Buying a Farm: Farmer’s Progress Chapter 9

I’m afraid I’m a terribly sexist person. Worse, I am sexist without remorse. When selecting candidates for the position of intimate lifetime companion I only interviewed women. But I did interview a lot of women and feel, ultimately, I made an excellent choice. The fact that I can’t imagine life with another woman is evidence that I didn’t marry Julie simply because she is female. Julie is my wife, not simply some lady who lives in the same house and acts as cook, cleaning lady and…um…exercise partner. I knew what I wanted when I was looking for her. When I found her I made a fool of myself trying to monopolize her attention (boy did I ever).


Henderson begins this chapter by saying there are a couple of four word phrases that will change your life. The first is “Will you marry me?” The second is, perhaps one day only, when you come to agreement on a farm and say, “I will take it.”

Henderson was making a little joke at the start of the chapter but his little joke is worthy of additional reflection. Buying a farm is a big deal and one should proceed with caution and move forward with purpose.

…if you have a definite long-term policy of progressive farming in mind, a farm is one of the cheapest things you can buy at the present time, either as a source of wealth, food, or future happiness. I once met the previous owner of our farm, and he said to me, ‘I would not have sold that farm for twice the money, had I known what could be done with it.’ I replied, ‘It would not be sold for twenty times the money we gave for it, in view of what has been done to it!’

There is little reason to buy land just for the sake of buying land. The work is too hard. The burden too great. It really is not for everybody. But if you have a vision, it is worth seeking out additional counsel. I don’t feel that Henderson says all there is to say about taking a farm so I’m calling in assistance from M. G. Kains. His book Five Acres and Independence is worth reading as well. Chapter 3 is titled Tried and True Ways to Fail.

Anybody can buy a farm; but that is not enough. The farm to buy is the one that fits the already formulated general plan – and no other! It must be positively favorable to the kind of crop or animal to be raised – berries, eggs, vegetables, or what not. To buy a place simply because it is “a farm” and then to attempt to find out what, if anything, it is good for, or to try to produce crops or animals experimentally until the right ones are discovered is a costly way to gain experience…

That one quote neatly summarizes the bulk of Henderson’s entire chapter. Begin with the end in mind. What is your vision? Lay it all out. What do you want to do? Because, really, any old scrap of land won’t do. Some places are a little more wet, a little more dry, a little more grass or a little more forest. What, in Salatin’s terms, is the unfair advantage you could leverage on this land. Rather than imposing your will on the landscape, how can you nestle in your little enterprise in such a way that you enhance the local ecology?

Just as I was picky about my wife (blonde, thin and tall were at the bottom of my list, btw) I was picky about my farm. My goodness Julie and I must have looked at every bit of land in Macoupin, Jersey, Greene and Madison counties that was for sale over a 3-year period. At one point we nearly purchased a 10-acre hill knowing we would have to tear the house down and start over. We moved to grandma’s house intending to keep our stuff here while we continued to look elsewhere. I remember grandma telling me that she was worried that none of her children or grandchildren even wanted the farm. Almost everyone else moved away. Before we knew it we transitioned from renting an acre with the house to owning 20 acres. Then to owning 60 acres, barns, buildings, bins…the works. Are we better off owning this mess than renting it?

Henderson has a lot to say on the notion of renting vs. buying.

If you rent you will pay away the value of the farm over the next twenty or thirty years and be no nearer owning it. If you buy, and the land is nationalized, you will be robbed of a greater part of your capital…and you will be reduced to the level of a tenant, but under an absentee landlord represented by officials, lacking the two inseparable virtues of the best type of private landowner – love of the land, and wisdom in dealing with it.

Later on he talks about looking at farms by talking to neighbors and finding out the history of the land. Was it recently owned or recently rented? How long were the tenants there? Tenants tend to strip resources thinking only of the short-term. They also tend to leave messes. Our pastures are filled with thorny trees, our barns are in disrepair and much of our infrastructure needs to be replaced because there hasn’t been a loving owner since grandpa died. Dad has enough to do on his farm, he can’t come over here to cut sprouts. Nobody was paying him to. No cousins showed up. The long line of tenants didn’t care. So here we are.

But we do know the history of the farm. I know who built which building and what the buildings were designed for. The loft in the horse barn used to be filled with timothy hay. I know when the barn was remodeled for milking. Grandpa always filled the barns with hay and the silo with corn silage. Every year. I know where the orchard used to be and its placement, in relation to the farm, makes a lot of sense. I garden where my grandma gardened. My great-grandfather successfully grew rocks. My grandfather successfully grew rocks. I need to break that pattern of soil loss…but I know the history of the farm.

Henderson is also concerned (rightly) about location suggesting you avoid buying land along a highway as anything portable is not safe.

We live in an age when there is no respect for property, and if you catch anyone the magistrates will probably weep over the poor fellow and put him on probation. It is hard having to sit up night after night in the weeks before Christmas to guard your turkeys because the local police tell you they cannot do anything about it. A farmer once told me he started to keep guard through fear that thieves might come, and ended by longing that they should, that he might at least have the satisfaction of shooting someone who had kept him out of bed so long.

But it’s not all about roads and rocks and dirt and buildings. It’s not all about location and rainfall patterns and utilities. Buying land is also about people. You will have neighbors. Henderson has a humorous quote on that topic.

One wise old farmer used to ask new neighbors where they came from, and what the people were like in that district. And if he was told they were very nice, or the opposite, he would say, ‘Ah, hes. You will find them just the same here.’

I am related to most of my neighbors in one way or another and somehow they are just like the neighbors I have had elsewhere. That’s neither good or bad, just a reflection of who I am…maybe, at times, a little too independent for my own good.

But Henderson wants you to talk to the neighbors even going as far as to give the example of a man who, when looking to buy a farm, walks the last four miles to the place and stops at every house along the way asking for directions and opinions of the place. Henderson suggests you look at the soil type and slope and includes some very insightful comments about each.

Not only am I terribly sexist, I am also, apparently, farmist. And that’s a very good thing. Just as Julie had to have more than a pulse to be my companion, not every scrap of land will meet your needs…your goals…your ideals. Look at a lot of land. Define your vision. Make sure the land you are committing to is not just suitable but also a good value.

Incidentally, if you intend to farm really well, and maintain a high output per acre and per person employed, the actual rent you pay is of little importance; it is certainly not worth arguing in terms of shillings per acre.

3 thoughts on “Buying a Farm: Farmer’s Progress Chapter 9

  1. Good thoughts. I keep thinking about moving out of the city to some acreage so as to expand our options, even at my advanced age. This chapter helps set some perimeters for that. Two of our children keep pushing a state on the east coast. They argue it is less expensive, the government is less invasive and it is as pretty if not prettier than CA.

  2. My parents bought Kain’s book back in the late ’60’s when they were actively looking for a farm to buy. It’s in my box of farm books, I’ll have to dig it out and skim through again.

    I get what you’re saying about finding the right land to fit your goals, but at the same time, isn’t it a bit like buying a car? You have a budget which will limit your selection…while a Range Rover might absolutely tick every box on your checklist, it’s not really an option for someone in the Dodge Caravan budget range. You end up buying something that ticks as many boxes as possible at a price you can manage.

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