you consider selling the majority of it, to a private party or a land conservancy, and keep just one acre or less?
posted by nickggully at 8:14 PM on January 6, 2020

Best answer: Another idea: My spouse and I bought a fixer-upper on a well-known fishing river in our state that's on 1.6 acres of land. We cleared a half acre and turned it into a garden space, including a 30' x 72' high tunnel. We have 32 fruit trees, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries in the tunnel. We are 17 miles from the nearest grocery store, so we plan to offer fruit to our neighbors in a small farm stand as the trees begin bearing (some fruits can take 5 years to start bearing). I'm a master gardener and love grafting and propagating, so I'll also be offering fruit trees and plants for sale. Our neighbors are excited about the prospect of fresh fruit for sale, and we already use the tunnel in the spring and summer for neighborhood coffees and get-togethers. It's great marketing and a fun place to meet new folks and visit with friends! PS: I was 61 when we started all of this... don't worry about your age. Just do it!
posted by summerstorm at 8:39 PM on January 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Comment to add details:

I've started paying all the property taxes and I'm comfortable with that. I'm willing to relocate and I can't afford to buy property in California.

At this point, I do not to want to sell the land. We had three baby boys born into our family over the holidays, one a Texan! :-) I have no children but I several nieces and nephews in their 20s who have started having babies, six in the past three years. As a family, we get along well and tend to enjoy each other's company.

There are two properties - the vacant city lot where my grandmother's house stood. It's in a modest but conveniently located neighborhood near a college and high school. The acreage is located outside the city in a rural area where the surrounding properties are mostly undeveloped with thick piney woods, cattle ranches, and maybe hay farms. Roads are county owned, maybe Texas highway too.

The rural land will need to be cleared if it's going to be used for anything, perhaps in stages. I'm open to something small business/artisanal-like - specialty crop, butchery, smoked meats, special activity, I would prefer to build/live on the acreage.

My mother is almost 90 and when she passes, our family will lose our matriarch. It would be great to still have a place where we can gather and where folks can come to escape or if someone needs a place to live.
posted by shoesietart at 11:38 PM on January 6, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: My mother owns a "farm" in East Texas (near Avinger)—it was a hobby farm her father bought in the 50's to grow vegetables and hunt. No house on it. We all live in the Pacific Northwest now, and have long since sold the grandparents' place in town, so our situations aren't dissimilar. About 2/3 of the land is pine that gets selectively harvested and replanted every 10 years or so, which process it sounds like you're familiar with. The rest is meadowy, and a neighbor alternately grazes cattle there or grows hay... he keeps an eye on things, fixes the odd fence, calls with the rare news. We have a natural gas well on the farm and between that and the tree sales, I think it pays for its continued existence. You don't mention mineral rights, but if you own them gas could be an important source of income to defray the taxes.

Speaking of which, I don't know what it takes to qualify as a tree farm, but ours does, so it's taxed at the agricultural rate. It's not clear to me if you are. I suspect the timber is more profitable than hay would be, and it's basically passive income.
posted by mumkin at 12:03 AM on January 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Could you sell or lease the city lot to pay for the acreage (or vice versa)?
posted by Rock Steady at 4:19 AM on January 7, 2020

One thing that is relevant to clearing the land. World prices on timber, and even pulp are at a high now, so it's very easy to get your land cleared. You might even get an income from it.
Here, the forest people are so eager I have to literally ward them off: once when they were supposed to just lighten up my extended garden, they took everything there, plowed down the roots. And paid me for it.
I was a bit shocking because it looked like a desert with dunes and everything, but all sorts of stuff from back in history came up, including those brambles, and after one year I could already have used it for livestock or poultry, if I'd lived there.
The timber men keep asking for more.

For it to become a real garden, I need a fence to keep out the deer. So that's the next step.
posted by mumimor at 5:55 AM on January 7, 2020

Best answer: Have you looked into starting a bee farm on the 40 acres? It is something that is scalable and would allow you to utilize your land without having to clear much of it. There is a small farm near us where we sometimes buy honey and all the honey production is done in a fairly small shed.
posted by Short End Of A Wishbone at 7:44 AM on January 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Check out what these folks have done: Bamberger Ranch Preserve

Alternately, have you considered leasing it to someone who will put a few cattle on it for the ag exemption? That's what my family has done with their large acreage in the middle of nowhere. Those folks also hunt on it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:22 AM on January 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You might want to get in touch with the Private Lands folks at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Often states have private lands foresters who can help you develop a management plan. Other places to check for help are the local agricultural extension and soil and water conservation district. The USDA EQIP program might provide some incentives for keeping the land in forest.

The specifics of your local economy/ecology and farm's soil/terrain/water access are crucial to understanding what your options are.
posted by momus_window at 9:03 AM on January 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

A vacant city lot near a college could make for some nice affordable student housing.
posted by soelo at 2:56 PM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're amenable to selling the city lot, talk to the college. If they're in decent financial shape and looking to expand, they might well buy that lot from you.

Source: work at a university that would absolutely jump at such an offer.
posted by humbug at 3:02 PM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

lease it to someone. you own it, they work it, they pay you, it's still yours.
posted by Izzmeister at 4:25 PM on January 8, 2020

Your parcel may not be ideally set up for hunting but if it is suitable it's a possible source of revenue. It's far smaller than the average spread listed on this list of leaseable Texas hunting reserves but it would not be the smallest. I'm sure getting set up and establishing a clientele is not completely foolproof but it's a possibility, at least.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:01 AM on January 9, 2020

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