Community Philosphy Blog and Library

The Greenhorns: “How Not To Buy A Farm”

We’re thrilled to finally have our hands on “Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers,” a new book by our friends, The Greenhorns. Editors (and fellow Greenhorns) Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, Zoë Bradbury and Paula Manalo have gathered up 50 compelling, funny, heartbreaking and hopeful stories from beginning farmers around the country. Each story gives the reader the opportunity to spend some time in a farmer’s boots, and each tale reveals an aspect of the challenges and triumphs new farmers face. These are great stories that can be passed along for the lessons they hold.

The following excerpt is from a story that is right up our alley. It illustrates perfectly the American farmer’s ingenuity, tenacity and disregard for the concept that something is “impossible”. Teresa and her partner, Packy, dreamed of owning their own land to farm, and had finally found the perfect property for them. They were ready to buy and started the process in what they thought was the “right” way. Turns out that the “right” way wasn’t going to work for a farmer. The excerpt picks up there:

I’d like to meet the farmer who can buy a piece of land, till it, prepare the soil, sow the seeds, grow the plants, harvest the crop, take the crop to market, sell it, deposit the cash in the bank, and write a check for the mortgage all in one month. In October. On the Oregon coast.

Hoping to talk to people who at least understood the physical realities of farming, we called the USDA Farm Service Agency about its small-farm loan program. The FSA agent we met with listened to our plans, then paid us the compliment of saying that it seemed like we actually had our act together. But she went on to be brutally honest about the FSA small-farm loan program and our chances of actually getting a loan to buy land for our farm. To her, a small farm was one growing four hundred acres of grass seed or running three hundred head of cattle. She told us that our proposed five or six acres of cultivated land growing mixed vegetable, fruit, and flower crops, and raising chickens with some off-farm income rounding out the economic edges fell into the USDA category of a “lifestyle farm.”

“We don’t normally make loans for lifestyle farms,” she told us politely.

“It’s a damn hard way of life, not a bloody lifestyle,” I muttered, annoyed, on the subdued drive home.

The seller of the farm we loved still wanted a crazy amount of money for it, and we had no loan options that would let us even begin negotiating, so she stopped talking to us and we sadly tried to accept that we were just never going to farm that land.

We spent the next six months scrambling, trying to come up with some way to keep farming on the Oregon coast. We had market customers calling us with land-for-sale referrals and offering to sign up for a CSA program before we even had a farm to grow the food. We explored many, many ideas: buy land with a group of people and start a nonprofit education farm; temporarily lease another piece of land; find a cheaper land option; renegotiate with our current landlords; borrow money privately. Each option was explored and each gradually disintegrated as we tried to cobble together a solution to keep our dying farm alive, all painfully in the midst of our best market season ever.

A grim day in June found us sitting at the kitchen table facing the bleak reality that we were going to have to quit farming. It was a painful moment for me. At forty-three years old I had finally found work I loved, work I was actually good at and that I cared passionately about. I could grow plants, I could feed people, and I could teach them how to grow plants and feed themselves. The support from our community for the farm we wanted to have was heartening to us, but it couldn’t get us the loan we needed. With deep resignation, we each made phone calls, went for interviews, and accepted “real jobs” with the understanding that we would start part time to allow us to finish out the current farmers’-market season, pay off bills, and put the farm into hibernation.

Farm or no farm, we needed to find a new place to live. While cruising around online to figure out what kind of house price we might be able afford with our new job income, we stumbled across a local real-estate company on whose home page under the heading NEW LISTINGS was that farm. The farm we loved. The farm we’d tried to buy for more than a year, the land we’d dreamed about and planned for and had finally, depressingly given up on some six months ago. Still for sale. Price reduced to something we could now maybe afford.

In a daze, we called a local bank and made an appointment to talk about a straight-up, super-normal home loan. We told our long story to the very nice broker, reassured him about our commitment to our regular-paycheck “real jobs,” described the down-payment fund we had waiting, and explained our plan for keeping the farm going part time to help with additional income to pay the mortgage.

“No farming,” he said sternly. “Quit the farming, right now. Only work the regular-paycheck real jobs. Then, maybe, we can make it work.”

So that’s what we did. The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land to move our farm to stuck in our craw, and was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written reassurance to the lenders (nervous about our worrisome “history of farming”) that although we had indeed spent five years running a “hobby farm,” we had seen the error of that life path, now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a “rural lifestyle.”

It wasn’t a legally binding document, and besides, I had my fingers crossed behind my back when I signed it. I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership, but it worked, and I’m not ashamed that that’s what we did. The shame I feel is for a country that makes it virtually impossible for hardworking beginning farmers — people who are willing to devote their lives to growing healthy food for their communities — to own land.

We’re still working off-farm to make ends meet, slowly building our soil, rebuilding our infrastructure, putting down roots, heading back to being farmers again. Challenges are still there every day, and they always will be. Some of them seem impossible in the moment.

“Do you really want to keep farming?” we ask each other.

And the answer is always, “Hell, yes.”

In 2003, Teresa Retzlaff and her partner, Packy Coleman, began farming on the north Oregon coast. Six years later they managed to purchase land near Astoria, and now live and farm on 46 North Farm in Olney, Oregon, where they’re building both their soil and a very big elk fence.

“Excerpted from Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement (c) Zoe Ida Bradbury, Severing von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.”

GIVEAWAY: To be entered into the drawing for a copy of the book, leave a comment telling us your story: What is a “how not to…” story from your farm, garden, kitchen or home? Tell us how you made “it” work by ignoring what others said was  ”impossible.” We’ll choose a winner on Monday May 29th.

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10 Responses to “The Greenhorns: “How Not To Buy A Farm””

  1. Wow! Great insight just in that little excerpt.

    Hmmm, a how not-to story.

    How not to get a potato harvest. Last year was probably our worst potato harvest yet. We actually harvested less than we planted. I think I had momentary amnesia. I planted the potato seeds too early. They came up during a freak heat wave then promptly froze to the ground with the next frost. Heavy rains, which I couldn’t control, rotted more of them. The ones that did make it through the frosts and rains were smothered by bindweed that we didn’t dig out prior to planting. Why didn’t we dig it out? Because we were lazy and didn’t rotate crops and just used the same bed for potatoes. I ALWAYS rotate crops but for some reason didn’t rotate potatoes. I’m hoping this year it’s better because we’ve done the exact opposite as we did last year.

  2. Oy, I hear ya! That is almost exactly what we’re experiencing now. We are looking at the USDA rural development loans, and seriously- you can’t have outbuildings! Even a detached garage is a red flag for them, and absolutely NO buildings that could- or have- been used for “farm income”. What a ridiculous concept! What are they trying to develop in these rural areas?! If I wanted a garden for myself and a garage, that garden shed could put us over the requirements. Let alone any actually useful buildings. It’s absurd.

  3. eggyknap Says:

    We moved a disused backwater of nowhere hoping to have a huge garden and some farm crops and maybe some livestock of some kind, holding down my full-time job for a while and resurrecting a century-old farmhouse, basing our dream on the idea that 1) my job meant we could do it without losing our shirts if it should all fail, and 2) with the house and land came an irrigation right, so we had water (we’re in central Utah, and having water is crucial). We have since done several of the things everyone told us not to do, like falling in love with a house and land and ignoring other options, or biting off more than we can chew (which is why the flock of poultry ate most of the garden before we could get it covered and them enclosed in tractors). But we love it anyway, we haven’t lost our shirts, and we’re learning.

  4. I don’t have a “how not to” story, partly because I’m ready to be a farmer yet, but mostly because I don’t believe there’s any such thing. I love history, not least because it’s full of lessons that doing things “the right way” is frequently the wrong way. It’s too bad more people don’t learn to be flexible, creative, and ingenious to accomplish their goals. Sometimes there is a right way, and something the right way is whatever works.

    I fell into gardening (I hesitate to call it farming in any sense of the word yet, because it’s an apartment garden that has no hope of feeding us, let alone anyone else) first as a hobby, then as a passion, now a pathway toward something a little bigger when we can afford to buy a place of our own. It may end up being a big cattle farm, it may end up only being a “hobby farm”, or it may be a little suburban house with huge herb and vegetable garden. Since I don’t know yet what I want to do with that past being able to feed myself, there is no wrong way for me to go at this point. There is no lesson not worth learning. There is no bad choice. There are only possibilities. And that’s satisfying.

  5. When we moved onto our current property (about an acre) we took the back half and made a garden. We did everything by hand, just shovels, rakes, and a wheelbarrow. So many hours of work, double-digging beds, putting in seeds and transplants…. but we {apparently} skipped the most important all mighty first step – Animal Proofing your garden! We lost 50 strawberry plants most of the tomatoes, a patch of sweet potatoes started with 30 slips, about half the zuchinni and summer squash, and all the melons. The only thing they wouldn’t touch was the okra (so thankful we went with a spiny variety!) So, there it is. We held back for a while after that; its just so disenchanting to put in to much work and have it gobbled up over night. Hope some others will take our experience to heart and safe guard their crops better than we did.

  6. How not to be a married and actually enjoy time with your spouse. How often I hear; ‘You need a date night.’, ‘How do you keep from wanting to kill each other?’, ‘You’re always together. Why?’

    Don’t get me wrong, my hubby can get on my nerves, but an hour or two on my own doing my own thing cures just about everything. We have a 500 acre farm on which we raise chickens, cattle and grow a fairly hefty garden at 9000 sq ft. We also have a remodeling business that keeps us busy working side by side. To top it off, we both work in a busy ER together.

    The ER is where it started, the rest came later. Since I met my husband, I’ve grown in more ways than I could possibly have fathomed. This city girl loves knowing where her food comes from, most especially what’s NOT in it. I can flip a house as well as any pro. And all of that is because my husband grew up on a farm and learned not to doubt that he could try anything at least once. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with that?

  7. My story started with the birth of my kids and the purchase of our first house. My family had always gardened, but I never had any interest. Somewhere along the way I got bit by the bug. Now I have a rather large garden, chickens, fruit trees and bushes and would give anything for more acreage. For now, I have to be content to do my suburban homesteading.

  8. Well here I go. I have not ever put this down on paper so forgive me it sounds as if I am rambling. I was given a vision from an old man when I was only 8. I would spend days in the sun and dirt with him. I would sit up in his lap on the 1956 Farmall 100 (purchased after the Hurricane in 1956 to clear the land and rebuild the barn that fell) and plow the one acre garden. We would talk of days gone by and I was captivated by the soil and stories. Oh did I mention that he was not a relative, he was 85 and his wife had passed some 40 years earlier. Just thought I would throw that out to say you can be friends with anyone any age. Shortly after that plowing season when I was 8 my family had to move to Florida and then N.C., but I had always longed for what had been lost, the friendship the bare feet in the warm earth, the feeling of being a part of what we have been called to do (work the soil and take dominion of the animals).

    Fast forward 5 years I am now 13 and the farmer passed away but before doing so he worked out so that my father could purchase the 55 acres that we called the farm but had always been called Elmhurst Farm. We rebuilt the 1774 farmhouse and lived, gardened, and raised some horses, but something was missing. I then grew older and got married moved to Chicago with my lovely wife and soul mate. We have since been blessed with 4 children and a successful property management business, but all the while longing for what had been lost. We attempted the USDA route some years back for a dairy farm but had no “farm experience” so no deal. We agreed that what we longed for would never come about.

    Well 2 years ago we re-established Elmhurst Farm in Norfolk MA when we were able to buy the original farmstead and 12 acres from my Mom and Dad. We are now living the dream, plowing with the Farmall, raising chickens, beef cows, and hogs, always loving every bit of it. The bureaucracy of all the regulations is unbelievable. I need a degree in politics in order to be a farmer. I still work full time and I am the husband of a farmer and love every minute of it. I could not live the dream of what had been lost had it not been for my helpmeet she has encouraged me all the way.

    So there it is – if it is in you it will come out in time. Be patient and follow the longing.

  9. Gillian Pryce Lewis Says:

    Well done you wonderful Axberg family – we love Elmhurst and feel very privileged to be part of your family. Love Gavin and Gillianxx

  10. Fi Baker Haven Farm Says:

    Just love reading this,we have a 15 acre little farm on Waiheke Island New Zealand,10 acres bush(forest) and 5 acres pasture,bad soil,but slowly after 8 years of selfdoubt i have given up my job and are going to farm full time.What i now have is confidence , open eyes and a give it a go,can do attitude,smiles Fi xx

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