Finding Your Farmland – An Overview

Whether you’re looking for a small acreage for homesteading, a working farm to support a career change, or a large parcel for a family retreat, finding the right piece of ground is nothing like spending the day at Sunday open houses in a new subdivision.

Where to look

No matter where you end up buying, chances are that you won’t be able to immediately move onto your new farm for many reasons. Often, farms aren’t move-in ready. You may have obligations – work or family – in another location. Initially, you’re liable to just be a weekender, and that can be a challenge to make any improvements to your property – or to manage it at all – if you can’t reasonably get there. For most of us, this farmland isn’t “instead of” other things, it’s “in addition to” other things, like work, family and community obligations.

Basically, anything more than two hours between you and your farm becomes discouraging and overwhelming. Facing a two hour drive on a Friday afternoon – and an even more time-consuming drive on your Sunday return – isn’t something that most people can keep up with for very long.

Farms always need work. There’s always mowing or something, and if you don’t have it hired out to someone who can help you out with it, it doesn’t take long for a farm to start losing value because of a lack of maintenance. And if it’s raw land, with little infrastructure, there’s some significant preparation required to make it a home.

I’m basically going to say, it needs to be within two hours of where you are, not only for your enjoyment, but for your guests as well. If it’s a family retreat, no one wants the prospect of being stuck on 95 for three hours on a Sunday evening.

And location isn’t just about time or distance. Local economies, geography, infrastructure, social elements all matter. Does it bother you to be 20 miles from a real grocery store? Or the kids’ school? Living in a rural area doesn’t mean that amenities don’t exist, they’re just further away.

What to Look For

Depending on your objectives, you may want to buy a turn-key operation, ready for your garden and your weekend guests. But turn-key can sometimes be a detriment. It can be an up-front expense that will lock you on a certain path,  and may not suit your long term plans. Turn-key works well for a strictly recreational property, but with farmland, having a little “headroom” can help you maximize your profit potential. Finding a diamond in the rough, with a reasonable price tag, will help set you up, not matter what your long term objectives are.

The land is the highest priority, with the quality of the ground, the size of the tract, and the accessibility to local infrastructure being the primary factors influencing price.

Some acreages are flat out tough to manage. They’re too small for making a living, and too large to be comfortably maintained.  Forty acres isn’t big enough to make a livelihood for most of us. It’s not big enough to rent out, it’s too big for a lawnmower, and too small for a tractor. But if you’re considering high-value specialty crops, it might work.

Check out the zoning map at the courthouse, or, if available, on your county’s GIS – Geographic Information System.  Is your neighbor’s land subdivided? What are the neighbors doing, what are they growing?  Many rural counties have no sound ordinances, so motocross tracks and target ranges and wedding venues can operate with little over-site. Does it look like your long-term plans will mesh with your neighbor’s activities? How much traffic is there?

Ideally, your new farm will have a livable house to serve as an operational base where you can stay and enjoy your property while you work on upgrades. A residence will signify reasonable placement of utilities and infrastructure.

Long term, you may want to keep the original house or you may decide to bull doze it. You can break it off as a separate parcel and sell it, do Air BNB, keep as rental property, give it to your kids. No matter what you decide, having a comfortable place to sit and eat and take a shower after a hard day’s work shouldn’t be underestimated, even if the house is ugly or creepy. And though it’s expensive, the house can be one of the easiest things to change.

Who can help?

Farms aren’t marketed or financed like residential property. They’re sold through auctions, and by word of mouth, as well as by real estate agents.

It’s probably easiest to start with a local real estate agent – preferably from the county where you’re looking, one that specializes in farmland. Buying through a real estate agent ends up being expensive, but they’re providing a service, and it’s most often worth it.

A farm real estate agent will have ideas about financing – farms aren’t financed like houses are – and know that it’s often a slow process. Farms are often tied up in families and it’s not like someone is intentionally jerking your chain, it’s just how it goes, A farm agent has navigated these issues before, and is going to know the tricks involved with getting some of these things done, and can recognize the difference between a minor setback, and a real problem.

Additionally, farms are hard to appraise, and – it’s not like buying a house in a subdivision, where everything is all neat and tidy – farms are just about guaranteed to be the opposite – no “comps” and the survey will be expensive and the property lines probably won’t be where everyone thought they were. Some long lost cousin is liable to come out of the woodwork and try to make a claim to the property, the septic tank is actually on the neighbor’s property, and the well will fail inspection.

Sorry to say, but this is normal and a good agent knows the most efficient way to handle these sorts of things.

You’ll probably want to get on the mailing list for land auctions in your region, and be prepared to window shop for a while. It’s all part of your market analysis, and though an auction purchase should be approached with caution, there are a lot of solid buys out there. Just be aware that you are totally on your own when you purchase at auction. Some of us have the temperament to deal with, say, undocumented underground storage tanks, and some of us don’t.

Besides auction facilities that typically handle farm and estate sales, check out properties auctioned at the courthouse steps, as well as USDA and bank foreclosures.

And it’s not unusual for sellers to not want to deal with real estate agents – it’s just the nature of some people. That’s why so many farms are sold by word of mouth. These are tough to find – if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly out of the loop on these sales. But they’re common enough, so don’t discount the possibility of just stumbling over your dream home,

So get on Zillow, poke around. Look for the agents who list a lot of farm properties. Get familiar with communities that look promising, and appeal to you. Visit churches, farmers’ markets, county fairs, hunt races, anywhere else residents gather, and see if the area is a good fit for you, and your farmland dream.

So when we first started looking for our farm, it took literally seconds to cross Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties off our list – too hilly, too rocky, or too expensive. If you can narrow your search down to a specific county or two, it will make the search much simpler, but to be honest, we never had Orange County on our list, though that’s where we ended up.

And purchasing power is different now than it was in the nineties when we bought our farm. The farm crisis of the eighties made financing hard, and the 2008 downturn made farm financing almost impossible. We were lucky to be able to get in when we did, and an owner willing to finance was about the only thing that made it viable.

But farms are out there, and deals as well, and with patience, persistence, and resourcefulness, you can take the steps needed to make your farmland dream a farmland reality.


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