Want To Invest In Farmland? Here's How

The view from the other side of the pasture fence is a whole lot different than I thought it would be. We are coming into our 9th year as a small grower, we run the small local Farmers Market and have been the big dog, at any other market we would be small potatoes.
With an eye on Peak Oil we set up a market garden, no till organic, all hand labor, the way I thought we should grow food. From all outside views we look successful, and from all outside views we are, except we are not profitable. We have tried raising beef, broilers, veggies and now fruit, searching for that magic that turns a buck.
The garden has connected us to our community, we get invited to every party in town, we have friendships that are deeper than any I have previously found. Life is rich and I have watched every sunset and sunrise for the last 12 years. Daylight savings comes and goes around the rhythm of the farm.
We compete here with produce that comes out of Mexico and we try to do it by hand. Our friends and neighbors recognize quality and do pay a premium, and it is not enough to compensate.
So here is my worry going forward, land is out of reach for a young farmer, many I know are leasing. As big ag continues to get big or get out, we continue to lose nutrition in our food, we continue to grow in dead soil, we continue as a nation to become less and less healthy. There will be a time when local food is critical and the time to invest in the local farmer is right now.
The ranchers around me are dumping cattle into a down market, we just sold ours as well. This is a young persons business and it takes passion and conviction to make it happen. Most of the ranchers have day jobs to support their ranching habit. While I see youth coming in, I also see youth giving up, dreams are tough to live on.
Big ag is not sustainable in a peak oil world, so far ya just can’t run a tractor on sunshine, I see a food shortage in the works and it will take small farmers to save lives. Just a damned shame they can’t make a living now.
Plant a garden now, this takes time to learn.

My uncle was a dairy farmer. It was in his blood. He worked hard but never had anything to show for it. He never owned land and never had the wherewithal to buy any. Nevertheless he loved it. Eventually he had to take a job as a night watchman to feed his family of six, then farmed during the day. He and his wife took in troubled but affluent kids from the city as a sort of “country experience”. They learned discipline and hard work. Really hard work. Farming back in the fifties was much more laborious. But it was a benefit to the kids and really helped my aunt and uncle make ends meet. I often wonder what became of those rich kids. As a tenant farmer he was at the mercy of nature, the banks, the markets and the landlords. It’s a wonder he held out as long as he did.
I have a memory of him getting mad at the dept. of agriculture for wasting his tax money printing up signs reminding him not to trip over a milk pail. I think he felt it belittled his common sense. Many good memories. God rest his soul.

I have a vision but no way to make it happen, so I will throw it out into universe and maybe someone else can pick it up and run with it.
In my area Pulte a big builder makes DelWebb communities. They are 55+, small lots and have clubhouses, pools, planned activities (cooking classes, wine tasting, fitness) and of course an HOA fee to cover all that. You are buying into a active community of friends to do life with in retirement.
So why not the farm version. Stick 100 homes and townhouses on the edge of a farm. Get the HOA fee to help fund the farm, instead of wine and cheese parties have seed starting parties. Put up a farmers market with discounts to the residents.
Just a thought,
Kathy
 

I have read all of the comments. Most lament what has happened to farming in the past several decades. The decline of “family” farms to much larger “corporate” farms is the agricultural version of the labor versus capital shift that has happened in our industry over the same time period. Actually many of the larger farms are family farms, they just have taken over their neighbors farms. No amount of sorrow over the fate of the farm lifestyle will save it until the labor versus capital balance in restored in the rest of our nation.
Farming is hard work, especially on a small farm, and the monetary payoff is low. It is no surprise to me that most (if not all) of the commenters don’t sound as if they have made their living as farmers (which I define as receiving over half your income from farming). About the only people who can afford to farm on a micro or mini scale are those who have made their fortunes elsewhere, can afford to buy the land and equipment, and have the outside resources not to worry about the income they make from their farm. The average person in the US spends less than 5% of their income on food consumed at home which is the lowest percentage in the world so it is no wonder that so little money goes to small farmers who have the lowest sales.
So your choices are a) purchase your own “hobby” farm, b) join a local Coop farm (if there is one), c) support a local small time organic farm, d) support a farm through the previously mentioned Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT (probably a good cause but not such a good investment) or something similar, or e) work to shift the balance between labor and capital and hope to survive until then.

Right on Simon & Aliza! I couldn’t have said it better.
On the brighter side I had a restaurant for a while right across from a university. I hosted a group of Future Farmers Of America when they had a session at the Uni. These kids, I call them kids cause I’m old, stood out head and shoulders from the regular Uni kids. They would walk right up to you, look you square in the eye, introduce themselves and shake your hand. They were genuinely interested in all the info I had compiled on the economics of localization of food production. I even received about a dozen of thank you letters, not emails but handwritten letters.
The whole experience gave me great hope for the future of farming. The number 1 main road block for them is getting their own land without being buried in debt and “investors” is not the answer.
IMO this org deserves all the support we can give;
https://www.ffa.org/

Alot of people are discussing farming from a business perspective. But there is another perspective in which to view farming, one that is older and more proven. One that has not changed since the dawn of man; farming to feed ones self and one’s family.
This model, [ call it subsistence farming, homesteading, self reliance, etc ] still works. With just a large garden plot, some seeds, hand tools and some work a man might STILL feed his family…indefinitely if he is prudent about seed saving and soil management.
Cutting wood to burn in a wood stove will STILL heat your house, same as it did 200 years ago [ better maybe ]. A small flock of laying hens can be sustained on some corn, sunflower, and your family’s leftovers. If you put some time into candling, and incubating, [ or just get yourself a broody hen ], you might maintain a chicken and egg supply forever with very little inputs.
A good woodlot can pay your property taxes in timber, heat your home, provide game for your table and sugar for your flapjacks.
A good milking cow can provide milk, beef, cheese, butter, and whey for a pig or two. She eats grass, which most country homes in my neck of the woods have plenty of.
Can small farming work as a business? Absolutely, but as others mentioned it is tough. Having a spouse that brings home that extra pay check or having another source of income somewhere is always a good idea.
In my experience [ going on 12 years of farming 180 acres ], it can be done but Ive recently decided that it makes more sense to sell off the land and equipment to a bigger farm and settle into a smaller “homesteading model”. I plan to use farming to support my families needs and to reduce our dependency on money and the crumbling system. Im still farming but adopting what I consider to be a smarter model.

>>> This model, [ call it subsistence farming, homesteading, self reliance, etc ] still works. With just a large garden plot, some seeds, hand tools and some work a man might STILL feed his family…indefinitely if he is prudent about seed saving and soil management.
 
I’m not sure what model of farming I’m following.
But one thing, probably, that I will need - a chilled area the size of a normal bedroom, to store corn etc. in.
I planted the corn in a single row about 3 plants wide, running in a loop about 400 yards long.
I did that partially to create animal habitat.
I think I may need to clean my fridge, to create space.

Simon and Aliza,
Two points: first thank you for writing. I agree completely. I hope you write more.
Second, I think the larger point is that we have no reverence toward our Mother (Nature). Almost no one cares, or even knows about, soil health. We nurture almost nothing. We extract everything we can from the environment, fill it with toxins, and wonder why we and our kids are sick. We befoul a planet perfectly suited to our needs and dream of years long space travel to a different one as we worship the people advertising this ridiculous vision. We do not deserve to survive - at least in our current modern configuration.

I suspect this will catch me grief but tough luck. Since the inception of Peak Prosperity and even before when it was just Chris Martenson.com, when I started coming here 13 years ago, religion has been zero part of the site. Chris is a data driven, not belief driven information scout, which he has stated numerous times. I’m saddened and offended that someone would be castigated for an opinion here. If this site turns into bunch of religious or woke affirmations or citations, that will be the end of free speech on PP and it will have joined the rest of the United States in First Amendment ignorance.

I suspect this will catch me grief but tough luck. Since the inception of Peak Prosperity and even before when it was just Chris Martenson.com, when I started coming here 13 years ago, religion has been zero part of the site. Chris is a data driven, not belief driven information scout, which he has stated numerous times. I’m saddened and offended that someone would be castigated for an opinion here. If this site turns into bunch of religious or woke affirmations or citations, that will be the end of free speech on PP and it will have joined the rest of the United States in First Amendment ignorance.
I haven't been here nearly so long, but I found the referenced exchange shocking to be honest. Glad you spoke up and called it out.

I’m going to go against the 27 thumbs up (so far) and share a different perspective. I TOTALLY understand the human side. Don’t attach me on this. Let’s talk reality.

After passing through a succession of small towns, each established 150 or more years ago, a relationship suddenly became apparent to me. In the towns surrounded by pine trees, the historic churches were small, modest affairs, generally without steeples. The churches looked poor. But in the towns with maple trees, the churches were invariably grander, with large, ornate steeples attached. Small, modest churches in the poorer soil com-munities; large, ornate churches in the wealthier soil communities. All at once, the saying “dirt poor” took on new meaning to me. https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1002%2F9781119200918.ch9
Trying to eek out a farming existence in Maine (rank #43 in the US) on (probably) modest soils and poor climate and expecting a good outcome is not realistic. Understand the heart issue. I get it. I am surrounded by farmers and TOTALLY understand their pain. Farming is a tough business. If you go down this path you need to stack the odds in your favor. Start with great soils and abundant water. Great climate is the icing on the cake.

Nate thanks for your post, you are spot on in your assessment of the factors necessary for success in agriculture! The nuance is in the scale required to be successful in today’s hyper financialized world, where we have a complete mismatch of the power of labor vs access to capital (shout outs to all those posts above who referenced those issues). We have the same trouble in ag here as they do in Iowa, just on a different scale. This has allowed us to sneak below the radar for the last 40 years, but there is nowhere to hide from the voracious appetite of the Wall Street monster. They finally noticed us sitting alone up here next to Canada & saw we had something wonderful. Small, but very tasty.
I’ll try to write more and explain when I get done farm calls tonight, but as a placeholder in this super important conversation, I’d like to say that Maine Ag (and forestry) has been a poster child for why a singular focus on one crop or product can make people super rich when it’s good, but leaves no room for resilience. We keep learning that lesson here in Maine and then promptly forget it. Been that way for 200 years now.
Also, we see a bloody short term, but think the medium to long view of ag here is so bright, that our retirement money is almost all in farming here. Community investment as well… not doing things like this podcast referenced, but on a human scale, one farm at a time, hoping to set our future grandkids up to be able to help feed us and the nation on the other side of this Fourth Turning.
Gotta go annoy some cows, we’ll keep talking.
Thanks!

Precambrian beat me to it. :slight_smile:
Financialization is certainly one bane of small farms and homesteads. But I have to say that I spotted a lot of people saying it is “THE” reason for the disappearance of small, family owned farms and why it is so tough to make headway economically. And like Precambrian I immediately thought that there is more to the story.
When you speak of homesteading you are really, in large part, talking about replacing the existing labor that is used for large farms. And that means migrant and, yes, illegal labor pools where the pay is intentionally keep to a pittance. These folks are not paid what we would call a “living wage”. Our entire immigration system has been rearranged to suit the needs of big business. It works… record profits and near slave wages. And these policies that used to be confined to farming have now moved their way into the mainstream.
I’m not saying anyone is wrong, I am just saying that there is more to the story than just financialization. And to my mind none of it is pretty. It has been this way for a long time… I recommend you listen to “California Cotton Fields” by Merle Haggard from 1971 and written about a time decades before then.
Will

We have a hiccup in Suez, the USPS is a mess, I have a new lappy on order that HP says will need another 6 weeks. Potholes are everywhere. Our just in time system is fragile and prone to failure. As Chris says (I miss him too) We Are On Our Own.
To me this discussion is really not about why small farms have failed, but a discussion of the future. Slow food is resilient and creates healthy people.
Knowing that every calorie of American food takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce gives me the willies when Royal Dutch Shell calls peak oil.
Are we printing money to save conventional Ag? You bet! Just not sustainable. Life for small growers is hard, and we need them local going forward. Every form of farming is extractive, even organic, they all require inputs. Got phosphorus? We can grow our own nitrogen, phosphorus is a lot harder to come by. We have a colony of bats that give us some every year, but most of the phosphorus in the world is in Morocco.
To me the discussion is really what to do about it on a personal basis, we know there are hiccups happening, we know the mother of all hiccups is coming. Do you like food? Whatcha gunna do about it?
Post script: Our ditch has been down now for three days, a non resident neighbor sent a crew in to install a gate in the ditch to water his weekend hobby garden. Looks like they shut off our water, knocked a hole in the ditch and went home for the weekend. What now looks like a possible catastrophe for 35 newly planted peach trees, might just not have crossed our non resident owners mind. Farming is always interesting!

Ok, so, IMHO, you guys are 110% spot on Nate, PreCambrian, PenguinWill…
Couple things: Presentation at a cow vet conference (yeah we have those) discussing the shortage of young vets wanting to work on livestock (hint, they’re smarter now, and can do math). Canadian vet talking about a program in Western Canada back in the 70s maybe? They built vet clinics all across the northern parts, thinking that was why no one was rushing to raise cattle up there… the presenting vet showed pictures of the clinics 40 years later… mostly abandoned, none as functioning clinics. I think one was a home for toothless beavers. Then he put up a map of their locations, and an overlay of a soils map. Turns out the places where there are vet clinics are the places…where the soils support agriculture… weird, eh?
Also, here in Maine… you’re spot on. There is no viable ag in most of the state. We have commercial potatoes in my home county of Aroostook, up on the Canadian border, and two narrow bands of dairy down here in Central Maine, a small one west of Bangor (where we live) & the big one centered around Waterville. Big is relative of course; there are more cows on one farm in California than in our whole state… anyway, we from here know where it’s okay to farm, but every spring, we get a bunch of calls from folks from away, who’ve moved into Maine, bought a big cheap chunk of land somewhere in East Nowhere, decided they’re gonna set the world on fire with direct marketed, grass-fed, organic, free range, heritage, rare-breed mini-bison or something similar… and they have a problem. Well, they actually have a lot of problems, but the one they call us about is related to the health of their mini-bison. They spent a lot of money on this stud mini-bison, imported from Nebraska, and he’s down (can’t get up). On a Sunday, when I want to take my family to church, for the first time in weeks…they’re pissed because they’ve called “EVERY VET IN THE STATE” and no one called them back, except me, cause the difference between soft-hearted and soft-headed is very small. Three letters actually. The thing is most likely half-starved, lousey and wormy, but they don’t believe it because “They’ve done a lot of research and it’s milk fever, they just don’t have IV calcium at Tractor Supply so they need me to come…” And they can’t believe that there’s no vet service in the middle of nowhere, and where they’re from in Connecticut or wherever, there are vets EVERYWHERE. Yeah bub, 'cause there are people there with money to pay them, or because there are real farms there with farmers to mostly pay them. And there are a lot more people with a lot more money who care about mini-bison. Now you live in a place where no one farms because the soils are not the kind that support farming, ask Aliza’s Grandma who grew up in a family trying to farm in Washington County during The Depression, so there isn’t any farming there anymore… just rocks, pine trees, welfare recipients, and the occasional misguided outta-stater. That land is cheap for a reason. Follow Robie’s math on net income on his woodlot vs. his livestock, or read bushog’s post about passive woodlot ownership vs. “passive” farmland ownership. Or read Nate’s post about where to farm. Cheap land is cheap for a reason.
Anyway… yes. Bobby V farmed at the southern end of the little northern band of Maine dairy, on good soil, with great cattle, without immigrant labor, and got squeezed out for the same reasons that all the small to medium sized farms are getting done here and everywhere, and eventually, all the Maine dairy farms might be out of business… we can’t compete with “free” fossil water from the aquifers of the west, combined with 10 feet of topsoil (a million years of bison poop), combined with “cheap” immigrant labor, combined with $4 diesel that makes it “economic” to haul a product that’s 94% water from Indiana to Boston…
That’s not gonna fly with $10 diesel, or when the Ogalalla goes dry for real, or when all the “cheap immigrant” labor gets citizenship and can either go to work at the RV factory for $40 an hour or go on welfare, or when the 75% of Indiana’s topsoil that’s been smoked in the last 100 years goes to 95% of the topsoil gone… not saying we have the answers here in little ole Maine. We were the Hops Capital of the the colonies till we got a powdery mildew that put all the hops growers out of business in the 1700s… then we were the breadbasket of the northeast till the Erie Canal opened up the western NY wheat fields (the threshing machine was actually invented by two brothers from Winthrop, ME in the 1830s, look it up!), then we were the Apple exporting captital of America till the Winter of '34, then we were the Broiler/Brown egg capital of the world till the Oil Embargo, then we were the Sugar Beet capital of the universe till the USA got rid of the sugar tariffs in the 70’s… yeah. We’ve done a great job of betting all our chips on red & then watching the ball land on black. Then we double down and do it again…
So. My post wasn’t about deciding where it made sense to start a commercial farm in 2021, it was about putting your money where your mouth is. If resilience is what you truly belive in, then plant a garden, one that you can scale up to feed your neighbors. Or help out a small farmer by doing what VTGothic is doing, or at least say a prayer that there are a few small/medium/big farms left in your backyard as it all falls apart, because those folks are the ones who know what crops just might feed everyone who shows up from Portland or Bangor when they get hungry. And as we thought about it this past spring when we didn’t know what the Honey Badger Virus was gonna do to the world, we realized that with all of our own homestead preps… we didn’t have enough bullets.
So anyway. It’s all local. And if we can do something, anything, that will help make sure our neighbors are fed, we’re better off.
Guess that’s where we’re at.
Be well.
Plant a garden.
 

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The main thing I learned in digging deep into the economics of local food production has to do with scale as Simon says (I made a funny).
Small Farms can make some profit if they sell at what is called the Boutique level or as us older small farmers call it “dirty hippies growing food for rich yuppies”. At this level you can sell for top dollar and make money. If you want to get bigger you need to be careful not to get stuck at a level where your expenses and labor and everything is higher than your market for your product. The next “sweet spot” for profit comes at a quantum leap from Boutique up to regional distribution which can be a tough nut to crack. If a farmer finds it tough going I have often helped them to downscale and find their place in the Boutique market selling their product for a lot more and working less. DOn’t get me wrong, it is still the hardest work I have ever done but for me it is fulfilling.
Another hopeful note. The first 6 to 8 months of the lockdown everybody and I mean never before seen numbers of local people took the newly acquired (forced) free time to start gardening. All seed companies ran out then wholesalers ran out too.
What I and some others came to after the economics of localization study was that the best way, perhaps the only way to transition to better, more local food production is to tax big ag and subsidize small farming, growers, ranchers, and even gardeners. This has the immediate effect of making food more expensive until local production gets really going and is well subsidized so that needs to be addressed too. There is talk of universal income, well pay everyone to stay at home more and garden.
One last comment. No farmer worth his salt will put any seed in the ground unless and until he has a contract from someone guaranteeing purchase of that product. This is the essence of the largest protests in world history (which the western media doesn’t write about either) in India. In India the Government guarantees purchase of all food production and at a very good price. Current Gov is attempting to end that forcing farmers to seek out buyers on the open market where bidding drives down the price so low that farmers can’t make it.

“You say hippies man? Ain’t been no hippies 'round here for centuries man. You freeze dried or doing hard time?” Stitch Jones, The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla
Good post netlej, the point about hippies took me back in time a bit. :stuck_out_tongue: Sounds like you know whereof you speak.
Will

Taxing big ag sounds great. Maybe don’t even have to go that far, how about just not giving them the subsidies/welfare payments that they already get?

I’ve been lurking here for several years and have never commented before but feel like it now. First, I’d say that I agree with many of the commenters on this subject (Brushhog, Netlej, Penguin Will, Simon and Aliza), and can maybe add a bit to the discussion.
I’m a small scale (own 10 acres) farmer who makes his living by selling veg and fruit and growing and selling vegetable seeds. For me and many other farmers I know it is an awesome time to be farming. Because of the pandemic interest in everything local around food has blossomed and if you were able to pivot and supply your local community with food, and in my case seeds, business has never been better. And this is only going to continue as our world becomes smaller and communities become more self reliant.
Farming is a hard way to make a living, but it’s no harder than many other occupations. It can pay well if you’re smart about it. And you couldn’t pay me enough to work in a cubicle all day!

Hi Sal,
Good post, thanks for a positive story. Its absolutely true that farming can pay well if you’re smart (and lucky) about it, & our feeling is that its going to pay well in the future for the smart ones and those lucky enough to be in the right spot & still farming. Bloody in between though…
We saw the same thing here that you did with COVID last year: the little farms that were already direct marketing had their best year ever, & the commodity guys that could diversify a little into direct sales did well on that end. The straight up commodity farms would have taken it on the chin if it wasn’t for the CFAP welfare money though… & now that its dried up, we’re seeing the exodus accelerate. I hear that Vermont is down under 450 conventional farms shipping milk. Get big or get out, as the USDA told us. The widening gap between big ag and boutique farming makes for a donut hole that threatens to swallow a lot of the fragile infrastructure that still remains, at least here… maybe Iowa is very different, but I don’t see how they’d escape the consolidating forces any better than us up in little New England… Farms close to population can become Boutique farms & direct market & the big guys will get bigger to try & make it up on volume… but to my mind, that’s a race to the bottom.
The hard thing about re-localizing the food supply chain (at least here in rural Maine, maybe different other places!) isn’t the trouble of finding willing people to produce the food, its getting that farmer’s food onto people’s plates. Everyone who chooses to get food by spending Saturday morning at a Farmer’s Market is already doing so; those avenues for distribution are currently so saturated here that most markets are capped & have a waiting list of growers looking to get in, & the farmers already in the market are limited as to what products they can sell. Belfast doesn’t need another farm selling organic lamb in the fall or spinach in May. To address this, we’ve had a number of farmer-driven groups try to organize Food Hubs or small scale processing plants… they have all pretty much followed the same trajectory: suck up a bunch of grant money, open to great fanfare, operate at a loss for one or two seasons, then go teats-up, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Rinse, repeat, ad nauseam. Its kinda like pushing a string. It seems here as though the majority of people want their food to fill two needs: convenience and price… & healthfulness/local/etc comes in a distant third at best…for right now. I think expensive diesel & water may put different numbers in the price equation, but I’m afraid it may come in such a rush, that the remaining infrastructure won’t handle it. Just as you mentioned with the seed shortage last year (and this year too it appears) we’re seeing the cracks showing faster. The local USDA slaughterhouse called all regular farm customers this past fall & told them they needed all 2021 slaughter appointments made before Christmas 2020. Convenient, eh? No slack in the system, & a very unwieldy bureaucracy to try and modify. A small Jersey farm (boutique, not commodity) told me yesterday that the glass jars they pack their yogurt in went from $7.90 a case to $16… and there are no lids. Fragile infrastructure.
A small group of us got together here last year & put together a plan to increase Maine’s food resilience; the Dept of Ag was very receptive, as were all the commodity promotion and the small farmer groups. We had five parts to the plan, the keystone being a change in tax policy… which may or may not pass muster in the legislature… so we were told not to discuss that part publicly till it was ready to go up the flagpole… so anyway, if Netlej or anyone would like to see what we came up with, message me and I’ll email you a copy of our draft. As Chris has said before, we make changes through either pain or insight. There are enough insightful people here & in pockets around the world that one would hope we could chose that route, but every day that goes by with an accelerating charge down the path we’re currently on makes me feel its most likely gonna be the painful road.
Anyway, glad to see all the discussion on how we produce food.

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