Confessions of a Steward with Joel Salatin
With the average age of American farmers now at 60 years old, an unprecedented amount of farmland is becoming available, either for lease or purchase. Land grant universities that study the data universally agree that within the next 15 years, roughly half of all American farmland, buildings, and equipment will change hands.
Some will be sold in estate auctions. Much will be inherited by children who aren’t farmers. These children, many of them in their 50s, don’t want to sell but also don’t have a desire or skill level to keep it as a farm. Interestingly, this successional upheaval in agriculture appears to be intersecting with a period of extremely high interest rates and supply chain disruptions.
What all this volatility will do to land prices is anybody’s guess. The homestead tsunami is in full swing, with a lot of interest in rural properties as urban folks flee the city for the hills. This creates a heavy demand for rural property. Will interest rates outcompete the buyer’s pool, or will the difficulty of procuring loans make rural land prices drop? Who knows?
Meanwhile, people ask me, “How do I get started?” I can’t change the interest rates. Nothing is going to change the aging-out of these elderly farmers. Their children aren’t going to all of a sudden decide they want the farm. Energy costs and supply chain disruptions are an unknown. For people who want to get started farming now in this complex tangle of issues, here are things to think about.
Don’t Buy Land
If you’re going to buy, buy only the most minimal you think you need to grow your own food and establish a hub of operations. In most places, five acres is plenty. That’s enough for a corral, a training shed to get cows and pigs acclimated to electric fencing, a paddock or two for animals requiring extra care (sick or calving problems) and a place to have a retail store. That requires some parking, but not a lot.
Land ownership and land management are two completely different businesses. By deferring ownership, you hold onto your capital. The ideal is to buy your hub with cash so you can get into things debt-free. That may mean you need to live in an RV for a couple of years. You may need to keep working your off-farm job to accumulate some cash. A grub stake to establish the farm business without debt means you don’t have to earn as much income from the farm.
Jumping on the income earning treadmill causes you to make terrible decisions. Living on the edge of economic calamity puts undue pressure and stress on your thinking. A little wiggle room gives you time to contemplate; you can give your ideas incubation time. But when creditors hound you and bankruptcy stares you in the face, your decision-making capacity plummets.
“With farmland in such a limbo context right now, don’t become land rich and cash poor. Cash enables you to develop the farm quickly in strategic areas.”
An extremely small acreage enables you to develop mastery with small trials. A larger acreage tempts you to scale up faster than your skill level. The world is full of outfits that expanded beyond their mastery and collapsed as a result. My dad used to call this “overrunning your headlights.” A well-run micro-farm is the launch pad for something bigger. Having the capital to install water lines, build fencing and equipment sheds to create a smooth-running hub is far more essential than having a big acreage spread.
Once you’re comfortable at a small scale, then you can look around for additional acreage. Many people acquire land at no cost. Landowners often want someone to farm it simply to keep it in agricultural land use taxation. Leases reflect real time agricultural value rather than speculative market price value. If you double the income per acre, you can certainly beat other conventional farmers when you bid for land.
Your hub micro-farm offers any would-be landlord access to see what you have in mind. Some landlords pay good farmers to manage their property. With farmland in such a limbo context right now, don’t become land rich and cash poor. Cash enables you to develop the farm quickly in strategic areas. If your cash is all tied up in the land, when you decide to do something, you might be stymied due to lack of cash.
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Joel Salatin co-owns, with his family, Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm, and his farm services more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, and a farmers’ market with salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry, and forestry products. When he’s not on the road speaking, he’s at home on the farm, keeping the callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, mentoring young people, inspiring visitors, and promoting local, regenerative food and farming systems. Salatin has published 15 books, and he is the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, granddaddy catalyst for the grass farming movement. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm.