Putting Down Roots: The Search for Our Own Farm
We closed on the land in June 2012. With a money transfer and a few signatures, Edge and I became official landowners of 14.5 acres in Worcester, Vermont. We slept there that night—setting up a tent and building a small campfire on the edge of the forest looking over our (our!) nine acres of pasture. After two years of searching, we had finally found the place where our roots could grow deep and strong. We had found home. As the local food movement grows, more and more young farmers are looking for land of their own. The high cost of farmland can make this process feel daunting, but with enough passion, persistence, patience, and imagination, it is possible to turn the dream of creating a farm into reality.
Our farm dreams began to take shape in the winter of 2010. Just back from Alaska, we spent our weekends visiting farms, researching lease agreements and land tenure options, and writing drafts of our farm plan and mission. At the time we weren’t quite ready to buy land, so we focused instead on finding land to lease, or better yet, some sort of unique situation on an existing farm. In our search, we met John and Rocio Clark of Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park when we stopped by their farm store to buy raw milk. After a long conversation that first day and a few subsequent dinners, we accepted their offer to move onto their farm that spring. In May 2011 we put up a yurt and began our apprenticeship of intensive-grazing and organic dairy farming. Though we learned a lot, another grower was already running a vegetable CSA at Applecheek, so we set out again to find land in order to establish our own vegetable and animal operation. This time around, with a growing desire to plant perennial crops and stop asking a landowner’s permission, we were ready to buy land.
Our search started out very broad. At first, we created scenarios based on the pieces we looked at—what kind of operation would work there? We looked all over Vermont and even into Maine, at fully wooded 5 acre lots to 150 acre land trust land. We spent countless hours online looking at pictures of real estate only to find those lots look very different in person. Six months into our search we became so frustrated that we gave up, and announced we were moving back to Alaska! Instead, we took a few months off from it all. After some serious redefining of our goals, we renewed our search feeling refreshed and focused. This time around we knew what we wanted: some open land to pasture animals and establish gardens, plus a large enough woodlot to cut firewood and play with the dogs in; we wanted to be within 30 minutes of Montpelier, close to my family and a large potential customer base; we wanted easy access from town, gravity fed water, and nice neighbors. In addition, having already established the amount of money we could borrow from our families, it needed to fall within a specific price range. Once we had created our list, we could better articulate what we wanted and narrow our search.
As we looked, we talked to everyone we could. We’d go on drives and stop at farm stores and local bakeries. We’d tell anyone who would listen what we were looking for, with the hope that they could lead us to a hidden gem. A few people put us in touch with realtor friends, others told us of farmers they thought might be ready to retire, but mostly we got words of encouragement, which continued to propel us forward. Most importantly, we committed to taking one step forward each week, whether that be posting a “looking for land” ad, compiling a list of properties to check out, driving to look at a lot or researching town building codes. This helped keep us focused and motivated.
Finally, one afternoon in March, a craigslist ad caught my eye. The price was a little high, but I thought hey, we could bring that down. It read that the pictures don’t do it justice, which we’d come to learn was true, though they showed an open field with a wide view of the Worcester Mountain Range. I fell in love with the land on our first visit: how it sloped to the west and opened to the south, how it was close to town but felt a world away, how it tucked up into hundreds of acres of forest, and how my whole body seemed to wake up as we walked the pasture and wooded acres. Negotiations took a few months, as we weren’t the only ones interested in buying the land and our competitors had a bigger budget. In the end, though, timing worked in our favor, as we were ready to close when the seller needed to, and we got a fair price that left us with enough money to start up the farm.
It’s been over a year since we signed the deed, and though there will always be projects to complete, our land now looks like a farm -- with a barn and seed house, sheep and chickens grazing in the pasture, an acre of garden, and a farm store in the works. Our soils aren’t perfect (we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford prime ag land) but with cover crops, amendments, and compost we’re reinvigorating the soil life, and crops are growing well. We live in a yurt, which was quick to go up and allows us to put money into the farm before building a house. We cut our own firewood, take the dogs on long walks in the woods, and have gravity-fed water to our barn. Though the road access could be a bit smoother, we do have nice neighbors, and looking back I’d say we fulfilled everything on our list pretty well.
If you’re finding yourself frustrated in your land search, don’t give up. There will be ups and downs, but persevere and your home will find you. In the meantime, here are some things we learned in our land-search process:
Know What You Want—Write out a farm plan and create a checklist of the essential things you’re looking for. This is a good way to value the land for yourself; if it’s missing three important aspects, it loses value, but if it has everything and more, it increases in value. Knowing what you want helps define your search and communicate with others about it. If you don’t know what you want, there’s no way to ask for it.
Connect with Land Finder Services and Organizations—There are many organizations out there working to connect farmers to land: Land Link New England, Land for Good, UVM’s Land Access Database, and the Land Trust. And don’t forget classifieds like Craigslist!
Talk to Everyone—You never know when a friend of a friend is ready to sell his land but doesn’t want to put it on the market, when a farmer is looking to retire and is searching for a new person to take over, or when you’ll get just the encouragement you need at just the right time to keep your search going.
Explore Alternative Loan Options—A family- or friend-loan can be beneficial for both sides. We are repaying our loan with 2% interest, which is lower than what a bank mortgage would be for us, and a higher interest rate than our families could get from a savings account. If you know of a possible lender, put a plan together and present it to them. Remember, if you know what you want, you can ask for it!
Spend a Lot of Time on the Land— Buying land is a big investment, and it’s not enough to simply go through a checklist. You have to feel the land, get an idea of what it’s like at different times of the day and in different spots. Imagine what it would be like to live there. Edge and I camped out a few times (with permission from the seller) and brought friends and family up to get some perspective before making an offer.
Take a Break When You Need It—Pausing our search for a few months allowed us to take a deep breath, recollect ourselves, and start again in a more focused and directed way. When we began looking again, our frustration melted away and our search became more fun.