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Farming long-distance: Does it work?

Twenty-five years ago, just 6% of Iowa's farmland was owned by someone living outside the state's borders. That's changed over the years; now, 1 in every 5 acres of working land in the state has absentee ownership.

That's also changing, according to a recent study. More farmers are taking on that land, taking ownership out of the hands of absentee landowners, a shift that's accompanied a spike in farmland values.

How to handle that farmland -- its cost, what's raised on it, the ways those crops are managed -- when it's a good distance from your own acres can be complex and difficult to nail down, especially if you're taking a direct role in its management, like Farm Business Talk visitor dantheman5544. He's farming full-time and has the chance to rent more land. The only problem is it's a ways away, and he's wondering if it will wind up being more trouble than it's worth, especially when he factors in things like the cost to move machinery to and from the new farm.

"Would it be worth all the additional travel time/stress/hassle for these additional acres if I farmed them myself?" he says. "Would I be better off custom-farming those acres?"


There are pros and cons of making such a commitment, farmers say. Logistics of raising a crop on acres 80 miles away from the home farm, like in dantheman5544's situation, can be difficult, especially when it involves machinery, getting it back and forth, and keeping it maintained, says Farm Business Talk veteran adviser Jim Meade / Iowa City.

"You can drive 80 miles in 1.5 hours, but it will take most of a day (and it's dangerous) to move equipment. Trucking it may involve oversize loads and other headaches," he says. "If you try to operate at both places, you may almost need a service truck or parts stockage for two lines of machinery. Plus fuel and lubes. Is the rental place secure, or would your gear be stolen or vandalized?"

One way to get around the logistics issue -- when it comes to moving machinery between farms a longer distance apart -- could be found in terms of what you plant and where you plant it. If you're a corn farmer, for example, try planting a shorter-season variety in one location and a longer-season one in the other. That way, if the two fields can develop on slightly different tracks, there may not be the concurrent need for the same equipment and machinery, creating a needed time window.

"It would, in my of thinking, be more manageable if you plant different varieties that spread out harvest, or stagger planting," says Farm Business Talk senior adviser Kay/NC, who says her family has raised hay on land a considerable distance from the farm's headquarters in the past. "Having the equipment at both ends is crucial. That many different pieces of machinery -- discbine, tedder, rake, baler, stack-liner -- and tractors enough for them to make three to five passes a season was not feasible."


Though these logistical issues can become major obstacles to operating farmland a sizable distance from your own farm, there are many reasons to take on acres like these, other farmers say. One of those reasons is that such a move can help manage crop risk.

"Hail, drought, flood -- just to name a few -- might strike one location and not the other," says Farm Business Talk adviser Shaggy98. "If you're physically able to farm these acres and possibly add to them in the future, I'd strongly consider it."

The future, as Shaggy98 mentions, is another benefit of spreading out your acres like in dantheman5544's situation. Gaining land in a new area farther from your home farm could help open doors for down the road.

"If you rent the 100 acres, will that possibly give you a chance to rent more in that area? It's kind of like getting your foot in the door in that area. I live about that distance from my farm. My parents still live there. It's a hassle, but I'm making it work for now," says Farm Business Talk senior contributor buckfarmer. "If ground came up for rent near my home, I've set 100 acres as my minimum. Like I said, trying to get my foot in the door in my neighborhood."

The custom option

While many say it's worth the effort, time, and money to grow this way, there's also the option to rent the land and have it custom-farmed. There are issues with this option, too, dantheman5544 says. "Not sure on the custom farming rate. Would you trust someone to custom farm rented land when you live 80 miles away?" he asks.

Trust is definitely an issue, but if you have a situation where that trust is present and proven, it can take away a lot of the logistical hurdles and still let you grow your land base in a new area, says Farm Business Talk senior contributor rswfarms.

"I have had the same custom operators for 20 years now. They do a great job, and I trust them completely. They send me emails a lot during the crop season to keep me aware of issues. I also go down there one to two times per month during the growing season," says rswfarms, who lives 160 miles away from the farmland he owns in Iowa. "Custom farming all my farmland has worked great for me, and it has the highest return on investment."

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