Losing a Farm
by Dynah Geissal of Frenchtown, Montana
Twenty-one years I had my farm. I had never before lived anywhere more than a couple of years and so this was really the only home I had ever had. I moved in as a 27 year old woman, hardly more than a child. I didn’t know much about life, but I did know I wanted a more meaningful life than I had found in the city. The land became a part of me. It was my heart and soul. It was who I became and who I am. I told a friend that I had been there so long that I could no longer distinguish who I am from where I am. The land had taught me, nurtured me, formed me.
I raised all my children there and had looked forward to sharing my knowledge and memories of the land with the upcoming grandchild. I found a bright marble in the garden and left it thinking that one day we’d find it again, together. But I lost that farm this winter.
Thirty days the eviction notice said. How do you leave your entire life behind? How do you do it in 30 days? A friend said that he cried when he heard. He said he felt like he grew up there. Many people did. They went to other places and came back, sometimes years later and we were still there. Life went on as it always had with the animals, the crops, the food and the woodstoves.
But I didn’t own that farm. I’m a subsistence farmer – a pretty good one – and the food and the lifestyle are the best; but the money, well there’s never much of it. I reasoned that twenty-one years would surely be a bargaining point with the landlord. I begged, I pleaded, and yes, I even humiliated myself with the tears I had promised myself I would not let him see. But he would not relent. He wanted to do something else with the land, he said.
Realizing I could not win, I tried for a concession – time. A farm doesn’t run on a 30-day cycle, I explained. It’s not even seasonal. It’s a whole year at the very least. Seven hundred chicks had been ordered in December to arrive over the next ten months. Some were already in the brooder house. The new strawberry plants had already been put into the ground. They were intended to double that cash crop. Hundreds of herb plants that I had nurtured and coaxed since January were thriving in an upstairs room.
And the livestock. It would make much more sense to move after butchering season. Not when it’s almost spring. Not when the goats are about to kid, the rabbits are coming back to full production and the chickens are laying again.
“You’ll have to sell everything,” the landlord said. “Your animals are fat, they’ll bring a good price at the auction.” Selling my breeding stock? The animals that feed us and bring in most of our income? Lose the lines I’ve developed over twenty years’ time? Get real!
In desperation we sought a lawyer. We found that no one wants to take on a landlord-tenant case. At least not in Montana where the tenant has virtually no rights. Eventually we found one who, for over five hundred dollars played footsie with the landlord’s lawyer and got us an extension till August 31st.
By that time it was May 31st and had cost us dearly (as much as we paid for our truck).
And so this is the story of the search for affordable land and of moving a farm to bare land.
When we finally accepted the fact that we would have to leave our home, we half-heartedly began our search for a new one by reading the want ads for rental possibilities. We had decided that we needed to be within 20 miles of the small city near which we lived or our marketing would be severely impeded. We didn’t find a single farm to rent and even the so-called “country” places had modern houses and very little land to go with them. We realized our only option was to buy a place although we didn’t know where we would get the money.
At first I called about every ad that sounded even remotely suitable. I had no idea of land values and $60,000 sounded as accessible as $160,000. I learned quickly that some real estate people are eager to help folks who are unfamiliar with buying property. Others seemed to be rolling their eyes in disgust, their voices filled with condescension. Some even flat out told me that I would not find what I was looking for. Those people are not worth dealing with. If your area has an open listing as mine does, any agent can deal with you on any property.
I began to compile a list of requirements for my prospective property. They were: some trees, some grazing land, year round water, no close neighbors and no 20 acre ranchettes. We learned that any sort of cabin or other structure greatly increased the price so we decided bare land was our only choice. We also learned that “recreational property” really means it. Not only is such land usually quite remote but the land is too steep to be productive and the roads are not plowed. The low prices seduced us into looking at a few of these but we quickly learned to discard any ads that used those words. Another term to avoid is “investment property.” That means the land is pretty well worthless for any normal production but because of its proximity to valuable land, it will one day have value of its own. One such property was very low in price, very close to Missoula but had no water, no trees and no access.
We looked at land for $4,000 an acre high in the mountains where the road would not be plowed. It was on a 45 degree north slope. There were plenty of big, old trees and there was a creek but there was no building site and it was worthless for production.
We considered some property for $3,000 an acre. There were trees, it was fairly flat, there was sun and the road would be plowed, but there was no water and there were unacceptable covenants. That turned out to be the main drawback to any property that otherwise was somewhat suitable. Mainly they said, “No livestock except horses.” Clearly those were not meant for people like us trying to make a living from the land.
We got to know every area within 30 miles of Missoula. When we read an ad we knew the property or at least the vicinity without even looking at it. That saved time certainly but we were definitely running out of possibilities. Our income had become almost non-existent because we were spending all of our time driving around. Usually we carefully limit trips to town and here we were covering hundreds of miles a week.
In mountainous areas like western Montana there are relatively few areas for people to live and these are almost exclusively along rivers and creeks. Because of that a person can literally look everywhere. Just drive up each drainage until private property ends and that’s all there is. We had done that and had found some great old homesteads but nothing to buy or rent.
There were two drainages that we hadn’t tried because the only homesteads shown on the Forest Service maps were way the heck up there. The chances were small and the drive would be long. In desperation we tried one of them. Wow! It was beautiful land. A For Sale sign leaned against a fence. There were barns, pastures, old orchards. But the house had been replaced by a modern one and anyway it was no longer for sale.
I felt discouraged, yes, but also a little bit hopeful. It had been perfect in some ways. There was one more drainage to try. The map showed private property five miles above Forest Service and timber company land. Three miles up a dirt road is a horse ranch and then Forest Service. For the next five miles we followed a creek that seemed to be from a fairy tale. The road is very bad and the mountainsides are steep. We wondered who would have homesteaded up there but the map showed two near the top.
Then around eight miles up, the land opened into beautiful meadows. “This is it,” I said to my husband. “If I could live here I wouldn’t cry anymore for our old farm.” Unbelievably we saw a For Sale sign. It wasn’t possible to tell what was for sale. There was just a sign on a tree in the woods.
It was Saturday and there had been no listing in that day’s paper for the property. I could hardly wait for Sunday and then there it was. My heart sank as I read that it was 104,000 acres. I told my husband, “Somehow I’m going to get that land.” On Monday I called the real estate agent and he told me that the large acreage was farther up and that the land I had seen was only 40 acres.
There are two creeks running through the property and they are both full of trout. There are meadows and mountainsides and trees. There are bears, coyotes, elk, mule deer and mountain lions. I knew I had to have it. It had been badly logged and from that aspect it looked really terrible. Every place we looked at had been logged but nothing had looked this bad. We asked a friend who knows about such things if it would come back in our lifetime. He assured us it would and said that the rawness would be gone in a year.
There is no power, no phone and no possibility of them for at least ten years. The price was $54,000 but the seller came down to $50,000. I told the real estate person that we wanted it and we signed a preliminary agreement. The agent seemed honest and reassuring. Not having any money at that point, I told him I needed some time and he agreed to give us two weeks. He said other people were very interested and that turned out to be true.
A friend in Idaho had said she planned to buy land around here and would consider going in on a piece of property with us. Would she love this place as I did? She drove up to see. No, too remote. A great uncle had said that he might want to live with us someday and that he would buy the land if we would build the house. Would he want to do it now? He flew up to see. No, but he would help with the down payment. My father-in-law had said he’d be sure we had our own farm someday. Would he do it now? No, but he also would help with the money down.
And friends-friends gave us money, friends loaned us money, friends who were appalled at the shabby treatment we received from the landlord, his lawyer and the courts. A news reporter with soul did a story on us and put it on the front page of the Sunday paper. It told of how people like us – sort of from the last century – have no place to go with land values so out of control. He called our old farm the last best place.
Friends made up raffle tickets for a Thanksgiving turkey and other prizes and sold them to benefit Mill Creek Farm. They held a rummage sale to help us too. An acquaintance said many people wanted to help because we were doing what they only dreamed of – bare land, off the grid, everything from scratch.
And so we got the down payment together – $10,000. The seller agreed to let us make payments quarterly, a good thing because every cent is going into building right now. The first payment in November! I don’t know yet where it will come from. But we have our land.
Begin your land search with a list. It should include such things as:
- Amount of land required;
- Where you want your land located;
- What kind of land you want-farm, wooded, flat, mountainous, etc.;
- How much money you can spend;
- Do you require services such as power or phone.
Knowing these basic requirements will help you eliminate most of what’s on the market.
In remote areas you will need to consider access during the winter and during wet times. Find out if the road is plowed or if other people use it year round. Is there a logging road or some such that can be used as a driveway? How much land clearing needs to be done and can you do it yourself? A piece of property may have an attractive price but if you can’t get to it or if you have to hire heavy equipment, it may not be a good deal after all.
When you find land that you are interested in, investigate the following aspects:
Water – Occasionally you will find land with springs or even a creek with potable water. Most often it will be necessary to dig or drill a well. If you are knowledgeable about plants you can look for ones that are water loving to get some indication of where to dig. Or you can find someone who is a water witch. Whatever you do, don’t just assume you will find water. A piece of property with no water is virtually worthless.
Drainage – In most places a building permit will not be given unless the land passes a perc test. It assures that water will drain readily but will not run off too quickly. That’s important for you to know even if you don’t plan to have a septic system.
Soil – What kind? Is it solid enough to use piers as a foundation? Are there huge rocks that would require blasting in order to dig a foundation.
Building sites – Look for fairly level ground, not too close to a creek and where there is good drainage. Be sure the site is accessible in all weather. Learn to read plants. In my area kinnick-kinnick means the land is dry enough, beargrass means an area of heavy snow.
Exposure – In Western Montana a southern exposure is mandatory. The days are so short in winter and the winters so cold that I wouldn’t consider anything else. In a hot area you probably would want to shield yourself from too much sun. Consider the wind too. A mountaintop may have a beautiful view but the amount of wind excludes it as a building site. In snow country look for areas that tell you there will be heavy snow accumulation and avoid building there too.
When you find land that satisfies the above criteria it will be time to look into the “dry stuff.”
Title search. Where I live anyone can go into the Surveyor’s Office and do their own research. In a more populated area that may not be practical. If land has been bought and sold hundreds of times it can become very complicated. At this time you should also research mineral rights and water rights on the land. Know exactly what you are getting.
Survey. Land should always be surveyed before any papers are signed. Legal descriptions are not always accurate – at the very least put a contingency into the contract that the land is yours only if it turns out to be what you think it is.
Zoning and Covenants. It is very important that you know exactly what is allowed on your land. Read the information thoroughly.
Easements. Find out who has access to your property and where. Generally it is for power or phone or perhaps a pipeline and is usually within thirty feet of a road or property line. Occasionally it’s a neighbor without access to her property except through yours.
Regulations. Laws and codes regulate where you can build. Learn these as they apply to your land to avoid real headaches later on. They include such things as the distance required from a creek and what permits you need. For example, a permit to build an outhouse may be free if you get it before you build, but $75.00 if you build first.
Financing. In most cases you will pay 20 percent down. If you borrow from a bank you may need 30 percent down on bare land. My land is owner financed. The seller does not want the land back and stressed that if we have trouble to talk to him about it. I like that. As far as I’m concerned, set interest rates are the only way to go. You need to know what your payments will be. It’s not something you want to gamble with.
That about covers the basics of what you need to know to start your land search. Good luck!