WHEN MY GIRLFRIEND AND I set out to buy a farm 23 years ago, we had only a vague notion of what we were looking for—having lived in New York City rental apartments for most of our adult lives, just the thought of owning land and a house in the country was heady enough. I had read several books on how to make a living on a small farm and had allowed my mind to conjure up numerous appealing scenarios. It increasingly become a prospect that excited and enlivened me and I was eager to swap my urban life for a rural one. I did not want to get bogged down in too many details.
My heart was set on a good-looking piece of land with some woods and a pond, an old house, maybe a barn, and several acres of fertile soil in which to grow vegetables, fruits, berries, Christmas trees—whatever took my fancy. Flavia, my girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, was keen to find a pleasing rural landscape to pursue her painting, and more spacious living quarters not too far from her job in New York City.
We contacted Real Estate brokers in Orange County, and over the course of a few months made several weekend excursions to look at available properties with more than a few acres of land. Our day trips from New York City usually started with an air of excitement and anticipation, but ended in mild disappointment. Some properties were modern ranch houses with very large lawns that the brokers suggested could be turned into vegetable gardens—not quite what I had in mind. Others were patches of wooded land, old pasture, or pieces of farms that had already been subdivided. One of the more promising properties—about 20 acres of land with a house and a small pole barn—was right next to the Interstate. The endless drone of traffic nixed that one. Nothing seemed quite right, but at least we were getting an education.
Then came a chilly Saturday in late April 1986. We set out in our old Dodge Dart to the Town of Warwick to meet a broker who, by bizarre coincidence, had lived, as a child, in Karori, the same suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, where I grew up. At least I’d be in the company of someone with whom I could feel a little ex-patriot rapport. Surely, this was a good omen.
We had arranged that Marilyn, the broker (who later became a friend), would show us a house on some 30 acres of land in the Town of Greenville in the predominantly rural, western end of Orange County. When we arrived at her office Marilyn had bad news: She didn’t have the keys to the house. The owner lived elsewhere and the current tenants, apparently, had no desire to have the place shown to prospective buyers who might bring their tenure to an end. In any event, they held the keys and could not be reached.
After the lengthy drive up from the city, I was disappointed and displeased, and conveyed this sentiment to my erstwhile countrywoman. Marilyn clearly felt embarrassed and asked that we give her a little time to see what else she could come up with. She called rival brokers, explained what we were looking for and eventually learned of a fully functioning dairy farm, also in the Town of Greenville, that had been placed on the market only a week before. The brokers agreed that, if a sale were made, each would share the commission. There were, however, a couple of other problems: With a total of 88.5 acres, the property was a few times larger than what we had in mind, and the asking price of $225,000, though not unreasonable, was about $75,000 more than we wanted to pay. However, we had nothing else to do with our day, so decided we might as well go for a ride and take a look.
It was the land that appealed to me the most. It seemed rich, diverse and alive, and full of potential. I felt I could be happy there.
A half hour later, as we descended a long dirt driveway, I was impressed with the panoramic view that opened up before us: a patchwork of rolling fields and woods, with an old house, barn, and silo right in the middle. Pieces of farm machinery parked at the edges of fields and small groups of black-and-white cows munching on hay lent the place an air of authenticity. It was a little world unto itself, buffered by woods in three directions and by a distant hedgerow in the fourth. Even in late April, with the fields bare, the trees leafless, and a light coating of snow on the ground, I could see the place had potential. Here was a real working farm, set well back off the road, with a highly variable landscape—at once intimate and self-contained. A ripple of enthusiasm passed through me.
Marilyn’s expectation of a short visit turned into a three-hour stay. We asked many questions of the current owners, a friendly young couple who were planning to move to a larger farm in Pennsylvania. The husband gave me a tour of the numerous small fields and the winding cow pasture bounded by stone walls and rickety fences. I was pleased with the steep, wooded ridge on the southern border with its giant slabs of tilted rock; I liked the creek running through the pasture and the half-acre pond with white birch trees leaning into it. I borrowed a shovel and dug a foot down in the middle of a field filled with corn stubble and then again in a field of hay. There was no shortage of stones and small rocks, but the soil itself looked rich and crumbly.
As we drove back to New York City at the end of the day, Flavia and I talked excitedly about the details of this unexpected find. Maybe we had finally stumbled on the right place, even though it was bigger and more costly than we had in mind. Admittedly, the house was modest in size (about 1,200 square feet) and not in very good condition—but, I promised, over time we could renovate the house and, if we felt the need, build an addition. The two-story barn was sturdy and big enough to accommodate 36 milking cows, though I had no plans to milk cows. There was a somewhat dilapidated, open pole barn for parking tractors and other equipment, and a smaller workshop. These were valuable assets that could be put to good use.
That night, I spent an hour or so with Soil Survey of Orange County, New York, which I had acquired a few weeks before. Using a tax map the broker had given us, I was able to locate the farm and identify its several different soils. The approximately 30 acres of woods were on shallow soils (in some cases bedrock)—definitely not suitable for growing crops. Nor were the 25 acres of pasture likely to yield much in the way of vegetables—it was uneven, poorly drained and susceptible to flooding. But most of the remaining 30-odd acres of hay and cornfields were on higher ground, and showed up as “Class II” soils—deep, moderately well drained, gravelly silt loams, and rich, black Carlisle muck—good suitability for crop production. That was all I needed to know.
Back in 1986 there was a mini real estate boom underway. After several years of sluggish activity, the market was on an upswing. Homes, and especially land, within an hour or two of New York City were selling fast, and prices were climbing. We knew this and we also knew there was another prospective buyer in the wings—a Wall Street executive who had showed up at the farm a few days before in a black Mercedes. He had, in fact, already made a low-ball offer. There was no time to lose.
We drove back to Greenville for a second look the next day. The long, tree-lined driveway was still captivating, the sky was blue and cloudless, the sun was shining, and the fields of corn stubble, with their patches of snow, glistened as though spring was already upon them. The house and barn looked perfectly situated. Our initial enthusiasm was well founded. It was time to act.
That Sunday night, before we returned to the city, we went to the broker’s office and put down a $1,000 binder, a temporary act of good faith. On Monday morning, over the phone, I struck a deal with the owners and agreed to put down a much larger deposit that would essentially take the property off the market while we set about acquiring a mortgage. Through much of the summer we waited anxiously. (In those days, banks didn’t give out loans with a nudge and a wink—they actually checked your assets and earnings.) We were relieved when the mortgage finally came through. The closing occurred in late August; we got married a week later under a mulberry tree on the lawn, in front of the small house that would now be our home.
The farm, it turned out, had just about everything I needed in order to follow the agrarian path I have been on for the last 23 years, though I was only dimly aware of this at the time. Fortune, I believe, smiled on us on that chilly day in April when the tenants of the other property chose to go away and not leave the keys. Had things unfolded a little differently, I might easily have settled for a smaller and lesser place, given the rising land prices and my impatience and lack of knowledge at the time.
Admittedly, our farm is not every vegetable grower’s cup of tea. There are a few too many rocks strewn about by ancient glaciers, and some of the fields are small and uneven and contain wet spots. It’s a rough old place, for sure, and home to myriad critters besides ourselves. But to me, that’s a big plus, even though I often find myself in competition with some of our four-legged and furry neighbors. As I get older and am less enchanted by my own species (myself included), I am increasingly drawn to the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. They seem to have arrived at a kind of rough balance that respects the right of all parties to co-exist. There’s not much I would change on our farm. If I could, I might place a mountain range in the background or a view of the open ocean. But who lives in a perfect world?
Were an aspiring, but inexperienced, farmer to come to me today seeking advice on what to look for in a farm, I would say, first and foremost, find a place that you like the look of, a place where you’ll be happy to wake up in the morning. You’ll be spending a lot of time there (maybe the rest of your life). If you like flat land and wide expanses of open space, that’s what you should look for. If you feel good when you’re on top of a hill, look for high ground, but be prepared for wind. If you prefer privacy, you’ll probably be happier with a place that is surrounded by trees and set back off the road.
There are, of course, many more practical considerations to take into account when looking for a farm. Be willing to compromise a little—it’s unlikely you’ll find everything you want in one place.
You can create a decent garden almost anywhere by importing topsoil and compost and perhaps building raised beds to overcome a base soil that is too shallow or has poor drainage. But that’s a garden. If you plan to produce crops for market on more than a very small scale, you need to have productive soil in place and at least a few acres of it.
Local Co-operative Extension or Soil & Water Conservation District offices can provide you with soil maps of a particular property and a description of the qualities of the soils there. These days, I think you can get all that stuff online, as well. Class I and Class II soils are the best, though you don’t need these for woodland or pasture.
Prior or current land use is often a good indicator of a property’s potential. Open fields that are already growing hay, corn or other crops should have good potential, but land that has been used for grazing livestock may not be suitable for growing crops, nor is forested land likely to be.
To grow well, most plants need water—and a steady supply of it. Unless you plan to grow just hay or perhaps corn to feed cows, you don’t want to leave yourself at the mercy of rainfall. If the well on your farm (almost all farms are dependent on wells for household water) starts running low after one member of the family has taken a long shower, then it’s unlikely you’ll have enough water to irrigate crops. A well that can provide 10 to 20 gallons of water per minute for several hours is an important asset—if you don’t have that, you may need some other source of water. A small river or a perennial stream running through your property would be ideal. If you don’t have a pond, you can always dig one, but you can’t be sure it will hold water. That’s something to look into before buying your farm.
The more land you have, the easier it is to rotate crops, create buffer zones and wind brakes, dig ponds, and leave fields fallow. For most small farmers, 10 to 20 acres of fertile land should be enough, but it wouldn’t hurt to have more. (We started out looking for less land, but ended up with more—that turned out to be a good thing in our case.) More land than you may need in the beginning will allow room for expansion in the future. If you want an ecologically diverse farm, you should have some pasture for livestock and forested areas for wildlife. A well-managed woodlot can provide you with an ongoing supply of firewood and lumber. It should also be noted that quite a few growers these days are producing impressive amounts of food on just two or three acres. By selecting crops that require less space and using intensive techniques, they are able to make do on relatively small plots of land.
A farmer needs to be a good businessperson. Get used to it. After all, a farm is a small business—probably, in fact, the original model of a small business (excepting, perhaps, the “oldest profession”). Every successful businessperson knows you need a ready market for what you produce or the services you provide. With the increasing popularity of local food, small farmers can benefit greatly by being close to urban centers where multitudes of potential customers are ready to gobble up what we have to offer.
Unfortunately, arable land close to urban centers tends to be very expensive these days—when you can find it, that is. Suburban sprawl has taken a heavy toll over the last 30 years. If you can afford a farm within 75 miles of a major city, you’re doing well. I know a lot of farmers who travel greater distances to market their wares. Other market growers focus on smaller markets in small- or mid-size cities, often going to three or four of them each week of the growing season. These days, a lot of small, diversified farms also market via the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model, selling shares of their produce in advance to local residents. Others focus on upscale restaurants that are eager to buy fresh, local food and are willing to pay what it’s worth.
There are many different models—you don’t need to be tied to any single one. But, when buying a farm, you should consider who and where your potential customers will be. In the end, cheap land in a remote region, far from good marketing opportunities, may not be a bargain. You could be forced to wholesale what you produce to a distributor or other middleman, and selling wholesale has not worked out well for small farmers in a long time.
Buildings and infrastructure
It’s almost always cheaper to buy an existing farm with a house, barn and other outbuildings than it is to start from scratch on a raw piece of land. An existing farm will have a well, septic, driveway, and electric and phone hook-ups. All of these can cost big bucks if you have to build, develop or install them yourself—and doing this can use up a lot of time, as well. Raw land may enable you to create exactly the farm you want but, in the long run, you will pay more for it unless you are extraordinarily multi-talented.
In the Northeast, dairy farms often present a very good deal and they usually will have all the buildings and infrastructure you will ever need (with the exception of things like greenhouses and packing sheds). The hard fact is that many dairy farmers are paid so little for their milk these days (often less than it costs to produce) that many are being forced to sell their farms at bargain prices, especially now that developers are no longer knocking on their doors. It’s a tragic and almost criminal situation, since everyone else along the milk chain—from the truckers to the processing plants to the cheese makers and supermarkets—collects a share. The farmers get the short end of the stick, if they get any stick at all.
A well-built house, in a good state of repair, is an obvious asset. It’s always a good idea to hire an engineer to take a close look and give you a written report of the condition of your possible future home and any factors that could affect its livability. (A major surprise we encountered on our farm, for example, was the location of the water tank, which functions as a sort of pressurized halfway house for water coming up from the well. Our water tank was in the barn instead of in the basement of the house, which is where water tanks normally are. Just before our first winter on the farm, we were warned by a neighboring farmer that without the body heat generated by cows in the barn, the water tank there would certainly freeze, resulting in split pipes and other expensive repairs. As the ground began to freeze in late November, we had to spend a couple of thousand dollars to hire a backhoe operator and two plumbers to avoid the situation.)
It’s hard to have much control over who your neighbors are (or will be), but there are certain types of neighbors you would be wise to steer clear of.
This is a tough one these days. Land that’s close to urban centers, where you can sell what you produce, is usually priced for development, not for farmers. The recent tumble in the housing market has brought down land prices a bit, but they are still too high for most would-be farmers. Look for land on which the development rights have been sold or donated to the state, or to a land trust or conservation organization. This land should cost less because it can never be developed. If it’s not for sale, it may be available on a long-term lease basis. Even private citizens or retired farmers, especially those with environmental inclinations, who own land that is not in use or is used only lightly (for hay, for example), may be willing to enter into a long-term lease arrangement with a young farmer who commits to farming the land organically or in a sustainable manner. Such an arrangement may reduce the landowner’s property tax bill.
Previous land use
If you plan to farm organically, you may want to avoid land that has been fertilized with chemical fertilizer or sprayed with pesticides, or that has been subjected to various other land-polluting uses. Current organic certification standards require three chemical-free years before food coming off the land can be called organic. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a deal-breaker. Many would-be organic farmers go through a transition period, during which they gradually implement organic methods. Watch out for old orchards, though—many have been sprayed with arsenic over many years, and arsenic build-up in soil can create a real toxic problem. If you’re looking at an old orchard, have the soil thoroughly tested for toxic residues.
It’s hard to have much control over who your neighbors are (or will be), but there are certain types of neighbors you would be wise to steer clear of—those who operate landfills or gravel pits or polluting industries, for example. It’s also a good idea to avoid properties that underlie existing or proposed transmission lines or areas where natural gas drilling may occur. Assuming you’ll be growing organically, you may not want to be next to a large conventional farm-pesticide run-off or spray drift could present a problem.
There’s a lot to think about when buying a farm—it’s not something to rush into. The more farms you view, the better you’ll understand what you’re looking for. Wanting to be a farmer these days is not as wacky an idea as it used to be, at least. The public’s appetite for fresh, local food has never been stronger, and the odds are better today than they have been in a long time that a small, sustainable farm, growing a diversity of crops and possibly animals, will succeed.
For those drawn to the agrarian life, buying or leasing land and starting a farm business can be a wonderful adventure. It’ll keep you busy, that’s for sure, but the work is varied and satisfying and it will put you in touch with timeless forces that can make all the difference.