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Tips for Buying a Small Farm

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.

I miss this guy... (Guernsey calf)

I miss this guy... (Guernsey calf)

A Little Bit of History...

At the risk of this Hub turning into a detailed account of my life during my hiatus from Hubpages, I will attempt to summarize.

When I first joined this site, I was one of two managers of a small, mixed-livestock heritage farm in southeastern Pennsylvania. But it was not mine, and over the years this tiny seed of a detail began to grow exponentially into a major concern, until the work that I loved became sullied. By the spring of 2012, at the age of 24, I had settled my mind and steeled myself—I was going to buy my own farm.

A long series of events led me to the home of my grandfather, a very small town in Minnesota, far from the big cities of Minneapolis and Duluth, yet very near the Wisconsin border. I arrived in June of 2013, my pockets and bank accounts flush with money that I had worked jobs that I despised in order to earn. The unexpected death of my father, the man who raised me, further bolstered my net worth (although I absolutely cannot say I rejoiced in this fact).

The 2100-mile-move drained on my finances just enough to get me thinking... am I pursuing a wise path? Have I been so absorbed in splitting fence rails and so awed by the beauty of lambing season that my sense of reason has all but disintegrated?

Convinced that I couldn't have come all this way, both figuratively and literally, just to work in a recycling center and rent a house in town, I began tightening my belt yet again. With the help of my fiancé, farmer-mentor, and partner in crime, I settled my mind yet again and began shopping for a farm.

A small farm in Lancaster, PA

A small farm in Lancaster, PA

Why Buy a Small, Sustainable Farm?

If you're reading this article, I can assume that you sympathize with my reasoning to some extent, but just for fun, let's talk shop.

Independence is a hard-won state of being. It can be achieved by operating a farm that provides food for you and your family and enough income to pay your necessary bills.

Home-grown produce and meats are more than likely much healthier than food purchased in stores (I say "more than likely" because those who douse their gardens in herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers are kind of defeating themselves). People seem to be realizing more readily that highly processed foods and foods rich in sugar are just bad for our bodies.

Farming is a way of life, more so than any other job I know of. The daily chores provide one with much needed exercise, fresh air, and a well-founded sense of accomplishment.

I believe firmly in the psychological benefits of a sustainable existence, one that is not dependent upon another person or entity to go on existing. If you hate your job, go work for yourself. And speaking of psychological benefits, I can think of no better feeling than the one I get from watching my little seedlings mature into fruit-bearing plants, or seeing newborn lambs or pigs for the first time, or tending the same young orchard trees year after year until I finally get a handful of apples.

Farming isn't going to be for everyone, and I'm okay with that. After all, if everyone wanted to buy a farm, how could I ever afford to purchase one?

Map of US Showing Where "Factory Farms" Are Concentrated

Food for thought. It's hard for the little guy to compete with the big guy.

Food for thought. It's hard for the little guy to compete with the big guy.

Where to Shop for a Farm?

Now we get down to the good stuff!

Selecting a Location

Like purchasing any property, before you can buy a farm you've got to select a worthy and appropriate location to start shopping. Many factors can affect this decision.

How much money are you able to spend on a property? If you've got $100,000 cash and can mortgage another $400,000, then you're in much better shape than I am and will be able to shop in areas many people couldn't.

I am not a banker, nor do I claim to understand mortgages, but I will give this piece of advice: Visit your bank and ask for a preapproval letter. This will give you an idea of how much money you will be allowed to borrow for the purchase of a farm. And word to the wise—do not tell the bank that you are looking to buy a farm in order to earn money. I learned from personal experience that they simply do not want to hear that because, evidently, that is an entirely different type of loan with much higher interest rates.

So you just want some pet chickens and cows, got it?

Scroll to Continue

Now, once you've determined what you can spend, start looking in your area. If you don't find anything in your price range, you'll have to look elsewhere.

I ended up moving half-way across the country in order to buy a farm. In Pennsylvania, I would have been lucky to afford a small house on two acres. Out here in Minnesota, I'm in the process of closing the deal on a 5-bedroom farmhouse on 40 acres—and frankly, the agreed upon sales price is so cheap I am actually half-waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Another factor you may want to consider in looking for a farm is proximity to markets. If you're planning to produce certified organic farm products, you should probably stay within what you consider to be reasonable driving distance to a big city. And make sure the city nearest you supports local farmers and hosts farmers' markets, otherwise, you may have to start such an enterprise from scratch. Selling livestock at auction (rather than at retail to individuals) means that you won't make as much money per pound, but it's a good idea to know where the auctions are as a safety net. Also, starting off selling to auctions is probably safer than going directly to the farmers' market with 800 pounds of pork and no connections.

Finally, if you want to buy a farm badly enough, you'll do almost anything to get one. Relocating to a new town or state might require that you save up enough cash to get you through a few months of unemployment, but I can say that it will be well worth the effort. I am neither sorry nor ungrateful for every trip and slip in the path that led me here.

How to Select a Farm

Selecting the particular property that you want to buy will obviously depend a great deal upon what kind of farming you want to do.

If you've got it in your head that you will be a dairy farmer, it might behoove you to purchase a property that already has, at least, a barn with milking stalls and/or equipment at the ready. On the other hand, if you can purchase a place cheaply enough to hang on to a large portion of your cash reserve, you can always purchase used equipment later.

Those brave souls interested mainly in vegetable and/or fruit farming should be looking for property that has tillable land already available. Buying 20 acres of forest isn't necessarily a bad idea, but you'll be in for a long wait before you can have the land cleared and ready for planting anything other than shrubs.

But what if you can't find an ideal patch of land to match your exact wants? Well, there's always improvisation. For instance, my ideal farm (the one that existed only in my head) looked something like this: 30 acres of rolling pasture full of good clovers and timothy, 5 acres of hardwood forest, and 5 acres for gardens, orchards, and a house and barns to rest on.

This is not the property I am purchasing! Instead, I'm getting about 22 acres of hardwood forest and 18 acres of overgrown, undercultivated, scrubby and shrubby fields. And I couldn't be happier, because this layout has caused me to remember things that I had forgotten - like, that cattle love the woods, goats are excellent for clearing weeds and tough plants, and hogs do better in the forest than in the field.

My point is that it's important to look for the place you want, but remember that you can adapt the place you end up buying to meet your own needs—you may even find that what you wanted wasn't what was best.


What About a Farm House?

Houses aren't really my area of expertise, so I can only share my personal experience on the subject of the farmhouse.

I wanted a house that was at least large enough for a guest room and an office space, in addition to our bedroom. That being said, the right land at the right price would have had me settling for a one-bedroom cabin.

Ultimately, I'm getting a 114-year-old, five-bedroom nightmare. But I'll make it work, because it's what I do. Also, I hired an independent certified home inspector who didn't give me terrible news about the place in terms of structural damage, the roof, the well, the septic system, etc. Minor plumbing repairs? Remodeling bathrooms and the laundry room? Tearing down hideous wood paneling and installing sheetrock? I'm all over it.

Now that I've said that, I guess I should add a shout-out to reason: Give your potential new farmhouse the same consideration that you would in buying any home. You don't want all of your financial resources drained away from the farm and into the house.

However, if you are considering being a farmer for a living (or even as an awesome part-time job), I bet you can put up with a bit of discomfort, and I bet you're pretty handy (and smart) too. So be brave, because this is your only life on this earth, and no one ever laid on their deathbed and lamented a financial decision.

Which brings us to... do you really need a property with a house on it? Some people purchase just land, because they have living arrangements elsewhere. If this sounds like something you could do, it would be a great way to purchase a farm for even less money.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Rachel Koski Nielsen


Ashley Ferguson from Indiana/Chicagoland on February 15, 2016:

Enjoyed reading this hub. Wonderful advice for those shopping for new land. Keep hubbing, and have a nice day! :)

Cygnet Brown from Springfield, Missouri on January 20, 2016:

When my brother was looking to farm, rather than start out by buying land for his dairy farming, he rented property and bought the animals. There were plenty of farms that had old milking parlors in the part of PA where he lived that he was able to rent that as well.

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on March 23, 2015:

I'm glad you are hubbing again, Rachel. Your writing with passion about farming makes it an interesting topic even for a city dweller like me. I am the great-grandson of Minnesota farmers.

Virginiathefarmer from Jonestown, Pennsylvania on February 09, 2015:

Just read your cute article on buying a farm. It was very inspirational, and I am glad to see a young woman doing this. The article could have been written by me, however I am 59 and just now finally getting my little farm in Pennsylvania. I will keep up with your hubs to give me ideas. Also saw your hub on wood cutting, so very glad you don't take live trees! I too burn wood, but only take dead or down trees- wish everyone would do the same!

mecheshier on September 16, 2014:

Fabulous Hub! What an inspiration you are.. :-)

Pam Irie from Land of Aloha on August 26, 2014:

How courageous of you!!! At the same time, why the heck not? YAY You and going after dreams!

Caren White on August 02, 2014:

Oh, how I envy you! I would have loved to have lived on a sustainable farm when I was young. Perhaps when I retire in a few years (if I can ever afford to retire!), I'll buy a small house on a few acres and try growing my own food. Great hub. Voted up!

Brie Hoffman from Manhattan on July 19, 2014:

Thanks for the info..I guess the winters don't bother you either??

Also, regarding the ads, you can substitute amazon ads.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on July 19, 2014:

They don't?! Actually when I saw your comment I checked my earnings and sure enough, eBay hasn't paid me a penny since 2013! Fancy that. I won't delete the comment, that's good for other Hubbers to know as well ;)

Hay is the cost factor in the winter. Whereas in Pennsylvania we could get away with feeding hay for only 4 or 5 months, here in MN we're looking at 6 months of hay (or more, if the green-up comes late or we get an early October snowfall that sticks around). Last winter was particularly brutal.

The other side to that coin is that hay-making is a BIG DEAL up here. There's usually a surplus of hay in the summer, and that's the time to buy for winter. To compensate for the long haying season, hay is cheaper by the ton than in other areas. Also, land and homes are less expensive this far north, so my mortgage payment is almost absurdly low. It all comes out in the wash. As far as grain, I only give it to gestating or lactating animals or younglings that appear to be struggling without the extra energy.

Ideally I'd have more acreage, and would make my own hay. That's a goal we're working towards.

Thanks for reading and commenting, Brie!

Brie Hoffman from Manhattan on July 19, 2014:

Rachel: Wonderful article but I want to give you a heads up (and you can delete this afterwards if you want) but you should take your ebay ads off of your articles because they don't pay any thing anymore.

Oh, I did have a question. How is having a farm in such a cold climate? Don't you have to pay a lot for feed since you can't let them graze for such a long stretch?

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on June 09, 2014:

Great insights! Thanks for sharing!! ;-)

dappledesigns from In Limbo between New England and the Midwest on April 22, 2014:

Congrats! What an amazing adventure and I wish you the best of luck. Although I am not a 'farmer' I am a fellow east coast native that moved to the Midwest not that long ago and I have a small veggie garden to boot. So, with that being said - this was a really awesome read for me :)

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 15, 2014:

You're welcome! I'm not very familiar with sheepherding in Wyoming, to be honest with you. All I know is that their flocks are large and the grazing territories are expansive. I suppose it's possible that immigrant labor is used to care for the flocks. I know it happens in large-scale slaughterhouses and meat packing plants.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on February 12, 2014:


Thank you for the encouragement, and an excellent one at that. I will surely follow my heart. In worst case scenario, I can always ask for help from so many people who don't have jobs and will be glad to be paid for few hours during the day.

Btw, I have been reading Cat Urbigkit's 'Shepherd of the Coyote Rocks' and she mentions that her neighbouring transhumance herders in Wyoming have hired Nepalese to herd their sheep as immigrant cowboys. Have you heard about it this practice? This may be true for the west, not for us though. But that seems to be an economically feasible option for getting help.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

Suhail, thank you for reading and for the heartfelt comment. I was 25 when my father died last year and felt I was too young. I empathize with your sense of loss, the missed chances to care for him, the grandchildren who will never know him. It's a tragic thing, beyond reckoning.

I am so glad to read that you're planning on having a little farm. I believe that you can easily keep your current job and take care of sheep and chickens as well. I don't plan on quitting my current job until I know for sure that the farm's income will cover my necessary expenses. Chickens and sheep basically need direct care from you once a day, and they will adapt to your schedule - like, will you feed in the morning or later in the evening. If your job has benefits like paid time off, you can plan to schedule those days during lambing season so that you can be on the farm if you're needed. There's always a way!! I hope you'll follow your heart in this. We have one life, and you and I both know it could be tragically cut short - so we should go out there and get what we want!!

Best of luck :)

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

bdeguilio, nice to hear from you again! Thanks for reading and commenting, your comments are always a nice pick-me-up. And yes, now you know! haha

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

Availiasvision, thanks!! I'll be sure to keep tellin' it like it is ;)

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

btrbell, thanks for reading, voting, and commenting! I hope to be writing more on this very soon :)

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

bravewarrior, thanks for reading :) Your comment has really touched me and I'm not even sure how to properly thank you for it.

I'm amazed that after more than a year of basically being absent from this site, I still have people out there who are excited to hear from me! What a wonderful feeling. Thanks so much.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

Radcliff, so nice to hear from you!! And thanks for the condolences.

I'm glad you take time daily to think about having a small farm one day. In our minds these ideas take hold and one day we make them reality. Mini-cattle are a great idea, the Dexter breed especially. They have an impressive feed conversion ratio and are the best at ranging and grazing. You'd be amazed what you can do on only a few acres, and I hope you get there soon!

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

Donnah, thanks for the comment! It's good to hear stories of others who have done this sort of thing. It's the only way to live as far as I'm concerned. :) Take care!

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

LongTimeMother, good to hear from you, thanks for reading and commenting :) I am very lucky to have David, it's a wonder we found one another in this wide world.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

Phyllis, thank you! It's very exciting, and the house will come along in time. And you are right, the animals will be my best teachers in how to use the land.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 12, 2014:

Jackie, thanks for reading and commenting! That barn is beautiful indeed, unfortunately it sits on a property I decided not to buy due to the extremely deteriorated condition of the house ;) Should have just decided to move into the barn!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on February 11, 2014:

Hi Rachel,

I was wondering where have you disappeared. I am sorry to hear about your loss. When I lost my father, I was 23 and that still seems to be my biggest loss of life. He didn't give me a chance to take care of him and my children, born much later, to have a loving grandfather.

But it is good to read an awesome and a very informative article from you, and a very timely one for me. It seems while giving advice you were actually talking to me.

I have been planning to start a hobby farm with sheep and chicken withing next 3 years. But I am still not clear in my mind about how I am going to split time between my job and hobby farm. Ideally, I would like to keep my job and have a farmhouse with a barn and small acreage to support sheep and free run chicken during affordable seasons. I am not sure it is workable though.

Your article has important tips for me. Voted up!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on February 11, 2014:

Wow. First of all I've been wondering what happened to you. Well now we know. Good for you and congratulations. Dear I say that this country needs more young people like you.

I wish you the best on this endeavor. I suspect you'll be very successful. Welcome back.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on February 11, 2014:

Wow. First of all I've been wondering what happened to you. Well now we know. Good for you and congratulations. Dear I say that this country needs more young people like you.

I wish you the best on this endeavor. I suspect you'll be very successful. Welcome back.

Jennifer Arnett from California on February 09, 2014:

I love your conversational style of writing and was very entertained by your story. You are one brave gal! I can't wait to hear more about your farming adventures.

Randi Benlulu from Mesa, AZ on February 09, 2014:

Congratulations! Very cool! I am looking forward to reading more! Thank you! Up++

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on February 09, 2014:

Rachel, it's good to have you back. You are such an inspiration. You are proof that dreams come true with hard work, sacrifice and determination. You should be very proud of yourself! You have accomplished more in a couple of years than many people do in a lifetime.

I hope you do a follow-up on this once you close. I'd love to see your property and the 114 year old farmhouse.

You are truly a role model. Wow!

Liz Davis from Hudson, FL on February 09, 2014:

First off, I'm sorry to hear about your dad. It must make this whole transition bittersweet.

On another note: you're still my hero! This is awesome. I spend time every day thinking about what I want to do on my mini-farm when it becomes a reality. Like you mentioned earlier, steps toward self-sustainability is my goal. Some cows (I'm checking out the mini-cattle), chickens, pigs, and goats on a couple of acres of land with a small section for gardening and of course, fruit trees.

I'm looking forward to hearing more updates. But most of all, it's good to hear from you! You're amazing!

Donna Hilbrandt from Upstate New York on February 09, 2014:

Congratulations on realizing your dream! Your story reminds me of my sister. She and her husband bought a big piece of land (250 acres) and have been growing their farm year by year. It is a wonderful way of life. Good luck!

LongTimeMother from Australia on February 09, 2014:

How very exciting, Rachel. Your new home sounds ideal. I am very happy you have someone to share the dream and the hard work. Good luck to you both. :)

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on February 08, 2014:

Congratulations on getting your own farm. How exciting! The house sounds great. With a little work here and there, over time it should be quite lovely. You really know your farm animals and they will work in their own natural way to make the land work for you. This is so awesome.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on February 08, 2014:

I certainly envy you and shoot, I have just moved in the top of the barn! What a view!

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 08, 2014:

Thank you both :) It's good to be back!

Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on February 08, 2014:

It looks like you have about 30 years of good work ahead of you. Congratulations on taking that big step! I am sorry to hear about your Dad, but of course you know he would be proud of you.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 08, 2014:

Congratulations my young friend. I am happy and excited for you. Make it work!

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