Why I Don’t Farm Yet: John Depew

Lost John

The cabin is built intelligently, bermed halfway up the first floor on three sides, and wood heated. We cut our own wood in the state park, and I have no intention of ever heating any other way, just as I have no interest in living in any town or city, whatever size.

The reason why I do not yet farm is simple: Land. The price of land here has doubled in the last ten years, which I suppose is about the average across the nation. Farmland in this great Jeffersonian grid currently sells for around $2000/acre, which is great compared to almost anywhere else in the country, until you realize that essentially the smallest parcel you are likely to find for sale is 80 acres. Usually 160, a quarter section. The moment you are able to shoot or photograph a large whitetail buck on said land, count on the price going to $3000, since the rich non-resident hunters are eager to buy good wooded land and let it grow up into a huge brush heap so that they can be sure to shoot a deer the one weekend a year they’re in the county. For that matter, a pretty good chunk of the farmland in the county is owned by non-residents too, who in turn lease it to farmers who do live here. We all know why this is frustrating, no need to thresh it out here.

We are young, and we are working hard and saving money, and I have my eye on a piece of land about 5 miles down the road from the small town where my wife’s parents live, and where we both work. At home, the cabin, we have a small garden with all the typical garden vegetables (minus sweet corn, since I don’t feel like fighting the deer and raccoons), and in a couple of months, I will be planting a patch of barley to over-winter. I brew my own beer during the winter months so this crop will get used in 2012. We eat a lot of fish out of the lake, both of my own catching by trotline and fishing pole, and from our retired DWP fisheries biologist landlord, neighbor, and friend. He spends about 60% of his time hunting and fishing, the other 40% gardening, and frequently stops by with tomatoes, beans, and fish in the summer, berries in the fall, and Canada geese in the winter. We eat well.

My wife is the grand-daughter of one of the early Wheat geneticists, and she has worked at the company he founded for the past 9 years. We are both actively interested and involved in wheat breeding, and our goal is to start breeding heirloom wheat varieties, along with other types of vegetables for the hot, dry climate and our local soil conditions. We know of no organic vegetable breeders or seed companies in our area, and we feel that localized, adapted seed is a needed component of a good gardening community.

For now, though, we’re limited to about one city lot, with restrictions on livestock due to neighborhood covenants, so we do the best we can with what we have and try to thoroughly enjoy it while also looking ahead to land ownership and the opportunity to expand somewhat into what might truly be called ‘farming.’


Be creative, for there is land out there. Owning debt free may be a dream that you will reach near the end, But don’t wait. Find a farmer who is older and is looking for a way to pass on land and knowledge. Find a land trust who want’s someone farming land. I went on a pasture walk last week on an organic dairy farm. Couple got 100 acres with a 40 year note at 2%, land trust hold the land and the development rights. There is a way….

Even though we do have some land, I would like to make some arrangements with our neighbors to try to lease some of theirs…it is always about “creative thinking”! 🙂

It is good to do what one can in the present, and save toward one’s true vision. After years of renting an apartment in town. we currently rent on several acres, garden, hunt, fish, and raise: ducks, chickens, and rabbits. My family couldn’t be happier. I see it as a wonderful experiment in which to work out one’s ideas on a small scale. My family’s learning what works well and what’s best left to others. Sweet corn, is a good example. Why bother with a small patch? My neighbor down the road (who farms with horses, by the way) grows wonderful corn, and can sell it to us at a fair price. The wisdom the I gain from him while chatting over the transaction of a dozen ears is priceless. One could get bitter over land prices and do nothing, but why bother? There’s a plenty of happiness to be sown, and best of all it’s free.

Jan and Chiara both make a good point. And I’d like to add that I’m already in the process of working out an arrangement with my father-in-law to use the 10 acres around their house, which is currently planted to brome, but they’ve had trouble finding anyone interested in farming such a small acreage. Its not worth the time and cost for most larger scale guys to drive their tractors and balers or combines over there for such a little parcel. My plan is to grow both wheat and corn, which we will then grind and sell as local, organic wheat flour and cornmeal at farmers markets in the area. This way, we can get our feet wet with what small equipment we can afford, gain some experience, and work our way into the setup we envision for ourselves.
Katharine, buying land debt-free was our original goal too, but the longer I wait, the more trouble I’m having remembering what the difference is between renting and paying a mortgage. We love the place we rent and feel very lucky to have stumbled onto it, but paying rent just feels like throwing money away sometimes.

I don’t know how big your lot is, or how close your neighbors are, but get to know them. We fenced a ten acre pasture that belongs to one of our neighbors because he didn’t want the extra land to keep up. We keep cattle on it and keep it up, in return he doesn’t have to mow it anymore. Just a suggestion, keep your eyes open. You never know what might happen.

We’re happy to be merely “micro urban-homesteading”. On 1/4 acre you can raise a lot of food. It must be painful to have dreams of farming and need a lot of land. I respect the dream and truly wish you the best. At this point, with a few part-time jobs, cold frames and raised beds, hens and rabbits, it seems like more than I can manage the way I’d like to. Farming is big. All the best luck to you all! I will continue to support local farms for the food I can’t grow…but I don’t call myself a farmer. That, from my little 1/4 acre lot, looks really HARD…

I hear you! My husband and I are in the same boat. We’re saving hard, hoping to buy our land debt-free if we can. But that means resigning ourselves to the fact that we probably can’t afford to buy as much land as we originally hoped for, if we’re going to get started anytime soon. Around here, it’s possible to get smaller parcels, but then the price per acre ranges from $5000-10000 depending on the location. Sigh.

Depending on the local tax laws, leasing can be a good option.

Rich outsiders buy land on speculation that it will go up in value, and they want their current expense to be low. In British Columbia, they can get a 7/8ths property tax break if they lease their land out for agricultural purposes. It’s not uncommon to see sizeable parcels leased for $1/year, so the rich outsider can harvest the property tax savings.

I know, it’s not the same as owning, but it might be a low-cost way to get started while you’re waiting for the gentrification of farmland to crash. Who knows, the person who leases you the farmland might come begging for food one of these days…

Can’t say enough for renting landing to get started farming. Salatin talks about this in his books a lot. Not being able to own is not an obstacle, not farming is an obstacle.

The reason you aren’t farming yet is the same one that I’m not ranching full time yet. My problem is, however, that over the past 20 years, the time I’ve been desperately trying to get in full time, the price of land has gone up and up, due to remote land owners purchasing it, who have a lot of money, and egos that require them to sit around in big cities while pretending to be ranchers.

Frustrating. At age 48 now, it’s probably I’ll ever get there.

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