4 Ways To Be A Farmer Without Buying Land

Don’t have the capital to buy the farm of your dreams right now? Take these small steps to reaching your farming goals until the cash flow comes.

by Karen Lanier

Many people who have the dream of becoming a farmer are stopped in their tracks due to the heavy cost of land, but that doesn’t mean they need to give up on the agricultural dream altogether. You don’t have to own land to be a farmer—but you do need access to it. There’s no single path to finding a little slice of farming heaven. When it comes to stewarding plants and animals, an open mind and adaptability are your most valuable commodities, not real estate. Here are some real-life examples of ways to think outside the ownership box.

1. Renting Vs. Buying

Renting land can be a lot less expensive in the short term than buying land.

One advantage of not owning land is the flexibility to try out farming enterprises without the added costs of a mortgage and being tied to a single place. If you don’t necessarily want to live on the land you work, renting is a good option.

Let’s look an example that compares costs of renting vs. buying, provided by Dr. Lee Meyer, Extension Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Kentucky. A small mixed-vegetable and cow-calf farm could require 5 to 10 acres for vegetables; for one bull herd with 25 cows, you might need 50 to 100 acres. In Kentucky, leasing land for vegetables averages $100 to $200 per acre per month, and pasture land averages $25 per acre per month. Let’s say, you rent 10 acres of veggies for $100 per acre per month and 75 acres of pasture for $25 acres per month; the total rental price comes to $2,875 per month or $34,500 per year. As for purchasing the land, an 85-acre farm might sell for $4,500 per acre, or $380,000. With a 30-year loan, annual payments could be approximately $23,300/year. In short, buying may be cheaper in the long run, but if you aren’t 100-percent sure of where you want to invest your time and energy for the next 30 years, renting is a viable option.

When it comes to land prices, horticultural land is more expensive than pasture or hay ground, but you don’t need as much. Finding the right land in the right place is the main challenge, and you should be prepared to compromise. When you make your farm plan, Dr. Meyer suggests these four main questions to consider:

  • How many acres do you need?
  • What are your goals and time span?
  • How important is flexibility?
  • What is your financial situation, both in cash flow and equity?

Knowing what you need and can afford is the starting point.

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2. Tending With Neighbors

Learn agricultural skills by working in a community garden.

Community gardens are popping up all over urban and suburban areas, whether run by nonprofits, churches or neighborhood groups. Volunteering or renting a plot of land in a community garden can be the perfect entry point to trying out your green thumb before you take the plunge and buy a farm. Working alongside other gardeners of varying experience, you gain a wealth of agricultural knowledge without taking a class or running a tractor. Best of all, the gardening activities bring new life to areas that may have been blighted or neglected.

Seedleaf, a community gardening nonprofit in Lexington, Ky., offers training in becoming a Master Community Gardener, similar to the cooperative extension’s Master Gardener program. In this series, students learn how to plant, cultivate and harvest not only food but also connections in the community. Gardens become welcoming spaces to host neighborhood grill-outs, bring children into nature, and encourage beneficial wildlife. Food is offered freely to all who enter the gardens, and cooking classes teach the benefits and sensory excitement of preparing fresh vegetables. If you want to try out a specialty crop, experiment with growing food or just get ideas, step into your nearest community garden.

Work out land agreements with your neighbors if you need more land.
Stephanie Keeney

Whether you live in the city or the country, remain open to sharing with neighbors and all benefit. Eric and Paige Quillen own 5 rural acres in Versailles, Ky. When they moved there 15 years ago, they thought this hobby farm would be plenty of space for their few horses, sheep, chickens, dog and cats. Five acres turned out to be not quite enough space. Fortunately, an elderly neighbor expressed a wish to no longer mow his back 2 acres. They shared a common fence, and after sitting down to talk through all the possible options, they came to an agreement. The Quillens paid for new gates and fencing work, and their neighbor allows their horses to graze on his land. Now the horses are happy to have more pasture and the neighbor is happy that he doesn’t have to mow.

3. Working For Land

Apprentice on a farm to get experience before you go at it alone.
Plowshares Community/Facebook

Apprenticeships and work-trade agreements can take all shapes and forms. (See this Burning Question blog post on bartering for more ideas.)

Alice Melendez and her mother Laura Freeman are natural farmers near Winchester, Ky. They have taken the idea of sharecropping and given it a more benevolent twist. Like many rural homesteads, the family’s farm includes unused land and lodging. As a way to share their knowledge and resources, as well as connect other homesteaders with each other, they founded Plowshares Community. Their educational initiatives include an apprenticeship program, but this one is a little different than simply working as a farm-hand in exchange for food and lodging. Melendez and Freeman are more interested in providing a space for aspiring farmers to try out their own ideas in the field, and they will provide seed funding to jumpstart the enterprises.

The Plowshares website describes one such project:

“Jerred Graham took us up on the apprentice farmer offer: We’ll provide some start-up capital and a place to live and work through an agricultural enterprise of your design. We will work through business planning and production hurdles and when it starts to make money, we’ll share the profit. . . . We’ve taught several people how to process chickens, developed a great non-GMO feed blend with ingredients off the farm, and built our market.”

Graham is also working for pay on the larger farm. Melendez explains that the Plowshares projects might not be self-sustaining as stand-alone enterprises yet, but with the added support from the larger farm, it’s a great incubator for smaller experiments.

4. Building Community Before Building A Home

Build your community before starting the farm, so you'll have others supporting you along the way.
Brian (Ziggy) Liloia/Flickr

Brian “Ziggy” Liloia grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and never dreamed of becoming a farmer. However, in college, he read books that inspired him to follow a path of becoming a self-made man, learning trades of woodworking and natural building. He lived at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri for seven years and spent his time there building homes, gardening, and raising chickens and ducks. He studies and practices permaculture, and in time, Liloia’s aspirations outgrew the community.

“I wanted access to more land to be able to create a more full-fledged homestead based on permaculture design principles and as a site for folks to learn about natural building, permaculture, and sustainable and regenerative living,” he says.

A friendship with a couple near Berea, Ky., blossomed into a mutually beneficial arrangement that has led to his recent land purchase. Tim Hensley and Jane Post run Forest Retreats, a wildcrafting workshop and retreat center. They were interested in building a natural home on their wooded site and offered housing to Liloia and his partner April Morales and friend Jacob Graber in exchange for building the new house. Hensley and Post’s timely support enabled the trio’s natural-building organization, The Year of Mud, to spend a year leading straw-bale and cob building workshops while searching for the perfect property for themselves, and this time allowed them to integrate into the local community.

“We never drew up a formal contract, but based our exchange on trust that we would all balance out without the use of money,” Liloia says.

Fortunately, The Year of Mud eventually found a piece of land to purchase and are in the process of moving from Forest Retreats to their new home. They didn’t move far and have plans to expand the community of land-sharing.

“We will no doubt offer internships and work exchanges in the future,” Liloia explains. “We’re also planning on incorporating at least two more people onto the land full-time, as part of our vision of creating a small income and resource-sharing community.”

The Land Under Your Feet

Whether you rent, dabble on a friend’s property, experiment with the support of an established farm, or find an innovative way to secure your own property, the most important thing is that you feel at home there. Paige Quillen leaves you with these thoughts on returning home after being away from her hobby farm: “There’s nothing like having your own plot where you can go and open up the windows and smell the smells. I really miss that when we travel. Everything has a smell, and there are certain sounds that tell me where I am. You can tell when the seasons are changing and live a little more connected to the Earth.”


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