Buying a Small Farm: Tips and Info
A little bit of history...
At the risk of this Hub turning into a detailed account of my life during my hiatus from Hubpages, I will attempt to summarize.
When I first joined this site, I was one of two managers of a small, mixed-livestock heritage farm in southeastern Pennsylvania. But it was not mine, and over the years this tiny seed of a detail began to grow exponentially into a major concern, until the work that I loved became sullied. By the spring of 2012, at the age of 24, I had settled my mind and steeled myself - I was going to buy my own farm.
A long series of events led me to the home of my grandfather, a very small town in Minnesota, far from the big cities of Minneapolis and Duluth, yet very near the Wisconsin border. I arrived in June of 2013, my pockets and bank accounts flush with money that I had worked jobs that I despised in order to earn. The unexpected death of my father, the man who raised me, further bolstered my net worth (although I absolutely cannot say I rejoiced in this fact).
The 2100-mile-move drained on my finances just enough to get me thinking... am I pursuing a wise path? Have I been so absorbed in splitting fence rails and so awed by the beauty of lambing season that my sense of reason has all but disintegrated?
Convinced that I couldn't have come all this way, both figuratively and literally, just to work in a recycling center and rent a house in town, I began tightening my belt yet again. With the help of my fiancé, farmer-mentor, and partner in crime, I settled my mind yet again and began shopping for a farm.
Why buy a small, sustainable farm?
If you're reading this article, I can assume that you sympathize with my reasoning to some extent, but just for fun, let's talk shop.
Independence is a hard-won state of being. It can be achieved by operating a farm that provides food for you and your family and enough income to pay your necessary bills.
Home-grown produce and meats are more than likely much healthier than food purchased in stores (I say "more than likely" because those who douse their gardens in herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers are kind of defeating themselves). People seem to be realizing more readily that highly processed foods and foods rich in sugar are just bad for our bodies.
Farming is a way of life, more so than any other job I know of. The daily chores provide one with much needed exercise, fresh air, and a well-founded sense of accomplishment.
I believe firmly in the psychological benefits of a sustainable existence, one that is not dependent upon another person or entity to go on existing. If you hate your job, go work for yourself. And speaking of psychological benefits, I can think of no better feeling than the one I get from watching my little seedlings mature into fruit-bearing plants, or seeing newborn lambs or pigs for the first time, or tending the same young orchard trees year after year until I finally get a handful of apples.
Farming isn't going to be for everyone, and I'm okay with that. After all, if everyone wanted to buy a farm, how could I ever afford to purchase one?
Map of US showing where "factory farms" are concentrated
Where to shop for a farm?
Now we get down to the good stuff!
Selecting a Location
Like purchasing any property, before you can buy a farm you've got to select a worthy and appropriate location to start shopping. Many factors can affect this decision.
How much money are you able to spend on a property? If you've got $100,000 cash and can mortgage another $400,000, then you're in much better shape than I am and will be able to shop in areas many people couldn't.
I am not a banker, nor do I claim to understand mortgages, but I will give this piece of advice: Visit your bank and ask for a preapproval letter. This will give you an idea of how much money you will be allowed to borrow for the purchase of a farm. And word to the wise - do not tell the bank that you are looking to buy a farm in order to earn money. I learned from personal experience that they simply do not want to hear that because, evidently, that is an entirely different type of loan with much higher interest rates.
So you just want some pet chickens and cows, got it?
Now, once you've determined what you can spend, start looking in your area. If you don't find anything in your price range, you'll have to look elsewhere.
I ended up moving half-way across the country in order to buy a farm. In Pennsylvania, I would have been lucky to afford a small house on two acres. Out here in Minnesota, I'm in the process of closing the deal on a 5-bedroom farmhouse on 40 acres - and frankly, the agreed upon sales price is so cheap I am actually half-waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Another factor you may want to consider in looking for a farm is proximity to markets. If you're planning to produce certified organic farm products, you should probably stay within what you consider to be reasonable driving distance to a big city. And make sure the city nearest you supports local farmers and hosts farmers' markets, otherwise you may have to start such an enterprise from scratch. Selling livestock at auction (rather than at retail to individuals) means that you won't make as much money per pound, but it's a good idea to know where the auctions are as a safety net. Also, starting off selling to auctions is probably safer than going directly to the farmers' market with 800 pounds of pork and no connections.
Finally, if you want to buy a farm badly enough, you'll do almost anything to get one. Relocating to a new town or state might require that you save up enough cash to get you through a few months of unemployment, but I can say that it will be well worth the effort. I am neither sorry nor ungrateful for every trip and slip in the path that led me here.
How to Select a Farm
Selecting the particular property that you want to buy will obviously depend a great deal upon what kind of farming you want to do.
If you've got it in your head that you will be a dairy farmer, it might behoove you to purchase a property that already has, at least, a barn with milking stalls and/or equipment at the ready. On the other hand, if you can purchase a place cheaply enough to hang on to a large portion of your cash reserve, you can always purchase used equipment later.
Those brave souls interested mainly in vegetable and/or fruit farming should be looking for property that has tillable land already available. Buying 20 acres of forest isn't necessarily a bad idea, but you'll be in for a long wait before you can have the land cleared and ready for planting anything other than shrubs.
But what if you can't find an ideal patch of land to match your exact wants? Well, there's always improvisation. For instance, my ideal farm (the one that existed only in my head) looked something like this: 30 acres of rolling pasture full of good clovers and timothy, 5 acres of hardwood forest, and 5 acres for gardens, orchards, and a house and barns to rest on.
This is not the property I am purchasing! Instead, I'm getting about 22 acres of hardwood forest and 18 acres of overgrown, undercultivated, scrubby and shrubby fields. And I couldn't be happier, because this layout has caused me to remember things that I had forgotten - like, that cattle love the woods, goats are excellent for clearing weeds and tough plants, and hogs do better in the forest than in the field.
My point is that it's important to look for the place you want, but remember that you can adapt the place you end up buying to meet your own needs - you may even find that what you wanted wasn't what was best.
What about a farm house?
Houses aren't really my area of expertise, so I can only share my personal experience on the subject of the farmhouse.
I wanted a house that was at least large enough for a guest room and an office space, in addition to our bedroom. That being said, the right land at the right price would have had me settling for a one-bedroom cabin.
Ultimately, I'm getting a 114-year-old, five-bedroom nightmare. But I'll make it work, because it's what I do. Also, I hired an independent certified home inspector who didn't give me terrible news about the place in terms of structural damage, the roof, the well, the septic system, etc. Minor plumbing repairs? Remodeling bathrooms and the laundry room? Tearing down hideous wood paneling and installing sheetrock? I'm all over it.
Now that I've said that, I guess I should add a shout-out to reason: Give your potential new farmhouse the same consideration that you would in buying any home. You don't want all of your financial resources drained away from the farm and into the house.
However - if you are considering being a farmer for a living (or even as an awesome part-time job), I bet you can put up with a bit of discomfort, and I bet you're pretty handy (and smart) too. So be brave, because this is your only life on this earth, and no one ever laid on their deathbed and lamented a financial decision.
Which brings us to... do you really need a property with a house on it? Some people purchase just land, because they have living arrangements elsewhere. If this sounds like something you could do, it would be a great way to purchase a farm for even less money.