Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What Do You Do There? (The Farm as Hobby)

Now that you have a "farm," what do you really do with it?

I said before that we weren't really interested in becoming working farmers: we didn't really want to plow, plant, cultivate, harvest, and market fields of hay or beans or corn. We didn't want to commit ourselves to the constant demands of a commercial livestock operation (and don't be naive: five cows are nearly as much trouble as fifty, and much less profitable!).

The fact is, I am mostly interested in hunting on the place. Whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and bobwhite quail are the crops I really look forward to harvesting. I have reason to believe that they are already there, to some extent.

And with some management of the land, they should thrive. We will put in some sunflowers and millet to provide a little food and cover for the birds. We'll avoid thinning out the woods too much, and make sure the creeks and drainage areas have plenty of cover for shy deer. Starting in 2010, we'll start a rotation of controlled burning to improve the CRP grasslands for quail habitat. We'll shoot coyotes and bobcats that put pressure on the small game.

There should be plenty of room on the property for a nice big garden, without bothering the game. In fact, I'm a little worried that the game will eat the garden: we'll see! A very tall fence might be in our near future.

If we want to get more serious about things, there is room for up to 6 acres (!!) of garden area, which would keep us all busy most of the summer, and might supply vegetables, herbs, and flowers to sell at area farmers markets. There is a growing movement of "community supported agriculture" that encourages people to buy and consume local produce, and this tends to favor small, family operations more than large, industrial farms. It is entirely realistic to imagine a one- or two-acre garden that could produce a couple of thousand dollars a year

Across the road from the house is a long pasture, about 4.5 acres, along a ridgetop. It is sheltered on the North by the oaks and hickories of our woods. It has a nice southern exposure for full sun. It looks like a beautiful place to plant an orchard. Apples, pears, cherries, and maybe hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts -- wouldn't that be nice? With a small pump we can water them from the spring-fed pond to tide them over the hot dry spells of a Missouri summer. Most of the pruning and harvesting can be done during family work-weekends. There is probably room there for a couple of hundred trees. This sounds like the sort of thing that could quickly get out of hand.

If we have a big garden, and we start planting fruit trees, we're going to want some honey bees. In fact, given the global problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, and the tremendous importance of bees as pollinators for all kinds of plants (wild and domestic), I consider it our duty to the future of civilization to encourage a hive or two on the place. A good spot would be over at the east end of that area north of the road where I want to put the orchard; from there they can also pollinate the garden next to the house, without the bother of a swarm of bees right next to the house.

Somewhere in this plan there should be a patch of hops. Hops grow on bines (which are different from "vines" -- look it up!). The aromatic flowers are harvested in the fall and used for -- you guessed it! -- beer. It turns out there's also a sort of world-wide hops shortage, so growing our own makes sense, and might be a money-maker, too.

The worrying collapse of honey bee colonies, and the looming shortage of hops are two terrible signs of the fast-approaching collapse of Western Civilization as we know it. It's our duty to humanity, to our children's children's children, to cultivate a little pocket of these precious resources.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Farm as Family Project

We were looking for an investment that didn't depend on the vagaries of the stock market. One option, of course, is real estate. If you own land it never simply evaporates (unless it's in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans or something), so it's never worth nothing. Or so they say. Several of us in the family felt this way, and we'd been thinking about it (separately) for a while.

I also wanted a place to hunt. Hunting deer on public land in Missouri isn't bad, but it's inconsistent, and you always have the feeling that you're hunting the spot where somebody just got the big buck -- or worse, that some other (less careful) hunter will be shooting from the other side side of the thicket. Besides, landowners get a nice break on deer (and turkey) tags to hunt game on their own property!

Deer and turkey are the major game in northern Missouri, but with proper land management the area is good for quail, too. Even ring-necked pheasant can be encouraged (though for those big birds, the closer to Iowa the better!).

My in-laws needed a place to retire. The ideal spot would be closer to their children and grandchildren (but not right in anybody's lap, perhaps). They would be more comfortable in the countryside than in a city. The house needed to be decent, but not that large; one story, big garage, cheap to heat, modern kitchen. It had to have a good spot for a garden.

Since "retirement" was part of the plan, it meant that we didn't want a real, working farm with all the maintenance and chores and daily hard work implied by the term! We didn't really want to get into the farming business of planting and harvesting crops or caring for livestock. Ideally we wanted a place that would basically pay for itself (or at least cover the taxes) with little or no work on our part. Finding a place with most of the acreage enrolled in the CRP program (more on that another time!) fit the bill very well.

In the back of our minds was the future option of putting another cabin or two on the place, so more of us could stay there and not be in each other's hair too much. And that meant it couldn't be too small a farm; we wound up with 100 acres, split by a paved road, with two or three potential building scattered around.

In all there were seven of us interested in pooling our resources to buy together. Combining our assets meant that we could get a bigger, nicer place than any of us could afford alone. But it also complicated the arrangements a bit, especially since the amounts we could invest were equal. After doing some reading on various options (incorporation, joint ownership, etc.), we decided to form a "limited liability company" (LLC). It cost us a few hundred bucks (using LegalZoom.com) to put the paperwork together, but after that the paperwork and tax process is quite simple, and we don't need to worry about complicated estate law or probate tying the place up. Since we thought (and still think) that we might eventually own more than one property, we called the new company "Wind Hills Properties LLC" -- drop us a line!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Finding the Farm

Once we decided that we wanted to buy some farm real estate, the next question was how to find a place that would suit us. This is one place where the web came in handy. A couple of Google searches yielded several sites which seemed to specialize in the kind of property we were in the market for. But my favorite was United Country, where I could search nationally, regionally, by state, or browse listings through specific offices.

To be useful at all for hunting, I figured we would need an absolute minimum of 40 acres, so Ii limited the search to tracts larger than that. The price was tricky, since I wasn't sure where to start: setting our limit too low filtered all the good places out, while setting it too high showed me places that made my mouth water--but which were simply out of reach. So it rapidly became clear that we needed to figure out how much we could afford.

"Afford" is a rather elastic term in real estate, isn't it? It often means "how much can you borrow?" But in this case we made up our minds that we didn't want to borrow any money and have a mortgage on the place. so we had to figure out how much cash we could scrape together between us.

To spread the pain of this kind of purchase, and to put this all on a proper legal footing, we organized an LLC (maybe more about that another time!), and anybody in the family could invest in it and be part-owner. What each member was willing to invest gave us the total we had to work with, and I started searching the websites for properties in our price range, with (a) enough acres, (b) a live-able house, and good hunting prospects. Once I identified some properties, I contacted the agents, and spent some Saturdays riding around north-central Missouri looking at farms. And this place northwest of Macon stood out as the pick of the litter!