Small Farm


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Many years ago I rented a small farm at the edge of a rural community. I did this so that my wife would have space for her horses, and so that I had a quiet place to study and write on my four days off every week. The farm had three acres planted in mature walnuts, and two pastures of three acres each. The place came with an old diesel tractor fitted with a disc harrow, and part of the rental agreement included using the tractor to maintain fire lanes and to generally control weeds.

I did not intend to earn money on the place, although I sold a ton of walnuts every year, but I was interested in experimenting a bit. One pasture had been overgrazed, and was consequently overgrown with noxious star thistle. The other pasture had been neglected and unused for years, and was overgrown with a rich variety of weeds and grasses with very little star thistle. I was reminded of Louis Bromfield's method of soil restoration, which is to use the weeds to restore fertility. When I cut in the fire lanes, the difference in fertility was immediately apparent. The fallow pasture soil was rich with life and soft, while overgrazed soil was dead and hard. So I followed Bromfield's instruction. Every spring, just before the weeds set seeds, I used the disc harrow to knock them down and grind them into the top few inches of soil to decompose. Then I broadcast rye, let that grow over the summer, ground it down in the fall, and replanted. My labor amounted to two or three days per year. The dead pasture started coming back after three years.

No, I didn't buy the place, it wasn't for sale. It only served to prove a point, namely that marginal farm land can be restored easily and cheaply with the application of informed stewardship. I would like to pass on this information to younger people who are searching for a way to hedge their bets on the future, people who are most likely urban-born and educated in high-tech professions.

I cannot address the multitude of variables inherent in lifestyle preferences, professions, or physical locations, but to anybody who is interested, I can suggest specifics to be investigated. What one is looking for is ten to 20 acres of 'worn out' flatland that is zoned farming and that is not deed restricted to million dollar estates, preferably outside any city limits. I would look for something that has been destroyed by a 'horse ranch' that also comes with a decayed mobile home, a well, and a septic system. From such a wreck a young, healthy person can build a paradise.

Since I became sensitive to the idea I have seen eligible properties in many areas of the US , including the southeast, middle-west, and northwest. What I see is land gone to weeds, and an old doublewide mobile home surrounded by junk cars and household garbage. Nobody wants to buy a mess like that! Right? One five-acre parcel I saw went on the market at $35k, and sold for $13k. The buyers cleaned it up in a week, and then rebuilt the mobile from the inside where nobody could see it - no permits, no inspectors, no interference.

A buyer will never get a commercial mortgage on such distressed property, so the seller has to provide it, if they truly want to sell. Demand a fixed-rate for a fixed time with the least down-payment and an interest rate well below prevailing bank rates. You'll soon find out how badly the seller wants out. Just be sure the water is running before you sign.

I earned my living in health care. Three twelve -hour shifts per week paid my way. A person embarking on a rural experiment should have a regular day job. But can a small farm pay for itself?

Yes. Here a person has to do their homework. Search for high-priced crops, like items sold in heath-food stores, holistic medicine, and gourmet foods. Even ten acres in wine grapes will pay the mortgage. Hedgerows densely planted in fast growing trees can provide adequate firewood year after year with careful management.

If it's such a hot idea, why didn't I do it? Fair question. I grew up on a farm, and I acquired the notion that only large scale single-crop farming would pay off. That meant a huge investment in land, machinery, and chemicals. As one uncle put it, 'You go broke every year until the year you finally beat the odds and get rich.' That didn't inspire me. By the time I noticed that small vineyards were self-sustaining, I was too old to do the work. The idea of specialty crops was only recently introduced to me.

Please note that I'm not talking about a Victory Garden here, or at least not yet. I'm talking about a comfortable place to live in the country and a quiet restoration project with a fall-back business plan in mind. While I fully agree that gold is the best hedge against inflation, I think that fertile land is the ultimate hedge against social meltdown.

Look around. Rent a place. Try it out. I hired a young man once who did just that. He worked for the phone company. He skipped a step and bought a tractor, trailer, and implements in a package deal for $16k, new, bank financed, and he was earning more money clearing lots after work than he earned at work. He was looking for worn out property to buy. Smart guy.

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Robert Klassen's picture
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Robert Klassen retired from a career in respiratory therapy, and is the author five books, two of which describe a solution to political government.  Please visit his website.