I’m trying to buy a farm in VA

For the last 2 years, I’ve been trying to buy a farm to plant a repository of fruits, nuts and fodder cultivars and I’m still looking. Because of the fact that I really need to find some land soon, I’m writing this blog post to put it out there. Why is this so hard? Here are my thoughts…

1.) Covid and Interest Rates: Many of the city and suburb people seem to be leaving for larger properties now that Covid has them working from home. Combined with low interest rates, these people are buying farms. Not only are they buying farms, but they are waiving inspections and bidding up the price- something I cannot do.

2.) FSA loans. I am completely self employed and though I have great credit and adequate demonstrable farm income to afford a decent mortgage, it’s not enough to get a conventional loan. They ultimately want someone with a W-2. Therefore, my only option is to get a loan through the Farm Service Agency (FSA), an agency within the USDA that exists to make loans to farmers because they know this is a problem. Though on paper this loan looks really sweet- up to 40 year mortgage, low interest, no down payment, it is proving to be a nightmare. Here’s why:

  • No pre-approvals. The government doesn’t pre-approve, and you must submit your application over and over again for each farm you have a signed contract to buy. Each time, they go over your business plan, your existing finances, the appraisal of the property, etc. Only, no contracts to buy have manifested themselves because I can’t get pre-approved. I cannot find any organizations working on the legislation around this.
  • 90 day minimum discover/financing period. In talking with FSA agents, this is the minimum time needed to process your loan application and give both you and the seller an answer.
  • County FSA offices. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency is decentralized and broken down into county offices all over. Because my search for land spans several counties, I’ve spoken with FSA loan offices in all of them and they range from being extremely helpful and open minded to down right ignorant and dismissive of my abilities and business plan. It doesn’t help my optimism when articles are also published about how women and minority farmers and ranchers receive disproportionately less credit than their white male counterparts through the FSA.
  • Business plans. I don’t grow corn and soy. I do, however, have a history of pigs and nursery products and growing/managing orchards. My last conversation with an agent revealed that I probably shouldn’t elaborate on the nursery or orchard part of my business plan because “we don’t understand those businesses” and, instead, should focus on hogs because those numbers are easier. This is incredibly frustrating. So, do I write a largely fake business plan?
  • You might not get the loan. It takes 45 days to find out if you and your business plan have been approved for the farm. Another 45 days to finance the property.

Having to go through the FSA has turned into one heartbreak after another. After an offer was rejected yesterday, my realtor called to tell me that it’s looking like my only hope is in finding someone who wants to sell but hasn’t listed their property yet. He’s talking with some of his realtor friends to see if they might know of anyone or anything coming up… but that’s what this loan has become. I’ve also written loads of blind letters to landowners asking if they might be interested in selling and the answer, if I get one, is always no. One lady kindly called me back to tell me that a man grows corn and beans on her land and all the land around her and says he’s got a long-term lease. Which is a whole other issue that I won’t get into in this essay, but lease bullying of older women landowners is a real thing.

Other questions you might be asking in your head:

  • Why not lease? I have a lease and it’s a good one. I trust my business partnership and feel confident in the lease’s longevity. It is, however, simply too small of a piece of land to hold all of the trees I am trying to save, evaluate and give jobs so they’ll stay around and be employed by others.

    What about a good lease on more land? It’s a dangerous proposition for me to operate my life’s work on other people’s land. I was interviewed this week by an ag non-profit and they asked me: “On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being strongest, 10 being least), how much do you identify as a farmer?” I had to answer that in my late 20s, I was a 1 (when I started this blog). That identity combined with non-ownership of my trees and lost access causes a deep and dark depression that I cannot describe and never want to face again. These days, I’m probably a 6 or a 7 simply because of a need for self-preservation. I have clarity and focus and more purpose than ever before and, yet, cannot take anymore risks with land tenure. The next steps have to happen on land that I own. And if that can’t be in the next 6 months, I am going to need to reevaluate everything that feels so solid, which is a crushing proposition.

    What about on non-profit land? Putting my work’s canvas in the hands of a board is terrifying to me. I’ve seen boards overturn. I’ve seen them bend to the loudest, most emphatic member. I’ve seen board deals worked behind the back of others on the board, eliminating group conversation. Having my livelihood and passion be in the future of a board would pump me with a never-ending sense of foreboding.

    You could put your trees on my property! I get this a lot and, respectfully, I am not interested. I know you are well-intentioned, but it’s spreading myself too thin. It’s not owning the trees. It’s the unknown.

How to move forward?

Well, it seems as if I need to find someone who wants to both sell me a farm and be sympathetic to the FSA loan process, or otherwise offer creative financing. I’m looking for the following:

  • I’m looking for around 30 acres of land with at least 50% in fields of well drained ag soil in zone 7a, 7b or 8a . But I’d take smaller if I could be on it by this winter.
  • Within a 150 mile radius of Southeastern VA (Hampton Roads, Middle Peninsula Northern Neck and inland) OR 20-ish minutes off any route between Northern VA and Southeastern VA.
  • I prefer a house on the property, but it’s not necessary. If no house, on-site electricity and a well with some outbuildings is strongly preferred. Again, at least 13-15 acres needs to be in fields and not forested.
  • I’m open to offering life estate if someone in advanced retirement wishes to remain in the house, but I need access to the land ASAP.
  • Old orchards (older than 1980) or former orchard land (pre-1980s) are not preferred due to likely lead-arsenate toxicity in the soil and this is a problem for livestock.
  • My budget honestly varies depending on the property. Just let me know what you’re willing to sell it for and I can crunch some numbers.
  • The business plan surrounds producing orchards, nursery space and some livestock. I’m willing to share it with seriously interested parties. I am not interested in business partners for this business plan.

    Know anyone who might be interested? I can’t post my personal contact information on here for security purposes, but please email fruitandfodder@gmail.com or submit a message through my website, www.fruitandfodder.com.

    I’m open to other suggestions as well, just get in contact with me





how did this young apple farmer get “landed”

In my opinion, the single most important question a burgeoning young farmer should ask a “landed” farmer is: How are you on this piece of land? Of course, you could get a smattering of witty answers to this but what you should pursue is a conversation about money. How are these farmers affording the land? For how much? Dig deep and be ruthless in order to get these answers because they are important for you to know. Some farmers may own, others may have a lease or they might be in a creative arrangement. Regardless, this sort of thing is really important to know because it allows you, the prospective farmer, to find a model that makes farming feasible for you.

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As a perennial farmer, I searched high and low for a model which could work for me and I found nothing. The few young people with orchards of their own were either occupying family land or were given/loaned money from a family member to help buy their farm. There were no young perennial farmers leasing land and after looking into this myself, I began to learn why.

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Unlike annual farmers, perennial farmers have a long lasting (sometimes life-long) relationship with their crops. When I was looking to lease land, I needed a 10-year lease at the absolute minimum in order to plant my trees, grow them, and then get a few harvests. Now, let’s see a show of hands from people willing to give a 20-something a 10+ year lease. Not. Many.

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Alright, so maybe I found someone willing to enter into a 10+ year lease with me. What if the landowner decided not to renew my lease after those 10 years? I’d be out 10 years of investment, sweat equity and would be without my apple business. A solution to this, I felt, was to own all of the improvements that I made to land, whether that be a tree rooted in the ground or a building. I had decided the mature value of an orchard for the trees and the work I put in was $15,000 dollars an acre. My thinking was that if I was kicked off the land, the owner or the next occupant would need to purchase my orchards because they would basically be purchasing a business. Who was willing to do this? No one. I guess its not a big surprise that no one jumped on this leasing strategy, but it is all I could think of for finding a way to get on land without buying it.

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Enter the “creative arrangement.” For the perennial farmer, this land option is truly about who you know and involves some mutual exchange of needs and wants between the two parties. For me, it started when I apprenticed for Foggy Ridge Cider, where I got to know the owners and considered them friends. A couple of years later, after hearing about my sob stories of getting kicked off an orchard and breaking up with my boyfriend, the owners decided to let me know that I was welcome back at Foggy Ridge.

Eliza Greenman- Foggy Ridge Orchards

 

Foggy RIdge Orchards- Spring

A rising perennial farmer may look at this and say: This doesn’t help me! Where in the hell am I going to find an arrangement like this? Well, to be honest with you…I turned down several creative arrangements with other people before I took this one. When you are passionate about your profession and put yourself and your needs out there, people answer. Who you are connected with also matters. A colleague of my boss recently expressed that he wished he could have found me before she did. Another colleague expressed wishing he could find someone willing to enter into the same arrangement. I’ve also been offered a 50-50 partnership with a landowning couple wishing to transition their farm over to apples from livestock. Maybe it’s just apples, I don’t know…but there is a need out there for young people to get into this profession. Especially in the light of this ever-growing hard cider boom. There aren’t enough apples in North America to supply the future needs of the apple markets.

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Young farmer organizations (aside from the Greenhorns, for whom I am a blogger), seem to gloss over the need for perennial farmers. I’d be willing to bet the average age of an apple farmer is far higher than the annual farmer. The need for us to enter into this realm is huge.

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Interested in joining my network? Do you find your perennial self really needing to get on a piece of land? Please get in contact with me because I feel your pain and can maybe help you troubleshoot. Trees@foggyridgecider.com.