PHOTO: Mighty Food Farm
One of the aspiring hobby farmer’s greatest challenges is accessing land at an affordable price. To minimize financial risk and to get the farm established quickly, many new and young farmers are scooping up land by renting it.
Second only to borrowing land, renting land is the most affordable way to participate in growing local food movements and sustainability and to engage with community through farming. Curtis Stone, with his book The Urban Farmer (2015), encourages emerging farmers that the new farm can be as close as your grandma’s front lawn.
When Kate MacLean and her husband, Nick Zigelbaum, were ready to farm, they looked to family to begin their education.
“We started farming as interns on my cousin’s pastured pork operation in North Carolina,” she says. “We both came from desk jobs, but we quickly fell in sync with the mental rhythm and physical demands of farming.”
Today, they support their family with Longest Acres Farm, which sits on rented land in Chelsea, Vt.
Before sourcing land, it’s necessary to identify your market—that is, your first potential customers. Audrey Levatino, author of the book Woman-Powered Farm (2015), says to “first locate the markets where you’ll sell your products.” These could be farmers markets, direct customer targets such as farm-to-table restaurants and independent groceries, or people traveling through the area where you hope to farm.
“Then search an ever-widening radius around that central [market] location until you find suitable land at the price you can afford,” Levatino says.
Stone suggests that beginner farmers “look for places where there may already be a field-to-fork culture: festivals and events that celebrate local food and farmers, grocery stores like Whole Foods, people who … generally are interested in health-conscious living.”
These are your target customers. But farmers need to balance passion for raising food with actual market needs.
“When we attended our first farmers market in Vermont as a seller, we were one of five vendors (out of 15) who were trying to sell eggs,” MacLean says. “We realized the egg market was saturated by us and that [selling eggs] might not be a great focus.”
Before you start to farm, figure out where to rent.
In cities and suburbia where land might seem scarce for farming, Stone explains that land is actually abundant. “The average home in the U.S. has an average of 0.2 acres of land. That’s around 8,000 square feet.” With intensive farming techniques, this can be enough land to turn a modest profit with small crops that make the most efficient use of small spaces.
Stone also points to the heat island effect as an overlooked urban-farming benefit. Heat islands develop as a result of a diminished tree canopy, vast blacktop and concrete surfaces, and buildings and homes made of bricks and stones. An inadequate tree canopy allows the sun to beat onto surfaces that retain heat, which then radiate heat even at nighttime, affecting daily temperatures and even first and last frost dates. A city often has a warmer microclimate within a region’s USDA plant hardiness zone, resulting in a longer growing season.
On the outskirts of suburbs before reaching the country, peri-urban spaces are big enough with small acreage to hold an entire hobby farm. For beginners, less land can be more manageable than a rural farm. A peri-urban area might boast some city-like development, but land is available in larger tracts. Peri-urban sites can give your farm a rural feel, while retaining proximity to customers.
MacLean explains the benefit of seeking rural land is that “many current landowners and farmers are at retirement age and many find their children living in cities without the desire to return to farming. It’s in the farmer’s best interest to have their land used and to not see it fall into disrepair.”
Levatino notes in her book that a deceased farmer’s land might be held by a trust and left vacant by family members who have no interest in ever farming it. Country farmland that’s potentially available for long-term rent is often not advertised. The best tool for finding it is networking.
In his book, Stone highlights that the best place to start looking for land is at the “low-hanging fruit” right in front of you. “Ask all of your friends and family for some land you can start with,” Stone says. “The key is to get something started as soon as you can.” Getting started on your own lawn or on borrowed land makes your business visible; creating opportunity to make your land needs known.
This is no time to be bashful. Tell everyone you meet about your new farm and your ongoing land needs, and hand out two business cards. This is the easiest way to introduce yourself to people who might lead you to land.
These days, your hobby farm basically doesn’t exist if it doesn’t have an online presence, especially if you’re planning to farm in the country. Tell your story and share your food philosophy with a simple website, and use social media to share the birth and evolution of your farm to gain support and excitement for your business. Use the results to gather market data and apply it to growing your business.
Farm Link conservation programs are eager to connect farmers with available land to conserve farmland and to save it from commercial development. Learn about your state’s Farm Link program through the Farmland Information Center at www.farmlandinfo.org.
MacLean found her farmland for rent through the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
“We paid [rent] for the barn apartment to live in and the landowner allowed us to use the pastures and barn free of charge, as they were all unused,” MacLean says. “This is a tremendous but not uncommon opportunity for beginning farmers.”
“Short-term leases or rentals are certainly an option, if it’s your only option,” Levatino writes. “Short-term leases and rentals are least desirable” for both the lessor and the lessee. Both offer flexibility, she says, but neither offers stability.
Decades-long leases are common in rural areas, and they usually include scheduled intervals for revisiting the contract. A lease should be agreeable and beneficial to both farmer and landowner. Maintaining a respectful relationship should lend itself to revisiting the contract as issues arise.
Melissa Fery, a part-time small-farms extension agent at Oregon State University, writes in “Exploring Leased Land” that “since many farmers or soon-to-be farmers depend on leased land as part or all of their business, it is in their best interest and success to maintain long-term, positive relationships with landowners.” She notes that landowners may be dependent on the rental for income, be keeping their land in farm deferral for tax purposes or simply want their land to remain in agriculture production. “Landowners are seeking stable, hassle-free relations with their tenants and often want them to be respectful of the land and its history,” she writes.
“We were able to start our business on this rented land,” MacLean says. “We were able to experiment, shift our original ideas from dairy to beef and develop a local customer base. We were able to learn on somebody else’s land. The first fence we built was on this rented land. The first time we rotationally grazed animals was on this rented land.”
MacLean and Zigelbaum created their hobby-farm life by educating themselves, starting with a small collection of livestock, and renting the whole farm when they found the right opportunity. “As a nation, we are experiencing a generational shift in farming,” MacLean says. Land and resources are available to make nearly any hobby farm dream come true.
This article originally ran in the November/December issue of Hobby Farms.