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The Progressing Farmer Buys a Farm Part 3: How to Pick the Right Farm

In Part 1 of this series, Jenn Colby described her drive to farm, how hard she worked to make a go of it on a tight budget, the business plan that told her, don’t quit your day job and maybe get a better paying job so you can afford your farming dream, and how that led her to grad school AND 4 foundation ewes for the farm she dreamed of. In Part 2 she described how thinking about things in a new way helped her and her husband get together on the farm dream to move forward and how selling their old place and renting for a short time gave them flexibility and experiences they could use when looking for farm funding. Now she’s back with tips you can use to make sure you’re picking the farm that’s right for you.

Here’s the cover of the flyer Jenn and Chris put together. We’ll be sharing more on how to do something like this for our farm in future articles.

Eighteen months went by in our little rental house, and as spring approached we knew it was time to put that energy and attention into finding the farm.  We were healed and rested from the stresses of our old house, we were motivated; it was time to kick the momentum train in gear.  Slow Money Vermont was planning an entrepreneur presentation showcase for potential donors and lenders.  It felt like jumping off a cliff (the first of many, we would find), but we signed up. The presentation forced us to condense many ideas, and we assembled a handout articulating our dream in full color. While prepping for the Slow Money presentation, we decided to call a local realtor with an ear to the ground.

The realtor connected us with a person about to list his farm.  This farm was a good fit in many ways, and I spent close to a month writing a grazing plan, completing a full business plan, and getting lenders involved.  Ultimately, we decided to walk away due to the price, but the vision for what we really wanted was finally jelling.  One of the reasons we did not pursue this farm is because it was important to my husband that we buy a farm without overextending ourselves too much to do it.  It was a heartbreak for me (and I probably would have done almost anything to make it happen), but he was right.  We had hard-learned lessons from our old house, and we both wanted a better life than we’d had.

Back to the drawing board again. My husband was getting pretty frustrated as I nixed every property suggestion he made, until he finally forced me to LIST what I wanted in a farm.  Soon after, a land trust farm opportunity opened up.  It was a competitive proposal arrangement with a set selling price.  Each applicant would prepare a proposal, which would be evaluated and the “winner” would be chosen to move forward with their lenders and buy the farm.  I rewrote the business plan.  This property included a great location for barbecue and terrific grazing and barn infrastructure, but a terrible house.  We were excited, but it also felt a little too much like going back to our old house (did I mention it was ½ mile from our old house?) and we had come to love the village life.

We applied in late fall and heard…nothing.  Eventually I was able to determine that we were in the final group but not the primary choice (the farmers selling were dairy farmers and were understandably more disposed to selling to another dairy farmer).  The door was not closed, however, so we went into the holidays and my major annual work conference, planning to reengage when spring rolled around again.  The week after the conference in January I asked for a final yes or no.  I was told that the dairy farmer was chosen.  The door was closed.  Oddly, I was a little disappointed (again), but I had come to find faith in the fact that the farm still didn’t meet all the items on our list.  The right farm HAD to be out there. Each step brought us closer.  I know that now.

When Someone Invites You to Speak to the Rotary Club, Say Yes

One week after the conference, I was invited to do an Extension talk at the local Rotary.  Before starting, I spoke of our search for a farm and our desire and commitment to stay in our town.  Afterward, two separate people came up to talk with me about farm options they knew of (neither was listed for sale).  Two weeks later, we were sitting in our truck at the top of the Tilton farm, looking out at a beautiful view.  This was Home, we knew.  We just had to figure out how to buy it.

We needed two major things: a business plan for this property, and a farm loan.

I’ll talk a bit more about the farm loan process in the next installment, but here’s a bit more about the process I used to develop a grazing plan (or three of them):

I looked at the pros and cons of the property.
I mapped the soils, thought about the physical location of the farm as compared to services and opportunities.  I thought about the existing built and natural infrastructure. I looked at whether the farm was or could be conserved.  One of the farms had an incredible barn we investigated using for weddings and events.  Another had an excellent grazing system in place and an easy-access location for a barbecue stand. The Tilton farm has minimal building or fence infrastructure, but excellent water potential and is located only one mile from an Amtrak station at the end of a town-maintained road.  The question is never all pros or all cons; it’s more about how to use what’s there to create a plan that’s realistic and fits your life and goals.

As a livestock operation, we had to fit the land base, realistically.
For each scenario, I dug deep on the realistic productivity of the pastures. I used Web Soil Survey (and in Vermont we have a state Natural Resource Atlas) and county soil survey publications to identify high-medium-and-low quality pastures, edge areas and “hands off” areas, with predicted dry matter production estimates.  I built the number of livestock in my plan right from those numbers, and tried to be realistic about the improvements I expect over time (and not TOO optimistic).  I know the banker wants you to drop 60 dairy cows on a 60-acre farm to meet their cash flow projections, but the truth is that 30 dairy cows would fit that land base with lower overhead costs and a higher quality of farmer and ecological life (and in many cases, better cash flow too).

I focused on initial enterprises that fit the criteria of a) highest expertise, b) immediate cash flow, c) doable with our off-farm jobs, and d) allowed for some seasonal down time.
We had already been building a small flock of sheep that fit these criteria and increasing the flock was always part of the plan, but with the larger farm, I wrote in custom grazing and swine production as part of the plan. Our expectation is that only sheep and pigs would live with us year-round, and winter chores would be quite minimal to allow us to rest in the off season.

I wrote the business plan for the livestock enterprises first and considered other enterprises after I knew what the cash flow projections looked like.
We had always considered some type of agritourism, like on-farm dinners, weddings, special events, tours, etc.  After writing the livestock sections, it was extremely clear that the grazeable land base would never actually pay the mortgage, and lumber prices are frighteningly low.  The view and the proximity to town are real assets, though, so we included an AirBnB yurt in the mix.  Instant cash flow!

I tried to think about today, two years from now, and ten years later.
As described in the previous installment, I was thinking about the list of what we want.  It’s very tempting to let business plan numbers drive you…drive what you say you’ll do or overestimate what you or the land can accomplish.  I felt it was important to keep going back to that list of goals as a check and balance to verify that what was going into the plan would move us toward the things on that list.

I kept writing and writing, and ended up with a business plan more than 60 pages long.  Now to take it to the lenders. Here’s Part 4, where I describe how that worked out and some of the funding avenues we discovered.

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Jenn Colby
Jenn Colby
Jenn Colby has spent over 25 years helping livestock farmers find success and quality of life through non-profit, academic, Extension, and community roles. She writes, farms, consults, and hosts the Choosing to Farm podcast from her home base of Howling Wolf Farm in Vermont.

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