ask-tom-pictureHi Tom,

I have been admiring and dreaming of taking courses at the Organic Growers School. What I am really looking for is a small farm, or acres of land. I have contacted realtors in different counties but no luck….. I thought maybe you can be of some help or offer guidance.

I want to be an organic farmer.

— Maria

Maria –

Your question is common among aspiring farmers in our area. Around Asheville the land prices are so high that it’s hard to find something affordable within a reasonable distance of town.

Each land search is unique but here are some thoughts that might help direct your search.

Refine the dream – The classic image is to own and work on 100 acres or so near an interesting town like Asheville with a ready market for your crop. That dream is increasingly difficult to achieve, so some fine tuning might make the dream more attainable. The OGS Spring School and fall Fair are great places to check out alternative approaches to farming. So is the Farm Tour coming up this weekend (Click here for details.)

Inherit land or use family land – If you are in line to inherit land some day, make clear to the current owners or operators that you want to farm. Great Aunt Millie may be thrilled to hear that you are interested in helping manage her place. More information on farm transition can be found through the North Carolina Farm Transition Network (www.ncftn.org)

Lease land – Compared to mortgage payments land lease prices are very low. Many acres of fertile land close to Asheville are underused or idle. County GIS maps sometimes allow us to overlay property ownership with soils maps. One of our largest organic growers found his land by sending post cards to everyone owning the soil type that he wanted within a few miles of his house. He found land to lease and has farmed it for over 20 years.

Buy less land – Out west, rain is so limited that hundreds of acres are needed to graze livestock but in WNC rainfall is more frequent and we can often get by with less. The amount of land needed varies with the crop as well. Managing three bays of greenhouse tomatoes (one tenth of an acre) is generally considered a full-time job and could gross enough for a reasonable living for one farmer. Livestock will require more acres. Early in our farm career we grossed $25,000 on one third of an acre. We own ten acres but intensively use about an acre.

Deciding on your crop will help decide how many acres you really need. Market farming often happens on 5 acres or less of actively used farmland.

Do I really want to farm? – Before anyone invests in land they should spend time working on a farm. It is hard work by anyone’s standards and a fair amount of stubbornness is needed in my view. Many successful growers started working on others farms, both learning and refining the dream. Are sheep still cute at midnight in February when you can’t find an escapee? Are tomatoes still beautiful when late blight arrives? There are many easier ways to make a living in a rural area. Farming is a great life but it’s not for everyone.

Check the OGS apprentice link as one place to find a farm to work on.

Keep your day job – Nearly all farm families have some source of off-farm income to help make ends meet financially. Early on, both Karen and I held full-time city jobs and farmed full time too. We still work off the farm a few hours a week but those full-time jobs helped us pay off the farm early. They also allowed us to buy equipment without a great deal of debt. When a hail storm took out our lettuce that was due to be harvested in 20 minutes, the day job was a big help while we recovered financially.

Find your spot somewhere else – When we moved here twenty plus years ago downtown Asheville was mostly boarded up and dying. Ten acres with a house, barn and outbuildings 20 minutes from city hall was less than $100,000. Maybe Old Fort will be like Asheville in 20 years. Maybe Newport or Erwin?

I hope this helps.

Good luck with your search.
— Tom

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Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.