How they found a farm
After earning a master’s degree in engineering, Kate Edwards, Iowa City, Iowa, did an about-face on career choice and decided what she wanted most for her life’s work was farming. She’d come to love it while spending time with her farmer-grandparents as a kid. But she’d grown up thinking farming was out of reach. Encouragement from others pushed her toward her dream.
She started in 2010 by renting one acre to launch a community-supported agriculture (CSA) called Wild Woods Farm. Over time Edwards, now 34, changed farm sites twice, and today her owned, 16-acre farm is the largest CSA in Iowa, supplying vegetables to 250 families and employing six seasonal workers.
What she’s learned firsthand over the past decade is that beginning farmers looking to start their own operations face “a lot of obstacles.” Finding an affordable, accessible, and appropriately sized acreage tops the list. Helping both alternative and conventional prospective farmers overcome these obstacles is now the focus of her “off-farm” work as a Farmland Access Navigator for Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based organization supporting rural communities.
“We help beginning farmers find land that’s appropriately sized for the type of farm operation they envision,” says Edwards. “We help them figure out, too, if zoning or developmental regulations limit the land’s accessibility.” Financing is another realm Edwards helps beginners navigate.
High land prices often hamstring the beginners she works with. “The generational land wealth – it’s hard to get beyond that structure,” she says. “If we want the next generation of farmers to succeed, land owners have to make land accessible to beginners.
Rory and Lynette Van Wyk found that to be true when they finally purchased a 40-acre farm near Winterset, Iowa. After a long search for the right-sized farm, they found an attractive property listed on Practical Farmers of Iowa’s website, findafarmer.net. The site offers listings of beginning farmers looking for land and landowners with land for sale.
“We contacted the seller of the property and went to look at it,” says Rory Van Wyk. “We shared with him our vision of what we wanted to do with the farm, and that sealed the deal. He did have a cash offer from a local farmer looking to expand an existing operation. But in the end, the seller gave us the option to buy the farm.”
The landowner had grown up on the farm, says Van Wyk. His parents had built the house, and he had promised his father that he would sell it to a family who would turn the 40-acre property back into “a small working farm.”
The seller further lived up to his promise to his father by pricing the property affordably. “He had it listed below market value,” says Van Wyk. “He could have made a lot more money if he had gone through a realtor. But he wanted to be able to screen prospective buyers himself. Besides that, he wanted to find a family who would live in the house.”
The Van Wyks and their two school-age children did indeed move into the house, and they’re using the property to build a small, grass-fed meats business that will eventually supply meat to local customers looking for local sources of “healthy food and who want to support small farmers,” he says.
“Our first goal is to grow as much of our own food as possible,” says Van Wyk. “We run grass-fed beef, lamb, and feeder pigs on pasture. We also have pastured broilers and laying hens, along with a 4,000-square foot garden we share with other families.”
Like the Van Wyks, Margo and Andrew Hanson-Pierre found some flexibility in the selling landowner that helped them eventually secure their 20-acre CSA vegetable farm near Shafer, Minnesota. The couple bought the farm in 2018 after a six-month search.
“The farms we found for sale were either five acres or 120 acres; rarely were they 20 to 40 acres,” says Margo. “That was the size we were looking for since we only planned to cultivate about three acres of vegetables. We would often find farms that were the right size with decent soil but with a home in disrepair. Or, we would find a beautiful home on a wooded lot or on land that was very soggy and wouldn’t work as a vegetable farm.”
Their search finally led them to the farm they eventually purchased, naming it Clover Bee Farm. Forty-three shareholders make up their vegetable CSA.
Their financing of the farm through a low-interest USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Beginning Farmer’s Loan ended up requiring some flexibility on the part of the sellers. Fortunately, the couple had already built a relationship with the sellers, prompting them to support the young farmers.
“When we initially reached out to the sellers, we sent them our offer, along with an explanation of the FSA loan process,” says Andrew. We also sent them a heartfelt letter telling our farming story and what our hope for our future looked like. They fell in love with our mission and accepted our offer, understanding the loan process.”
But shortly before the couple completed their application, the property was appraised for $10,000 less than their offer to the sellers. “That meant we either had to come up with that $10,000 – which we didn’t have – or hope the sellers would accept $10,000 less than our original offer,” he says. “Thankfully, the sellers accepted the lower amount, and we were cleared to move forward with our loan application.”
Asked what insights he’d gained from the process of buying their farm that he would care to share with other land sellers, Margo had this to say: “By selling your property to a buyer who has a vision of living and farming there, you can know your farm is going into the hands of someone who cares as deeply for your farm as you do, and values what you’ve done over your life.”
Dale Nimrod, Decorah, Iowa, experienced that when in 2004 he and his siblings sold their parents’ farm near Stanton, Iowa. Their father had died at a young age, leaving his wife and children to care for the farm alone. Nimrod says his family’s tending of the farm was something of “a calling.”
But in time, his mother died, and he and his siblings built lives off the farm. When it was time to sell it, Nimrod had one goal: “I wanted to help my home community of Stanton,” he says. “We wanted to sell it to a young farmer who would be tied into the community.”
By asking local pastors, he found a young couple who was looking for a farm. To set a fair price for the property, Nimrod ignored market value. Instead, he asked the young farmers to draw up business plans to serve as a guide for setting a value for the farm based on the value of its production potential.
“Making it possible to transfer our farm to this caring family has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my life,” says Nimrod. “If we had simply sold the farm to the highest bidder, it never would have happened.”