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Farmland searching is like dating...

I've only recently begun to post our own ads for farmland. Until now, it's been easier to browse the classifieds and reply to select land owners who look promising. It's partly from needing to figure out exactly what we're looking for and partly from being more in "research" mode to see who is out there. It's a pretty wide mix.

If you want to pursue a traditional buyer-seller relationship, there are plenty of real estate brokers offering that. And, with the growth of massive rural real estate databases, it's easy to browse across state lines and even specify acreage, amenities, and price. Even some of the land-link style classifieds have this type of seller...usually someone with an ill, older owner or someone trying to quickly leave the business for personal or family reasons. They want to cash out. But this method is short on negotiation options and pretty low on details if you're interested in knowing the environmental or agricultural history of the property. Traditional real estate is unlikely to provide a history of the well water performance upfront though you do occasionally run across well-written real estate ads with aerial maps and soil sampling data. These tend to be trying to maximize selling price, however. And they lean towards larger farms.

Another option that has some appeal but also some drawbacks is investment companies. These are, essentially, pools of investors in a purchasing company who then buys land for farmers. Sometimes they buy land without a farmer in mind. Other times they buy for you only after you've passed their application process. Sometimes they'll even build a house, barn, or do other improvements--or give you the financial means to. But these companies are mostly seeking longterm rental partners. They tilt heavily towards experienced farmers and they will probably want to see a business plan. I have mixed feelings on these because they preserve farmland, but they are definitely out to make money for investors. It's the capitalist, market-based cousin of genuine conservation organizations. The ag easements I've written about before--but with a twist. I don't write this type of company off, but I also doubt we'll find one who "gets" what we're planning to do. These pools of investors are used to dealing with farmers who want, say, 100 acres to do traditional corn, soybeans, or dairy. They're less set up to handle diversified, small, family farms who won't have the typical corn inputs/outputs spreadsheet to easily judge financial viability. A few are part of food incubators and are catching onto organic and humane methods for sustainability and factoring use into their assessment.

So far, I've had the most luck with a handful of open-ended land-links. Most states have them though a few operate on a (in my opinion wrongheaded and outdated) payment based system where land seekers pay a fee to gain access to a list of landowners. If a match is made, you often get the fee back. It can range from $10 to $50. The best, I find, are the ones with an easy, free registration and contact system for owners and land seekers to get into a dialogue.

In that case, I told one of the staff members of Practical Farmers of Iowa (who is planning to upgrade their land link feature) that it can be disheartening. There are so many (so many!) retiring farmers out there who want to pass their farmland on to the next generation, but the trick is finding them. I've spoken to quite a few and the really frustrating ones are where we're nearly, nearly a match. For whatever reason, it just doesn't make sense from either the owner or seeker standpoint and the search goes on for both of us.

But especially when it comes to the upcoming "crop" of new, young farmers who are fairly educated about everything from business entity formation to non-standard farm transfer options, they key is planning on both sides. Land owners need to start thinking about transition several years down the line. A family coming onto the land has a lot to think about, many lifestyle adjustments, and there will be a learning curve. But the same is true for the buyer renter...have in mind what you want. Are you taking over an existing farm operation and continuing it? Are you taking over the land and beginning your own business? There are different legal ramifications for each. Have you done your research on fencing suppliers if the property needs improvement? Do you have someone in mind to purchase livestock or seed from? Do you have a market in mind? Land owners and land seekers have to have a mutual willingness to take the time to visit an attorney comfortable with farm law to handle a longterm lease, new farm insurance, negotiations over what equipment stays, or a payment schedule for owner-financed sale. It's complicated. And waiting on ag loans, for instance, takes more time.

All this assumes the intended land use matches the property, the infrastructure upkeep satisfies land seeker needs, and blah blah blah. Throwing 3 photos of a farm up on a website saying "40 acres of tillable land with house" is the beginning of a long, long conversation. It's like sitting across the table from a date, having dinner, discussing music tastes, and then trying to decide if this is a marriage potential. It's going to take a lot more than that to sort the whole thing out. And, fortunately, everybody including the organizations facilitating all this are figuring out that there is plenty of room for improvement to make the discussion easier.

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