Accessing & Evaluating Land

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How can I farm if I can’t afford land?
While it’s still tricky to negotiate, more and more farmers are finding that you don’t need to own land in order to farm. Owning farmland can be expensive and can make it much more difficult to develop a profitable enterprise. Leasing is one of many options. As the Greenhorns say in their Guide to Farming, in the search for land to farm, “charm, persistence and determination are your best allies.”Consider the following examples of successful operations established by out-of-the-box thinkers:

  • In his book No-Risk Ranching (available from many libraries and most book retailers) farmer Greg Judy describes how he turned his farm around by developing a profitable business model based on raising beef cattle he doesn’t own on land he doesn’t own. He also offers details and advice on approaching landowners and establishing successful leases.
  • Do you live in a city where land is scarce and expensive? Consider Rooftop Farms in Brooklyn, or the SPIN-farming model.
  • Incubator farms provide inexpensive land access in a central place, and often access to equipment and mentorship to help new farmers get started. The most well-known is the Intervale in Burlington, VT, but more are springing up around the Northeast. Check out the SEED Farm in PA, Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming in NY, the Glynwood Center Incubator Farm, and the Community Farm of Simsbury in CT.
  • You might be surprised to find out how many landowners would like to see their land be more productive, but don’t have a desire to farm it themselves. As a bonus, most states offer a reduction in property taxes on land that is in agricultural production, so once you learn the details in your state, you can use this as an incentive with landowners. Here’s one approach: 1) Find several pieces of land meeting your requirements for size, location, and soil type, 2) Go to your county Tax Assessors office to determine who owns them, 3) Send them a very polite letter expressing your interest in farming and inquiring about their willingness to lease their land, and 4) Follow up with a phone call a week or two later, to get their response. Many farmers have found land to buy OR lease using this method.

Leasing Assistance

Great care should be taken when establishing a lease, as there are many issues to address in writing between landowner and farmer, such as lease tenure, infrastructure development, and permitted uses.

For personalized assistance, Land For Good is an organization devoted to keeping Northeast farmland productive. They offer farm transfer planning and can assist with development of strong leases.The New England Small Farm Institute published Holding Ground: A Northeast Guide to Farmland Tenure and Stewardship, a book containing lease language, case studies, worksheets, and non-ownership tenure options.

Another nice publication on creative options for finding land from ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas) is available online here.

How can I get access to land?
Getting access to land is one of the most important questions to ask when considering starting a farm. With land prices as high as they are, there is no easy answer to this question.
Leasing a Farm
Owning farmland can be expensive and can make it more difficult to develop a profitable enterprise. Leasing is one of many creative options. Many people own idle farmland and would be happy to see it used productively. Great care should be taken when establishing a lease, as there are many issues to address in writing between landowner and farmer, such as lease tenure, infrastructure development, restrictions, and permitted uses.
Here is a lease template and list of considerations to include if you develop your own lease (from Fact Sheet #1 in the Guide to Farming in NY)Many of the Regional Organizations listed in the Who Can Help? section of this website are launching programs in their counties or states to help match aspiring farmers with landowners. Contact the one nearest you to inquire.The Equity Trust offers a model land lease that may be useful. The book No-Risk Ranching by Greg Judy (available from many libraries and most book retailers), while based on a model using beef cattle, also offers details and advice on approaching landowners and establishing successful leases.
Farm Link and Farmfinder Programs
Many states have a FarmLink program to connect landowners and land seekers for leasing or purchasing arrangements – try searching online for one in your state. In the Northeast, there are additional resources to help you locate land, such as the New England FarmFinder, Catskills FarmLink in NY, and the Farm Futures project in PA.
Cooperative Extension
Agricultural Educators in county extension offices may also be able to direct you to farms for sale or farm realtors. If you’re in NY, each county Cornell Cooperative Extension office has a Small Farm and Beginning Farmer contact; call or email them to inquire about properties in your area.Farm Newspapers with Listing Farm Properties for Sale
Grassroots – The Voice of New York Farm Bureau - 800-342-4143
Country Folks – Lee Publications – 800-218-5586Farm Real Estate Brokers*
While conventional real estate brokers list farms for sale, most active farms are considered commercial property and are listed by real estate agents specializing in farm transactions.

*This listing of realtors is not intended to be complete, and listing does not imply endorsement by
Cornell Cooperative Extension. Check with folks located in the area near where you hope to farm to find realtors who specialize in farm property.

What organizations can help me find land?
FarmLink Programs
Most Northeast states offer land-linking services. Most of these programs try to link retiring or exiting farmers with individuals interested in getting started in farming. They also offer counseling to guide the process, whether the farm is going to be sold from one party to another, leased, operated as a partnership, or organized as a management opportunity for the new farmer to gain experience and equity.

Other Local Organizations
Several non-profits listed on our Who Can Help map provide informal land-linking services. Contact organizations near you to find out if they can help you.

Cooperative Extension
Agricultural Educators in county extension offices may also be able to direct you to local opportunities for land access. Locate your county’s office and contact them to describe your land needs. If you’re in NY, find the Small/Beginning Farmer contact in your local Extension office here.

What realtors, publications & websites are good for finding (or advertising) available farmland?
Farm Newspapers with Listing Farm Properties for Sale

Farm Real Estate Brokers*
While conventional real estate brokers list farms for sale, most active farms are considered commercial property and are listed by real estate agents specializing in farm transactions.

*This listing of realtors is not intended to be complete, and listing does not imply endorsement by
Cornell Cooperative Extension or the Cornell Small Farms Program. Check with residents of the area near where you hope to farm to find realtors who specialize in farm property.

How can I learn more about my land and what will grow well on it?
If you would like to learn more about evaluating your land’s potential for farm production, start with the Evaluating Land, Environment and Facilities tutorial at left and navigate through the chapters on climate, soil, and infrastructure.
I’d like to start a CSA. How do I know how much land I need and how much to plant for the number of shares I want to offer?
Rachel Schneider at Hawthorne Valley Farmin Ghent, NY provides the following estimate of land needed for new CSA farmers. This is intended only as a starting point. You may find these to be too high or low for your farm, but your experience and advice from nearby farmers will help you get more refined over time:

  • 0.5 acre – 10-15 shares
  • 1 ac – 20-30 shares
  • 2 ac – 50-75 shares
  • 4 ac – 100-130 shares
  • 8 ac – 200-240 shares

Roxbury Farm in NY offers a seeding and planting schedule for a 100-share CSA.
Brookfield Farm
in MA has created a set of spreadsheets for CSA crop planning that they sell for $25.
AgSquared is a free online software planning tool that helps you plan and manage the complexities of crop rotations, fertility management, and harvest schedules for many different crops.

How can I find someone to farm my land?
There is no single clearinghouse for this information, and there are likely many more landowners seeking farmers than there are farmers seeking land to lease. A good starting place is to get really clear about what you’re offering. Describe in writing:

  1. Your land – size, location, type of soil, flat or hilly, a brief description of its recent history
  2. The infrastructure that would be included – any fences or irrigation in place? house or farm buildings?
  3. How long you are willing to lease it, and for what amount (ask your local Cooperative Extension about the going rate per acre for leasing farmland)
  4. An specific expectations or limitations you would place on the farmer – consider how you feel about public events, chemicals and management practices, appearance, livestock, etc. If you have strong feelings about any of these, include them in your description.

If your land is based in New England, consider submitting it to the New England Farmland Finder. Several other organizations in the Northeast also have an interest in connecting farmers with land in their area, but most do it informally. Once you have a clear description of what you’re offering, try searching our service provider map for groups who work on land access issues. Contact them with a request to share your opportunity.

Continue on to the Land Evaluation tutorial>>

The Importance of Land & Facilities

Twelve farmers talk about evaluating soil, climate, infrastructure and other facilities to make sure you’re ready for production.

Visit the video gallery to view other videos.

Continue on to the Land Evaluation tutorial>>

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