Think you could hack it as a farmer? Read this first
This is an exclusive excerpt from Audrey Levatino’s Woman-Powered Farm, “A manual for a self-sufficient lifestyle from homestead to field.” Want to read the rest? Sign up for one of Grist’s free newsletters for a chance to win a copy.
So, you want to move to the country. Perhaps you’ve been raising your kids (or just yourself) in the healthiest environment you can muster in the city. You’ve built a nice kitchen garden off your back porch, snipping herbs for meals, feeding yourself fresh vegetables and berries from carefully pruned bushes, even keeping a couple of chickens for their fresh eggs. You go to the farmers’ market almost every week and supplement your own home-grown food with that of local farmers. But now you want to more fully practice what you preach and incorporate farming into your life.
Or maybe you’ve built a comfortable nest egg by putting in long hours in the corporate world and you’re looking to change your lifestyle. Perhaps you inherited some money from a loved one and you’re looking to invest it. Preserving and creating a productive farm is a popular and noble way to invest in your own future and that of rural America. Or perhaps you’re fresh out of school and the idea of working close to the land or animals, instead of a work life spent indoors, is calling to you.
There are as many reasons to own or work on a farm as there are farmers. When embarking on your own path, it’s important to clearly define your goals.
Questions to ask yourself when buying a farm
- Do you want to farm as a lifestyle?
- Do you plan to be a subsistence farmer or homesteader to independently provide for your family’s needs?
- Are you looking for an investment for your money?
- Or do you want to be a professional and pursue farming as a career?
The farm or land you choose should fit your goals — but don’t forget that goals change. So, try not to limit your future options. The spirit to adopt when you begin searching for a farm or taking over the operation of a farm is the same one that British and American women coined when creating the Women’s Land Army and the Victory Garden movement that both fed nations and lifted women’s work up to the level of national patriotism — they cheered the slogan “Dig for Victory!” You will certainly be doing plenty of digging in the literal sense, but you will also be digging to find your own way of life.
But there will be obstacles, both physical and emotional. Whenever people, especially women, decide on a course that’s unconventional, they are met with suspicion of their motives and outright jealousy. You will hear, “Living on a farm is so much work. How will you do it?” or “Farms are not profitable. Don’t you know it costs $64 to grow a tomato?” There will be endless stories about an uncle, or a second cousin, or friend of a mother-in-law who moved to the country only to dig themselves a grave of toil, or lose a hand in a combine accident or throw away every penny of their savings on a money pit. There’s a pervasive idea that anyone, especially a woman, getting into farming is a dreamer, naive to the point of self-destruction.
Farming is hard and costly and risky — everyone knows that. But so is being a teacher, bookstore owner, or anyone else in a profession that provides more than monetary rewards.
Clearly defining your goals will help you face doubt from others as well as yourself. And you will certainly encounter your share of self-doubt; that is inevitable when embarking on an uncommon path. Remind yourself that you are a modern pioneer woman. The pioneer women (and men) before you were not born knowing the skills to be self-sufficient. They employed a spirit of discovery to their needs and learned from others with more experience how to take care of themselves in the natural world over time. And you can, too.
It’s no secret that farming has been a tough business for many years. As the result of decades of mechanization of our farming, government subsidies that favor the big food corporations and the industrialization of our food system, many small farms that relied on solid, local customer bases to sell their products dried up. National chain grocery stores forced out small independent markets and the food system consolidated, much the same way small bookstores, toy stores, hardware stores, and other independent businesses have been under threat.
But like the 18-year cycle of cicadas that we have here in the mid-Atlantic, every living thing has a cycle. And farms are certainly living things. The economics, and especially the culture, are turning once again to favor the local, and farms are reinventing themselves. Even if you do not make one penny on your farm, you are doing a tremendous service to your community just by caring for it. Rural America needs the money that fled years ago to return and invest.
Women have made great strides in corporate America. While we have not yet reached true pay parity, many of us now have the economic and educational means to reinvest in the land, either with actual money or our unique perspective. This is where you come in, whether you’re moving from a job in the city, supporting an established farm through an internship, buying a week-end house in the country, or you’ve inherited a chunk of land. Whether you have money or not, you as a willing participant are valuable farm capital that will help farms grow and thrive.
The benefits of owning a farm, even if you never make a penny in monetary profit:
- Purchasing (or not selling) land keeps it safe from development and environmental damage.
- Low-density population in rural areas conserves our depleting water supply.
- Growing and eating your own food is healthy and delicious!
- The money you spend on supplies and tools creates jobs and tax revenue.
- Managed correctly, your farm is a giant carbon offset, building soil and protecting trees that remove carbon dioxide and generate oxygen in our atmosphere.
- Protecting wildlife habitat protects biological diversity.
- And most important of all, owning a farm can benefit your quality of life.
The farm as inheritance
If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve inherited a large farm, you should of course search out the advice of a qualified estate planner who understands generational succession. There are a lot of tax issues to be aware of, including the estate tax.
Right now, the threshold for the estate tax is $5.3 million, meaning that any portion of the property you inherit or pass along over that amount is subject to the estate tax. One way that many farmers are ensuring that their farms are passed along to future generations without burdening their heirs with taxes is to place them in a trust over the course of many years.
Leasing a farm or farming a lease
Before we talk about finding a farm or land for purchase, let’s consider a lease, whether you are looking to be the lessee or lessor. It used to be that leasing was mostly for the short term. A farmer would lease some land each season to cut hay or grow crops. Maybe the land would be leased to run cattle for a few months before being sent to a feed yard.
Short-term leases or rentals are certainly an option, if it’s your only option. Short-term leases or rentals are least desirable for both parties. While both offer flexibility, neither offers stability. Nor do they foster a connection or responsibility to the land.
If you are leasing your land out on a short-term basis, the farmer has no incentive to invest in the soil, pastures, or structures on your farm for the long term. The lessee will be incentivized to get as much out while investing as little as possible. And if you are the one doing the renting/leasing on the short term, whatever work you’ve put into the farm might be taken away very quickly.
Farming is a long-term proposition if you want to have any chance of success.
With land becoming so expensive, long-term leases (those of 20-plus years) are becoming more common. Fueling some of the movement to long-term leasing are the large swaths of land that used to be farmed and are now held in family trusts. The families that inherited the land may not have any desire to continue to farm it. But they would like to keep the land as a working farm to enjoy the tax benefits and also for their own personal desire to preserve the farm heritage of their family’s home.
As a woman, you may be looking to find a long-term lease for you to locate your farm business, or you may have a large inherited or purchased farm for investment that you would like to lease to a farmer. The benefits of a long-term lease are becoming more pronounced as land values rise. Farmers just starting out usually have very limited resources and cannot afford the most desirable and fertile land. By leasing, you can be located near urban areas where there are more customers, without paying the exorbitant prices it would cost to own that land. And the money that you save by leasing can be put toward equipment and growing your farm business instead of to property taxes and bank payments. You can gain flexibility and access to bigger markets, while still assuring that you will be able to stay on the land for your working lifetime or beyond. And you may be able to trade some of what you produce instead of only paying in cash.
The benefits of a long-term lease for the farm owner are many as well. As mentioned before, you can continue to enjoy the tax benefits of having a farm without doing all the work yourself. You basically have a caretaker of your land that, if the lease is done right, will be improving and preserving your land. You can work out clauses in the lease to ensure that you receive a share of the food produced on your land. And you can support other women by giving them a helping hand in their quest to farm.
Long-term leases provide stability and flexibility for both the lessor and the lessee. It’s a viable option to help new farmers and also new or current landowners to keep their land in farming. However, you need good lawyers to craft the lease to anticipate all the possible issues that might come up over 20 years or more. The relationship between lessor and lessee in a long-term lease is extremely important; in fact it’s the most important requirement of a successful partnership. Expectations have to be open, honest, and mutually agreed upon.
A farm of your own
When you begin your own farm search, go into it with an open mind. Every farm has its own individual identity. Like all living things, no two are alike. Clearly define your goal for the farm — lifestyle, subsistence, or career. As your goals now may be different later on, balance your present needs with what might come up in the future. Although you may just want to live on a farm for now as a lifestyle, you may find over time that your passion is leading you to farm for a living. Keep your options open.
How to find a farm or land to buy
Raised farmers’ markets: If you plan to operate the farm as a business, first locate the markets where you’ll sell your products. Usually that will mean a city or town where there’s a concentration of customers. Then search in an ever-widening radius around that central location until you find suitable land at the price you can afford.
Internet and newspapers: There are countless sites for finding real estate and land. Realtor.com, Unitedcountry.com, and Craigslist.com are good places to start. And some newspapers still have classified ads. Rural communities usually have a local, free rag that mainly serves this purpose. Look for them near the door of the area’s convenience stores and markets.
Country realtor: Look for realtor signs in the rural areas where you want to live and contact the realtors that represent properties that appeal to you. Many realtors specialize in city or country living. Best to try to find a realtor who has experience buying and selling farms or land.
Farmers: Go to a farmers’ market and ask around whether anyone knows of land or farms that are for sale. Farmers are the first to know when their neighbors are looking to sell.
Feed/supply stores: Most have bulletin boards with notices of land, animals and equipment for sale.
Take a drive: Try every back road you can find in the area you are targeting. Many people nowadays are cutting out the real estate middleman and selling the properties themselves. “For Sale by Owner” signs will point the way.
Three key elements to look for in a farm while keeping your goals in mind are the potential of the land for specific types of farming, the location of the farm, and the adaptability of the land or farm to your preferred lifestyle.
Potential of the land
The potential of the land is the most important consideration if you plan to operate the farm as a business. It’s less, but still important if you want to farm as a lifestyle or homestead for your family’s needs only. But don’t be overwhelmed by trying to define the full details of your life plan when you begin your search for a farm. Gaining some knowledge for the potential of land will only help you define your goals more clearly as you go along.
Soil, or carbon, to be more exact, is one cornerstone of a farm’s potential. Take a shovel when you’re visiting possible land to buy or lease. Dig out a shovel full of dirt in all the different areas of the farm. Smell it and try to crumble it in your hands. Is it heavy clay, which will make it more difficult (but not impossible) to grow vegetables or flowers? Is it sandy, which offers good drain- age, but might not hold enough water for such crops as corn? Or is it nice, dark, and loamy, which would be ideal for any type of farming? Is there a puddle of water in the bottom of the hole, which would indicate you might need to install costly drainage?
Find out what type of farming, if any, has been successful before on the same piece of land. Look for earthworms. Very healthy soil has 10 to 20 in one cubic foot. Another good idea is to take soil samples from areas you can envision using in production or grazing and have it tested. You’ll quickly know whether you will need to spend time and money improving the soil content and structure for the type of farming you want to do. It’s been said correctly that soil without biology is geology. Or that soil without a thriving living food web of bacteria, fungus, nematodes, and worms is just rock of one form or another. Poor soil quality is not a deal breaker. But you may need to factor in time and money to improve it. And poor soil quality may help you get a better deal on the purchase price.
Water is the lifeblood of the farm. Look for streams, ponds, and rivers and find their sources — a stream running from an intensive cattle operation next door might be unusable on vegetable crops. Ask whether there are natural springs and where they are located. Ask if the well has ever run dry — then go ask the neighbors, who might have more objective feedback on the local water supply (see chapter 5 for more information on wells). Look for erosion or standing water. Standing water is a bad sign if you want to graze animals and you might need to spend extra money fencing animals off from wet areas or streams.
Topography is also important. Is the ground sloping or even steep in areas, which will make it hard to plant crops? On the other hand, sloping, steep, and rocky land is not so bad for raising such animals as goats, sheep, llamas, or alpacas. If you plan to grow food or flowers, does the land have good sun exposure and what direction does it come from? Most plants prefer as much sun as possible, unless you’re growing certain flowers, such as hydrangea. Southeastern exposure is generally the ideal for vegetables and most flowers. Northern exposure is usually least desirable. But it all depends on your location and the climate. Ask around if you aren’t familiar with the growing conditions and find out what works and what doesn’t in the topography of the area.
How fertile is the land? Fertility in relationship to the land is its ability to reproduce crops and provide animals with the ideal environment to reproduce. Is the farm currently producing a good amount of crops and revenue? Is it certified organic or does it have the potential to be certified soon? Is it a monoculture? A diversified farm of rotating crops and animals points to good fertility. Monoculture farming, overgrazing, and sites of trash dumps (more common in the country than you’d imagine) point to a lack of fertility.
Identify the plant cover as well. Once you’re further along in the process of deciding on a farm, you can ask the agricultural extension agent to meet you out there to help identify the plant cover if you aren’t able to do that yourself. Are there problem plants that will require a lot of effort or money to remove, such as large areas of honeysuckle or poison ivy? Is there a field of purple nightshade, deadly to horses, right where you envision your grazing pasture? Will you need to clear a lot of trees and brush to open more fields for planting?
Farm structures are a two-way street. New, sturdy barns, outbuildings, and fences are ideal, but they probably add a pretty penny to the price of the land. Old barns that need work might be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but you’ll need to factor in your ability, time, and economic means to improve them. Fencing especially is important if you plan to have animals. There are specific types of fencing for specific animals and you’ll want to know whether your fencing matches your planned farm endeavor.
Settling on a location goes hand in hand with your goals. If you’re looking for a farm for the privacy, then living far out of town might suit you. But maybe you don’t feel comfortable living 30 miles away from a hospital or grocery store. If you want to have a working farm, you’ll need to consider how far away the market for selling your product is. Here are some things to think about when deciding on a location:
- If you or your partner is also working in an off-farm job, whether the commute is
- The time it will take to get into town to gather supplies and basic necessities.
- The distance from farmers’ markets, restaurants, food wholesalers, or slaughterhouses where you might sell your
- Noise, water, and light pollution — are you located near an operation that would create any of these?
- The time it will take for emergency responders (including veterinarians) to reach your farm.
- The proximity to car and tractor repair shops.
- Can you get mobile phone coverage? Mobile service is important as a safety tool.
- The location of schools if you have, or plan to have, children.
- How close are your neighbors? Too close or not close enough?
- Is the location feasible to sell products directly from your farm or a farm stand?
How much land do you need?
If you are looking to make approximately $50,000 a year from a farming venture, or what we’ll call, “a living,” there are some general rules of thumb for the amount of land it will take. Now, we don’t know a whole lot of farmers who make that much money. So, if you are only looking for a second income, you can cut these numbers in half. A farm income of $25,000 (which in this book I call partial income) is fairly typical and we know many farmers operating at this level. As diversification is the route that I and most small farmers advocate, you might just be looking for a sideline or partial income. Or perhaps you just want to raise animals or crops to feed your own family as sustenance.
There are, of course, many variables that go into the acreage calculation, including the market for products where you live, your climate, the fertility and openness of your land, your own cost controls, and how you rotate your animals or crops. The following chart is a general rule of thumb:
Cattle: 200 acres for a living, 35 to 40 acres for partial income, or 5 acres for sustenance.
Hay 500 acres for a living. This is highly regional and this would apply to my area in Virginia. The market for hay around here is about $6 per square bale. Down in Texas in drought conditions, it’s $8 to 10 per bale and it takes a lot more acreage to produce the same amount. A partial income can be had on 25 acres, but it’s not cost-effective to maintain all the hay equipment for anything less. But you can grow grain for sustenance on a small scale.
Flowers: 3 acres for a living, which would include some high tunnel or greenhouse structures; 1 acre for a partial income of $15-30,000 a year; or a lovely, smaller cutting garden for your own pleasure and to have a few bouquets to sell at the market alongside your other products.
Vegetables: 4 to 5 acres for a living or anything less for a partial living or your own sustenance. Plan on $15-20,000 per acre, although some high-intensive growers in the proper climate can get $50,000 or more from 1 acre.
Orchard: 20 acres for a living if you’re growing highly desirable fruit, such as peaches. Anything less for partial income or sustenance.
Nursery: You might only need 1-2 acres to make a living if you have them covered in greenhouses and you’re producing plants all year round.
Hydroponic greenhouse: 1 acre, depending on your crops
Sustenance (vegetarian): 1 acre
Sustenance (with animals): 3-5 acres
Beekeeping: Can be done on a rooftop. Expect 30 to 50 pounds of honey on productive, healthy hives. That’s $300-500 per year, per hive.
Audrey Levatino is the author of Woman-Powered Farm.
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