In addition to my role as the Navigator for the southern region of Illinois FarmLink, I also own and operate a vegetable farm in Carbondale – BeetRoot Farm. Having just gone through my own land access journey, I’m able to bring the land access lessons I’ve learned to land seekers and landowners that come to us for advice.
I purchased 14 acres of hayfield just a few miles south of downtown Carbondale in August of 2022. The property was being offered as “For Sale by Owner” (FSBO). This meant the whole purchase process was left to the seller and me, rather than real estate agents. The price was attractive on a per-acre basis. It has a beautiful ¾-acre pond and ample flat ground for growing vegetables. I fell in love quickly, though I tried to maintain an objective approach throughout the course of the purchase process. This land has turned out to have been a good choice, but no property is perfect. I have learned several lessons along the way that I hope others can apply to their own land access journeys.
Undeveloped Land: Attractive Price Tag, Often High Secondary Costs
Raw land usually has a more attractive price tag, but don’t forget about the costs of developing it into a farm! Building driveways, drilling wells, building housing and/or infrastructure can quickly add up to a sizable sum. It can sometimes be to your advantage to purchase a property with infrastructure already in place, even if the initial price is higher.
Consider Property Size Carefully
While I own 14 acres of old hayfield, I only have about three acres in vegetable production and related infrastructure. This means that the remainder of the property still has to be mowed and maintained. While I do plan to plant a small orchard and possibly raise some livestock, I currently have more land than I need for my business. Consider your land requirements carefully. Sometimes having size constraints can help you be more efficient and dialed in with the space that you do have, while having too much land can lead to inefficiencies.
The Benefits of Location
Being located only a few miles from town has proven to be very advantageous for my business. It has allowed me to attract employees, have CSA members pick up their produce at the farm, and reduce the time and costs associated with delivering produce to our wholesale accounts. While I sometimes wish I had purchased a more secluded property, the benefits of being close to town far outweigh the disadvantages.
Consider Leasing as an Initial (or Long Term) Land Access Strategy
I allowed two young beginning farmers to rent a couple of acres of my land in exchange for some labor. This allowed them to test the viability of their business venture with less skin in the game. Their business focused on growing melons, winter squash, and a few other crops. They have indicated to me that they have learned a lot from this venture – notably that they don’t think this area can support a business that only focuses on selling low-profit, long season crops locally. The farmers have realized they might need to pivot their business model to be successful. Luckily, they didn’t buy a bunch of land and infrastructure that they would be now stuck with. Consider leasing some land (you might even find a local farmer willing to give you a great deal) to test out local markets, your farming skills, and to save some of your available capital to invest in equipment and inputs instead of a down payment.
For Sale by Owner Could be a Good Option (or Not)
Having seen a “for sale” sign along the road over the course of a couple years, I eventually gave the owner, Dale, a call to learn about the property. After visiting the farm, talking to Dale, and doing my due diligence, we settled on a price and then worked together to “close” on the property, all without the help of real estate agents. While this worked well for us, since we came to trust each other and communicate forthrightly, not everyone has this experience. We have heard many stories over the years of FSBO turning into long ordeals, sometimes devolving into legal conflict. FSBO can be a great avenue to access land. I still enjoy a strong relationship with Dale, but each experience is different so it’s important to proceed with diligence and eyes wide open.
Hopefully these land access takeaways get your gears turning as you embark on your own search for farmland. I’m sure many of you are also using this winter to plan and to search for that right piece of land for your future farm. If you have questions about my land access experience, or land access in general, reach out to me or one of my coworkers and we would be happy to discuss your situation with you. Have a wonderful winter!
Illinois FarmLink Navigator