Access to land has been identified as a top challenge in surveys by the National Young Farmers Coalition and American Farm Bureau Federation. While land access has always been an issue in agriculture, the escalating cost of land, competition for uses and concentration in ownership have exacerbated the situation. This is especially true in largely urban states like Massachusetts. This article focuses on what to consider to successfully acquire your land.
Nothing is more important than establishing your personal, family and business goals related to acquiring your farm or farmland. Do this first. Think and talk about your values about property ownership, placement of equity, legacy and control. For some farmers, it’s not as important who owns the land as it is to have rights and responsibilities appropriately divided between land owner and land user. Land for Good’s Where Do I Start Guide can help guide you through these questions.
Equally important is what makes sense financially for your farm business. Land for Good’s free online course, Acquiring Your Farm, includes a section that details the steps of conducting a financial assessment in preparation for your land search.
An important part of planning is to understand your land tenure options. The two basic options are:
Within each of these options there are several variations. With regard to ownership, several vehicles are available to finance your purchase, from conventional mortgages to owner financing. Think carefully about if purchasing a farm or farmland is right for you at this time. It may make more sense down the road.
Likewise, there are various scenarios to rent land. Always do research to get a proper lease in place. Some agreements are simple and rather casual; others are quite formal and lengthy. The lease term can vary from 1 to 99 years. There are different ways to pay rent; some involve shared risk with the landowner.
In some cases, it might be possible and make sense to begin by leasing followed by purchasing. You might have a lease-to-own arrangement, or purchase part of what you need to farm and rent additional land. You might lease for a while and then find a different property to purchase. Land tenure is not a one-time decision; it evolves as you and your farming situation do. Land for Good’s Acquiring Your Farm online course details types of land tenure and their respective pros and cons.
Once you’ve done this foundational thinking, you are ready to look for farm property. Remember, you can always modify your goals and plans.
Things to consider range from the natural factors of the site (soils, water, climate, for example) to less tangible aspects such as the “farm-friendliness” of the community. Be sure to check zoning and other local bylaws. It’s more complicated when the property includes farm structures or a residence. Some things to consider when assessing land include:
- Availability - What land is out there? How many acres do you need? A good resource for finding available land is the New England Farmland Finder, an online farm property clearinghouse. See links to other farm link programs on that site as well.
- Affordability – What will it cost to acquire the land, either by rent or purchase? Can you afford it?
- Accessibility – Even if it’s available and affordable, is it located so that you can get to it, and get to markets from it?
- Appropriateness – Is the land suited for the uses you have in mind (soils, climate, location, infrastructure, etc.) and is there reasonable tenure security for your needs?
There are several online forms and guidebooks to help you evaluate potential properties. Holding Ground: A Guide to Northeast Farmland Tenure and Stewardship focuses on "non-ownership" tenure options and is available for purchase online at New England Small Farm Institute’s bookstore. University of Vermont’s Land Access and Tenure Toolshed also has many helpful resources related to farmland evaluation.
If you intend to lease land, think broadly about potential landlords. There are private landowners who may or may not live on or nearby the rental land. Other types of landlords include conservation organizations, religious and educational institutions, municipalities, states, and even federal parkland. Most important is your relationship with the landlord. It forms the basis for working out details in your agreement and for dealing with problems when they arise.
Check various resources to help you construct a good lease. Typically, both parties to the lease will have an attorney look it over, if not more actively participate in drafting it. Some leases can be complicated. Sections on maintenance, repairs and improvements need particular attention. Your lease should always have an exit provision for you. Often, it makes good sense to include a process for regular communication between you and the landowner. Meeting at the beginning and end of the farming season, walking the property together, and getting clear on what actions need prior written permission are advisable. Land for Good’s lease resources webpage has examples, templates, and other helpful materials.
Land For Good provides technical assistance, workshops, and other helpful resources for farm seekers: www.landforgood.org