What’s your dream? Ask almost anyone and they might answer with the same idyllic farmland scene: A modest farmhouse, tucked against stately oak trees with a couple of big red barns and a chorus of birds singing sweetly through the open bedroom windows. Fluffy hens dot the edges of the large yard. A flag billows gently in the breeze, and nice raised-bed gardens provide the freshest produce.
Growing up in the country, I had the opportunity to see a variety of homesteads and farms around the area. My childhood home was built on a rock hill with a large river running (and sometimes flooding) behind the house. Trees enveloped the backside of the hill. Brome grass carpeted the front.
In later years, I spent some time on my great-grandmother’s farm. While not as active as it once was, it still ran an assortment of cattle and offered plenty of freedom for a child to wander around. A swampy marshland was a good-distanced walk west of the house and held plenty of mystery for anyone with a pinch of imagination. To the south of the farm lied a busy highway and railroad track.
Distant traffic created a gentle hum for anyone listening from the side yard.
While both of those places were different in their charms and offerings to the wanderer, they each served their purpose and raised large families throughout the years.
As you consider where to begin when starting your journey to purchase farmland, begin with a piece of paper. Don’t panic. You don’t need to have everything planned perfectly for how you intend to use the land. But it helps to have a rough idea so you don’t end up in a mess later on from a lack of forethought.
Questions to Ask When Looking at Farmland
Here are some questions to help get you started thinking about buying a piece of farmland:
- Do you want to live on the property, or will it simply be a separate location from your home for other activities (i.e. gardening, livestock, orchards, etc.)?
- Will you want to raise a garden or livestock? Approximately how large of a plot or how many animals?
- What are some features you want in farmland or location where the home will be?
- Do you want a fixer-upper for a home, or should it be move-in-ready?
- How long do you want to live here? Is it for a short season or where you plan to retire?
- How far away is the property from your family or close friends?
- What length would your commute to and from work, school or town be?
- How accessible do you want the property to be?
- Are there any neighbors close by?
Size that Fits
Even if you don’t plan your garden out by the square foot, you’ll still find it helpful to determine an approximate size of property you want to start looking for. For example, you might not need to buy 10 acres of farmland if you only want a 1⁄2-acre garden and a few chickens.
In this case, an acre or 2 would likely be plenty of ground.
Once you choose the approximate location of where you would like to purchase farmland, check with local officials or county appraisers to find out if there is a minimum amount of acreage that must be purchased. Some places have rules about the number of acres that can be sold or how many splits can be made in a certain size of property.
Up to this point, you might have wondered just what exactly is an acre? This is a particular unit of measurement that is used when determining the size of a piece of property. To give you a rough idea, one average size city lot is about 1⁄5 of an acre. If you were to purchase 5 acres, that would be 25 city lots.
When planning to do a majority of the work manually (without large tractors and implements), 5 acres can be a huge undertaking. If some of the farmland will be put to pasture for livestock, it can make maintaining a larger piece of ground more manageable.
Gardening is generally a large and important part of cultivating a homestead. From raising vegetables or planting an herb garden to starting an orchard and berry patch, these are just a few of the reasons you might want to till up the farmland.
For any of these, though, you’ll want to have good quality soil as it will be the foundation your entire homestead is built on. Without it, you’ll have poor crops and unfruitful harvests.
As you browse through real estate listings or local auction flyers, make note of the different words that are used to describe the land. If it’s a piece of pasture ground, they might call it native prairie grass or brome. If the farmland is being used for crops, the listing may describe the soils as clay, sandy, silty, loamy, etc.
Clay soil feels rock hard when dry but clumpy and almost sticky when wet. It can be a challenge to get it to drain well.
Yet in certain areas of the country, it can grow very good grass.
Sandy soil drains and dries out well but doesn’t hold the water well (it runs out too rapidly) and can be a challenge to hold nutrients in. In some places, if watered regularly and fed nutrients on a strict regime, sandy soil can grow tremendous crops.
The downside? You’ll need to keep pumping nutrients, money and water into the ground in order to keep growing a crop.
Silty soil is soft and pleasant to hold in your hands. It typically is rich with good nutrients. When coupled with proper drainage, it can be the best place to plant your crops.
Loam soil can be a mixture of the three soils already mentioned. It also feels fairly pleasant to hold, has good nutrients and can be worked up easily.
Drainage of the farmland (natural removal of excess water) is another important factor to note. If it’s poor, you might end up with an unusable swamp. It will make building a challenge, as well as everyday living and walking around.
Livestock pens should drain appropriately or it can lead to mud that the animals will have to stand and wade or walk around in. For livestock in general an extended period of standing in mud can cause stress and chilling. Horses might even develop cases of thrush.
One simple way to check the drainage of a piece of land is to look for standing water in places. If the water readily drains away into the ground, it probably has decent drainage.
Rock layers can also be another challenge if you plan to construct any buildings or pens at some point. Drilling through rock will usually take a special drill bit on a skid loader or similar piece of equipment.
As I mentioned, my childhood home was on top of a rock hill. This made planting trees, drilling holes for posts or constructing buildings a challenge.
Along with the ground presenting difficultly to work, soil quality often tends to go down in areas with a large amount of rock. While you can supplement organic matter and gradually build up the soil composition, it will be much easier to begin with ground that is already somewhat usable.
Water & Electricity
Water supply is an important factor to check into. Does the property have rural water running nearby it or will you need to have a well drilled? Is there a current well that is still usable?
If you’re going to be using the water at that property (via a well), consider getting it checked for impurities and quality. Extremely hard water can be tough on your plumbing and appliances as well as your body, if used for showering or drinking.
To test an existing well, pump a large quantity of water from it before letting it settle and have it tested.
Just like you’ll need water to consume, you’ll need to determine where the wastewater will go as well. Things such as lagoons or septic systems will need to be addressed as well.
Depending on how remote the land is that you’re interested in, other utilities such as electricity might be something you’ll need to look into hooking up. This can add extra expense that you’ll want to be aware of and plan for ahead of time.
When you hear the term “mineral rights,” someone is referring to the ownership of or right to own the minerals that are within your property.
The right to the minerals within your property (around where I live, they would generally be natural gas or crude oil) can be kept by the seller when the property is sold. Typically, property might not sell as high if the seller withholds the mineral rights
The perfect little cabin tucked away on the side of the mountain might seem like your dream home, but it will have its drawbacks. While you might be far from noise, neighbors and civilization, you can also be far from town, schools and employment.
Planning and determining what your life might look like after you relocate will be helpful. Look at surrounding cities and determine the kind of commute you would have. If you have children, look into the school districts you would be in and distance to those schools.
How about roads and all-weather access to your property? If there is heavy rain or flooding, it might make traveling more of a challenge. In some places, such as Kansas, our mud roads are generally impassible after a rain. In other states, they act more like a hard-packed gravel road and are able to be navigated.
Flooding can also cause issues if you have any streams and bridges nearby. It wasn’t uncommon growing up for us not to be able to reach town on our regular road because the river would be out and flowing rapidly over the fields and roads. Because we lived on a hill, it wasn’t much of a danger to us unless we waded out too far in the backwater to catch fish.
Another thing to be aware of before purchasing is if there are any existing easements on the property. An easement is when permission has been given by the previous property owner to another property owner to cross over their land.
Where to Look
You’ve got money set aside, garden plans drawn up, and you’re rearing to go. But where do you look for this dream property?
Start in the usual places such as real estate websites (e.g., Zillow.com), local real estate agents, newspapers or sale bills (watch for auction flyers), community bulletin boards at the local coop, farm-supply store, etc.
Be patient, and take your time. This is a big decision.
We’ve covered a lot of ground (pun intended), but hopefully you’re a step closer to owning your forever homestead one day! Once you’ve found and purchased your plot of heaven, before you can jump in and start hatching your chicks, get everything finalized and wrapped up in a legal manner.
Cross your Ts and dot your Is. Remember to keep a calm head. Don’t get in a hurry and swept away with the excitement. Before you know it, you’ll be wandering through your own little backwoods!
Realtors shouldn’t be expected to know everything about a piece of property, but it doesn’t hurt to ask them some questions they might be able to find out the answers for.
Here are a few things you might consider asking about:
- Have you sold property in this area before?
- Do you have any references I could reach out to?
- Are you a part- or full-time realtor?
- How many listings have you sold in the past year?
- How many clients are you representing right now?
- Can I see a breakdown up front of fees to be expected?
About the Property
- What do you know about the surrounding community?
- Are you aware of any easements given on the property?
- Do you know the main water supply?
- When was the last time the water was tested?
- When was the last time the ground was surveyed?
- Are the property lines clear and defined?
- Do the mineral rights sell with the farmland?
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.