Farm Search 101 – Online Tools

As M mentioned in his last post, we have stream-lined our property search with the use of a few good online tools.  When you have a 300 mile radius, the time commitment and the money spent traveling back and forth start to add up.

We set up several searches by locale on realtor.com and landwatch.com with the following search parameters:  a price cap, minimum number of acres and search within a 20 mile radius of that location.  We receive regular emails any time new listings meeting our criteria are added.  Aggie gets the emails and does the first cut.  Any that look interesting to him based on available pics and descriptions he forwards on to me.

My first and foremost concern is annual precipitation.  I grew up and spent most of my life before heading up to the Pacific Northwest in warm, sunny climes.  Too much rain makes me a very unhappy camper.  And not enough rain isn’t going to work very well for a farm, especially since getting water rights is virtually impossible these days.  Of course, water catchment is an option and definitely something we will use on the farm, but for a market garden, storage of the amount of water you would need can get cost and space prohibitive.  So I check precip levels first using IDcide for Washington (from there you can link to other states).  If it is higher than 60 inches, I take a pass right there and then.  Although 60 inches is still way too high for me, we are also taking into account projections for a 10 – 20% (plus or minus) change in rainfall due to climate change.  Anything under 30 inches is just cutting it too close if those projections pan out.  God help me if it turns out to be an increase in the wetter areas.

IDcide also provides high and low temperature averages so we can avoid the “snowed in all winter” locations.  Unfortunately, those are the ones with the best prices for land, but we are just not snow loving people.

If a property passes the rain test, I visit the listing agent’s site as realtor and landwatch don’t always have all of the details and pictures or even a complete address.  I’ve also found the mapping tools don’t always pinpoint the property.   From the pictures provided and the aerial maps, I can see if it is on a busy road, if there’s a woodlot, how far from town it is, how many neighbors are nearby, is it in the middle of a Big Ag area, etc…  If everything is still checking out, then I jump over to the most amazing tool of all – the USDA’s Web Soil Survey.  The Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) manages this site and provides a ton of valuable data on about 95% of all counties to date.

Although it has a bit of a learning curve (if you are not one to read directions) and can be infuriatingly slow, there is wealth of great information available to help evaluate a potential property before you jump in the car and head out.  I can determine what the soils are as well as what they are capable of producing, land classification ratings (i.e. prime farmland, farmland of statewide importance), what the first 80 inches of soils are made up of, the depth to the water table, how sloped the property is, and a whole helluva lot more.  You just need to get on the site and start poking around.  Try your current address and see what you can find out about your property.  There are hundreds of reports you can generate.  This tool has saved us a lot of time and money.  We have been able to rule out many unsuitable properties without having to drive a mile or spend a dime.

Soil Map

If the WSS search results look promising, and the property is raw land requiring us to drill a well, I go to the Washington Department of Ecology website and search well logs in the area.  If everyone in the surrounding area is drilling down 1000 feet to hit water, we are going to hesitate.  At roughly $35  a foot (not counting the “just for showing up to drill” fee, the permit fee, the pump, etc…), that can get a little spendy!

So if we have a manageable amount of rainfall, no severe winter conditions, workable soils, no major chemical companies or prisons as neighbors, and the potential for a decent well, then I move on to researching the neighboring farms and farmers markets.  Local Harvest is a great tool for this.  We can get an idea of what is already being grown in the area and get a feel for what’s not being produced so we can target a possible niche market.  We can also see where the farmers markets are located and then search their websites to see who their regular vendors are, if they are a year round or seasonal market, what types of products they are not carrying, and so on.

Wikipedia provides interesting information about demographics, history, the local economy and politics. It also provides links to nearby communities which can give you a pretty good idea of your potential market and neighbors.

All this and I haven’t even left my desk!

When M gets home, I summarize my results and we make a plan to contact the appropriate agent (we have one in every corner of the 300 mile radius now!).  I get a parcel number from the agent and then visit the county tax accessors website to get more information on property such as taxes, valuation, zoning, etc…  Some counties have more details than others, but at the very least you can get the plat map which is super helpful if you have trouble zeroing in on the actual parcel on the web soil survey.  As you can see in the example I linked to, this county provides information on wetlands, flood plains, and hydric soils too.  This is very important information to consider BEFORE buying a property.  More on that later…

Aerial showing flood zones and wetlands

Armed with this information while visiting a property we can really focus our attention on the details and make informed decisions about its value.  We can also get a pretty good idea of the liklihood of success for us in that area and on that land.

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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3 Responses to Farm Search 101 – Online Tools

  1. It is worth noting how draining this process can become. Of the hundreds and hundreds of possible properties we looked through only a handful were promising enough to follow up on. We both took turns being depressed while the other was optimistic. This is real teamwork. Don’t underestimate the emotional effort it takes to find a contender, much less a candidate that will suit your own needs. Also, occasionally looking at lists of properties that “break your bank” will give you insight into what you are and are not paying for. Roads, wells, septic systems, even buildings in dilapidated shape are worth something even if you have to rebuild them.

  2. Wow. What an interesting and educational post that was! Land search tools have come a long way from when my mother was using land catalogues and a rural real estate agent!
    Thanks for teaching me something I didn’t know. Now I’m going to see what land search tools there are for someone in Canada!
    Good luck on finding your farm!

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