5 Ways to Turn Your Dream of Buying Farmland into Reality

Luke Best

Does the idea of buying your own farm sound like a fairytale? Here, five ways to realize your dream of working in the dirt, no down payment required.

The National Young Farmers Coalition surveyed 1,300 of its members to identify the most significant barriers to a career in agriculture. Among the most common answers? Lack of affordable land. Real estate prices—at least near lucrative markets for sustainably farmed produce and meat—continue to rise, while farming remains a high-risk, low-pay pursuit. So newbies have started to get creative. These five smart solutions allow you to turn the agrarian fantasy into real life—without depleting your bank account.

Renting

Plenty of people take the obvious route: securing a lease. Given the time required to build a business from the ground up, you’ll want one that lasts at least three years. Although that length might fit the bill for someone focusing on a crop that requires little investment (think microgreens in a hoop house), a long-term contract (decades or more) provides real security. Also worth a look: lease-to-own options. In any case, a good lease fairly divides rights and responsibilities, provides a clear mechanism for review, and includes an explicit exit strategy. Think outside the box when designing your agreement, and refer to Land For Good’s tutorial and the Sustainable Agricultural Land Tenure Initiative at Drake University in Iowa. Absolutely consult a lawyer.

Land Trusts

These nonprofits prevent market forces from driving farmland prices above their agricultural value, often through conservation easements. Then, they sell or lease that protected land to farmers for pennies on the dollar. The intervention makes the biggest impact in areas prone to developmental pressures (i.e., those near a city, where potential customers are plentiful). Learn more at youngfarmers.org/farmerlandtrustguide or locate a trust in your area at findalandtrust.org.

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Land Transfer

It’s no secret that American farmers are aging and that their children are largely uninterested in taking over. Transfer networks match retiring landowners with young farmers and help them navigate a transition of ownership. After a brief training period, sometimes involving a short-term lease, the novice purchases the operation at a low price and takes over. Yes, you’ll have to submit to some mentoring, but the opportunity to snag land on the cheap and learn directly from someone who has literally been there can prove a boon for beginners. The Center for Rural Affairs maintains a list of such programs.

Farm Incubators

Like ag training wheels, these organizations provide land (which participants rent for next to nothing) and guidance to hopefuls with at least three years of farm experience and a solid business plan. Selected applicants benefit from existing infrastructure, classes, markets, and more. If you think you’ve learned what you can from working for others but aren’t quite ready to call all the shots, check out the Farms Program at Vermont’s Intervale Center and the Farmer Incubator Program at The Land Connection in Illinois.

Farm Management

Salary. Health care. A retirement plan. There are real benefits to not being your own boss. Universities, nonprofits, community groups, even restaurants might hire a farmer to oversee their crops. While these positions allow for a certain degree of autonomy, the manager ultimately answers to someone else (often an institution or board of directors). Join the Tufts University Comfoodjobs listserv, which focuses on food-system employment; browse the listings on goodfoodjobs.com; or contact your local land trust for opportunities in the vicinity.

5 Ways to Turn Your Dream of Buying Farmland into Reality