For a variety of reasons I'm going to not mention the area that I'm looking in. I don't want to provide a road map for folks who would then compete with me, but I will describe the basic steps I take to find land to farm.
There's two parts to this search: finding land that will work for me, and reaching an agreement with the owner of that land that meets everyones needs.
What I look for are relatively level large areas, hopefully with other parcels around them that I might be able to farm as well. The bigger the better. If I can assemble 40 or 60 acres close together it means I have a shorter distance to travel when moving my equipment, and less moving means more working hours, which is good.
The first step is to just drive around looking. I'm looking for fields that are either fallow or show signs of neglect, or are used for very-low-value crops, which in this area is probably local grass hay. If they're growing something costly I'll tend to skip that acreage, at least initially.
|Click on the letter to get a bigger version|
I hand-write the addresses on the envelopes and stick a stamp on them by hand. Hand written letters get opened more than printed ones, and each one is signed as well, by hand. In this case I ended up sending out 12 letters.
In my area the landowners are being paid very little for the use of their land; i've talked to a few that have been convinced by the other farmers in their area that there is no market for leasing farmland,
and I'm happy to prove them wrong.
Most of the land around me that remains undeveloped is the least-attractive land to develop. That is, those areas that are subject to seasonal floods, in the flood plain of a river or stream, are wet for a portion of the year, or have some other reason that they haven't had a house built on them.
The Department of Ecology basically says that if your land is fallow for 5 year, and no tilling or crop production is done on it, and wetland plants and conditions arise, then it's wetland. And once they decide its wetland, it's wetland forever. There is no path back from wetland to farmland
So one basic service I'm providing for the landowner is that I'm protecting them from this unpaid conversion. If the land is deemed a wetland it's worth a heck of a lot less than it is as farmland.
Another basic service is that I'll typically work to improve the property by clearing vegetation and weeds that usually have grown up, to the fence lines if I can. This can be a large job on neglected acres, but I've got the equipment and experience to do a good job of it, and afterwards the land is available to the owner again. Sometimes I'll trade clearing a fence line for the use of the land behind the fence so the owner can build or repair a fence, or to make surveying easier, or improve sight lines from there house.
The final benefit that I offer the landowners is that I provide proof that a crop was produced, and my lease payment per-acre typically more than covers the property tax. If it doesn't I encourage the landowners to have their property declared open-space agriculture, which allows them to be taxed as agricultural land and can result in a reduction of the property tax bills of more than 90%. I'm not an attorney, and there are some drawbacks, but most landowners who own agricultural lands should be in the open space program in my opinion.
Once I've got an indication of interest I'll go and walk the property in February when conditions are usually at their wettest and muddiest, and I'll have the soil tested, and based on that I'll make a firm offer on the land. Some properties want year-to-year leases, others are good with multiyear.
If I can get multiyear it makes sense to do amendments to the soil (primarily lime, a natural rock soil amendment) and think about a crop rotation. if it's not in the cards, a single year crop of corn and talk to the owner again next year.
So I'm mailing out the letters monday January 30th and I'm optimistic that I'll be able to add the 40 to 60 acres to the area that I farm this year.