05/07/2008: "Buying the Farm"
I recently got a letter that I thought I would respond to here in the blog. Here it is:
Hello, I plan on starting my first farm here in Northern California. This will be my first time farming but I do plan on being green all the way from using recycled materials to build barn to grass fed cattle, solar, rainwater catchment systems, etc. I stumbled across your site & was very happy I found it. I was wondering if you could share with me some do's & don'ts of when you started your farm? I am looking for property now & have looked at raw land & farms for sale in my area. Can you tell me anything that you might have done differently or things that you were happy that you did when you began? Any info you can provide me with would be greatly appreciated.
What follows is my anecdotal advice on things I considered or learned while purchasing agricultural land.
Some of what follows may be somewhat specific to Oregon, the state in which I live, but there are probably similar concerns and resources in whatever state you're going to farm. Of course, you should consult professionals in the areas of tax, real estate, and other fields to round out your knowledge before committing to a purchase. None of the following should be construed as investment or legal advice!
Naturally, soil and water are at the top of the list when it comes to farming (I'm assuming that access to the sun is a given, and the property you're considering is not in the shadow of some huge geological feature!). Let's start with soil.
The United States Department of Agriculture has mapped the entire country, and prepared county-by-county reports of soil quality and types. If you're interested in Oregon soils here is the link to access these reports; If you're in another state you'll need to start at the top of the Natural Resources Conservation Service on the USDA site, and work your way down to soil maps for your state. For the state of Oregon you can download a book with soil information, and you can go on-line to access data via an interactive map. The image at the head of this posting is a snippet of one of these on-line maps; you'll see contours of different classes of soils identified by numbers. You have to look up the numbers in the soil survey document for your county to learn what the names and characteristics of the soils are for each number.
(Actually, now the USDA site is more advanced than when I first started using it; the web site gives you the soil types according to the window you've selected. See the image below for an example.)
Oregon soils are ranked according to classes. Class 1 soil is prime agricultural quality soil - technically, the soil should not be a limiting factor to growing practically any type of crop. From there the soils go up in number (Class 2, Class 3, etc), and down in quality. Class 1 soil is found in valleys, in rich bottomlands, in flat areas of traditional farming communities. Class 1 soil is easy to dig, drains well, has good tilth, and probably is currently in farming production. However, even a badge of Class 1 soil is not going to guarantee high quality results; many areas of Class 1 soil have been "farmed out:" technically, the soil was Class 1 when the survey was done 20 or 40 years ago, but if it has been farmed intensively with soil-depleting practices it may only work in a fertilizer-intensive farming paradigm. If you're planning to use organic farming methods you may find that you'll have to actively manage your soils fertility by adding to it organically to bring it back to some semblance of its former capability. This will take time and money, of course.
Class 2 soil has some limitations, but is still very commonly used in farming. The two most common limitations are water drainage and rock content. Soil that doesn't drain easily can't be worked as early in the spring, and may remain waterlogged for long periods of the growing season, making it difficult to work mechanically and not ideal for growing crops (remember, the USDA is going to have a very industrrial-agriculture-centric view of things). Fortunately, you can mitigate the limitations of Class 2 soil, especially with respect to water issues. Even the Romans knew that if you had waterlogged soil you could dig a ditch (technically, your slaves would dig a ditch), fill it with rushes, and extend it to a natural drain (river or pond). Water would drain from the surrounding soil into the ditch, and run downhill to the river or pond. In later periods of history this practice came to be known as tiling, since ceramic tiles were laid down in ditches to carry water away from fields. Today, plastic pipe is used, but the universal term for field drainage is still usually tiling.
In the modern world, our slaves are petroleum-powered, but the same principles apply: there are specialized machines that can perform tiling in a single pass by opening a ditch and uncoiling a plastic, sock-covered pipe into place. Usually this is done in a leaf-like pattern that covers the field, with drainage lines spaced about ten feet apart. On a smaller scale, you can do this yourself by renting a Ditch Witch and laying your own irrigation drainage pipe. Just be sure to be informed about underground hazards (electrical lines, pipes, etc) before you begin, and of course plan for a small amount of inclination in your lines so that water will actually flow out.
Here at Living Green Farm our south yard has Class 2 soil that does not drain well, and we plan to eventually tile it so that it doesn't waterlog perennials that we plant there. We've got raspberries that end up swimming every winter, and consequently they are not exactly thriving.
Class 2 rocky soil may or may not be a problem for you, depending on how large the rocks are, and whether you plan to do row crops or permaculture-type perennials. If you're planning to do a lot of work by hand, you can just harvest the rocks as the tiller kicks them up and toss them to the side. Over a period of time you'll clear the area of the most troublesome ones.
So, how did I feel about the soil here at Living Green Farm:? Well, most of our pasture is Chapman Class 1 soil, with a band of Wapato Class 2 soil running along the seasonal stream. Since the farm had been used as a calf-rearing operation by the previous owners I figured that the soil might be water-limited, but all those calves defecating probably made it relatively fertile. The previous owners were bringing in feed to support a fairly large operation, so I think it was probably a net gain fertility-wise. And, indeed, we seen pretty good results in plant growth even on the Class 2 soil, but we've also seen the downside: right now we're waiting for the lower part of the pasture to dry out enough to allow us to till for the summer garden. We've made a conscious choice not to cultivate the sloping areas of the pasture, in order to conserve topsoil, so we just have to wait it out patiently.
One thing I would definitely recommend is that you not necessarily take even the USDA's word about the soil on a prospective purchase. Bring a shovel and a pail of water when you go to look at the property! Dig a hole 12 to 18 inches deep, and note how rocky or clay-like the soil is. Then dump the water in the hole, and note how well it drains down. You'll get a feel for different types of local soil after you've dug a couple of holes on different properties.
OK, enough about soil. Where are you going to get your water for farming? In some locales you might not need much water, or even any water beyond rainfall, but in most places you'll want water even if it is just for your personal garden. Just about every Western state has a complicated set of rules and regulations concerning water: it may run through your land, fall on your land, or exist in an aquifer below your land, but you can't generally use it commercially until you're granted water rights. Of course, there is generally an automatic household right, but you can only water up to a third of an acre in Oregon for personal garden use.
In Oregon the water rights application wants to know very detailed information about how much water you're requesting permission to pump or divert, what crops or use the water is going for, what size area the water will be applied to, and how far your existing or proposed well is to the nearest significant river or stream. Basically, they're going to evaluate whether your intended use is within the capability of the supplying stream, river or aquifer, taking into account the prior rights of your neighbors; and whether your planned use falls within normal guidelines for the crops you're growing or the animals you're raising. And then once you have the rights they also check to make sure that you actually use it in the way you said you would! If you don't exercise your rights for a certain number of years, you lose them. Water rights are pretty heavily regulated in Oregon, and you should take them very seriously in planning your farm.
One nice thing about the heavy regulation is that you can look up a lot of things on-line. For instance, the Oregon Water Resources Department link above has records of all wells drilled in the state, and you can look them up by township and section (you'll usually find the township and section listed in the property legal description). This will help you get a feel for how deep one would have to drill to hit water if you are planning to drill your own well. Many counties also have a GIS (Graphics Information System) on-line, and this can provide you with a lot of data, too: tax rates, the names of your neighbors, development in the planning stages, etc.
Oregon designates a Water Master for each county. You probably want to have a good relationship with your local Water Master, since the Water Master evaluates your application, and generally oversees the process of your application. In Oregon, the process works like this: you fill out the application and submit a $500 fee. The water master looks over your application; if he finds something way out of whack according to his regulations he's going to reject your application within two weeks, and you're out $50 bucks (you get $450 back). Otherwise, the process proceeds to a detailed evaluation, and a comment period where your neighbors are notified of your intentions. They can submit comments, but ultimately the Water Master is going to decide whether your application passes. Once it passes (if it passes) you're assigned an effective date that determines your seniority in the water rights system: in some dry summers the Water Master has to regulate who gets water and who doesn't, and your seniority date is what determines which side of that fence you're on. I've been told by the Water Master that most applications take nine months from submittal to approval.
Water rights are generally transferable when you purchase property. You definitely want to inquire about them during the purchase process, and it's great if the property you're considering comes with them. Living Green Farm didn't come with water rights, which I knew up front, but it would have saved me a lot of hassle if it had. I'm in the process of preparing my application now, so we'll have to go through another dry-land farming season. Sometimes the water rights process can be arduous; our neighbor, who is a pretty straight shooter in every respect that I'm aware of, has nothing good to say about the process. It took years of jaw-boning and a lot of time and money to get his agricultural well approved, and he has a pretty cut and dried, bona fide agricultural operation. I don't know how it's going to go for a couple of homestead hippies like ourselves...
Speaking of neighbors... this is another area in which you should invest some time. Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because your neighbor is a block away, not 15 feet away like s/he is in the city, that neighbors don't matter. If anything, they matter more than they do in the city! No startup farming operation can do it all right from the get-go, and you really, really want to get a feel for your neighbors. Your neighbors are a gold mine of historical/agricultural information, and you may need to call upon them to bail you out of some jam. Likewise, you want to be in the position of being useful to your neighbors in return. One of our neighbors likes to travel; Nate's been looking after their horse, and in return they let him borrow their large pickup for errands. Another neighbor plants sweet corn for wild ducks, and lets us harvest a bit for our personal consumption and to feed our pig; in return, we made sure that he got a portion of the pork after butchering. I didn't really do my homework on neighbors, but I have to say that we got lucky: we have great neighbors who talk to us and are generous and kind. I was mostly going on feel, judging the area by what I knew about friends who lived nearby. As I say, I got lucky.
Some other considerations: part of what attracted me to Living Green Farm was its proximity to Corvallis, which has an outstanding agricultural college and university agricultural extension service. This might be a factor for you, too.
Some other random thoughts: in Oregon you can buy land zoned EFU (exclusive farm use), but you can't add a house unless you meet some gross farm income tests that are pretty high. Your real estate agent will tell you about limitations like this, but it helps to keep your expectations in line with what is actually legally possible.
Watch out for rich soil bottomland that floods frequently. You definitely want to inquire about flood status as part of the process of purchase. Every couple of years I drive past Chehalis, Washington during some spring flood and I see acre after acre of flooded farmland. A month or two later I see For Sale signs on fence posts, so watch yourself!
After this was posted on the blog, "afella" wrote to me with the following comment:
a few things I would add about water. Around here, (north east) surface
wells have a way of lacing together properties. Since lot sizes are all
that big and up hill isolation distances are large, a surface well on a
neighbors property can impact the uses of a property. Mostly this comes
into play with septic, but it can be tricky. In my situation, I am learning
that the postage stamp lots that were sold out of the farm I own have a big
impact on my land because their surface (dug as opposed to artesian) wells
are in the low areas. Just another pitfall to watch for.
And the note about neighbors is a good one. We have managed to stay out of
it, but when we bought this place, it turned out there was a feud between
two families (across the road from each other). Everyone along the road had
picked sides and the bad feelings governed all interactions between
neighbors. That was more than ten years ago, and it is still going on. It
has been a dicey proposition maintaining a neutral stance and makes the
community a lot less productive.
Addendum by Kurt, December 8th, 2009:
One thing that I would add to this essay, written a year and a half ago, is that you should also become familiar with the noxious weeds of your locale and look for them on any property that you're considering for purchase. In my case, I was aware of tansy ragwort and looking out for, but not much else; it turned out that our property has a pretty severe infestation of Canada thistle and bindweed. I don't know that it would have deterred from the purchase, but I certainly would have altered my activities in the early years of owning the farm.