How to Evaluate Land for a Small Farm or Homestead
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In recent years, there have been indications of strong interest in the purchase of small rural acreages (say 5 to 20 acres), presumably driven by a desire for self-sufficiency or to start a small farm business. This article offers suggestions about how to evaluate a particular parcel to be certain it is suitable for such a purpose.
This article is not intended to provide comprehensive guidance, and in many cases it is specific to North Carolina and may not apply in other areas.
A good starting point might be to make a determination of how much land is needed. To do so, consider making a list of what purposes the land will serve, along with a rough calculation of the acreage that might be needed for each purpose. Here is a very rough guide:
- Fruit and vegetable garden for family use – 0.25 to 1 acre
- Fruit and/or vegetable production for supplemental income – 2 to 10 acres
- Raising chickens for household egg and/or meat consumption – Minimal
- Pastured chickens for supplemental income – A few hundred birds per acre of pasture.
- Raising goats or sheep – 1 acre of quality forage per animal
- Raising cows – 2 acres of quality forage per animal
- Woodlot to harvest firewood for personal use – 10 to 20 acres or more
- Woodlot for long-term investment/future harvest – 20 to 100 acres or more
- Deer hunting – 10 to 100 acres or more
- House, driveway, septic, other utilities – Highly variable
- Farm structures (e.g. workshop, grain bin, livestock barn, etc.) – Highly variable
This should help aspiring landowners to develop at least a general idea of how many acres are needed, but further careful analysis, research and planning is warranted.
Soil characteristics can place major limitations on how land can be used. Relevant variables include soil depth, texture and organic content, to name a few. Such characteristics will determine suitability for various crops, a septic system, building foundations and other necessary features of a farm and home site.
There are a couple of ways to evaluate the soil of a parcel of land. One approach is to consult the USDA Soils Map for the area under consideration (available on-line through the Web Soil Survey tool). This provides a general overview of the soil types that are found there, and their suitability for various uses. The local Soil & Water Conservation District office can help prospective landowners interpret those maps. Note, however, that the accuracy of the data is quite low at a scale of one or two acres. Thus, it may be wise to investigate further, such as by hiring a soil scientist to conduct a more thorough evaluation.
Topography is another obvious factor to consider. Flat open spaces are obviously much easier to work with tractors and other equipment. Often the web-based GIS tool for a given county will have a map layer that indicates topography.
CONVERTING WOODLAND TO CROP/PASTURE
When evaluating a parcel, consider that converting wooded acreage to pasture or tillable fields can involve significant expense. Even if the trees have value, the land conversion process does not end when the last logging truck leaves the site. There could be considerable additional (and costly) work in the form of stump grinding/removal, debris removal, grading, erosion control measures and adjusting fertility. Also consider that in some cases wooded acreage is unsuited for conversion to other uses due to soil limitations(e.g. depth, texture).
The quality and quantity of water available on the property will also have a large impact on its suitability for specific activities. A pond or stream may be adequate for watering livestock, but for fruit and vegetable production a well or municipal source is much preferable. A general overview of water quality as it relates to agricultural uses can be obtained by submitting a sample to the NCDA&CS, although such analysis does not evaluate human health concerns such as microbial contamination or nitrates. Be sure to consider the mechanics of moving water from source to destination (e.g. well to garden). This could involve the cost of installing water lines, pumps, filters, valves, etc. Here are some other points to consider when evaluating a water source:
Pond – Make an estimate of surface area and average depth to calculate volume, and then compare to what’s needed for specific activities (e.g. cows consume a certain number of gallons each day). Most counties have a web-based Geographic Information System mapping tool that can be used to get approximate area measurements. For estimating depth, there is no substitute for using a weighted rope, long pole, or a “fish finder” that uses sonar to take various measurements. Ideally, this should involve making several transects of the pond in a small boat and then calculating an average of the readings. If you are able to assess the pond during the warmer months, use a weed rake to determine if there are any nuisance plants present. Your local N.C. Cooperative Extension County Center can help identify such plants. Expert evaluation of the dam, emergency spillway and standpipe would also be helpful.
Stream – Keep in mind that stream flow can vary dramatically depending on time of year, amount of rainfall, temperature, upstream activities, etc. A stream with strong flow in the winter could be nearly dry in August. This could be due to normal seasonal variation, or water use by an upstream farmer for irrigation. On topographic maps, streams that generally have year round flow are indicated with a solid blue line, while streams with intermittent flow have a dashed line.
Well – For any wells present on the property, verify the depth and flow rate if possible. If the water will be used for human consumption, consider having the water tested by the local health department.
Municipal – Generally speaking, municipal water is high quality, but the cost per unit (e.g. dollars per 1,000 gallons) is an important consideration. Cost information should be readily available from the municipal authority that operates the water system.
Infrastructure that is present on the property could significantly increase its suitability. Examples include fencing, sheds, pole barns, greenhouses, etc. On the other hand, infrastructure that is in disrepair, outdated or otherwise unsuitable could be a hindrance. If a structure already present on the property was built for a specific purpose, it may be cost-prohibitive or impractical to convert it to another.
ACCESS TO UTILITIES
Access to and the cost of installing utilities is an important consideration. The primary categories are electric, water, sewer, cell service and internet. Making assumptions about a particular parcel could lead to a costly error. Sometimes there may be two or more options for a particular utility. Even if the parcel is served by necessary utilities, there will likely be a cost of running the corresponding lines (e.g. water, sewer, electric) to the point on the property where the service is needed (e.g. to the house or shop). If a parcel has access to municipal water and/or sewer, there may be prohibitions or limitations on the use of wells and septic systems.
Ideally, a parcel under consideration should have well-marked corners and property lines and an accurate survey map and legal description. Prospective buyers should ask the seller for any pertinent documents, and also investigate property records filed with the Register of Deeds in the respective county (ideally with assistance or advice from a lawyer who specializes in real estate transactions). Visual inspection of property lines and corners is also advisable. If documentation or property line markings are deficient, then the cost of hiring a professional surveyor should be accounted for.
For any parcel that will be used as a farm or homestead, it’s crucial to have legal, reliable and adequate vehicle and equipment access. This can be a challenge even for parcels with road frontage if there is any kind of obstacle between the road and other portions of the property (e.g. thickly wooded areas, swampy areas, a stream, a pond dam, etc.). A cost estimate of needed access roads would be highly desirable. For parcels without road frontage, a well documented access easement across a neighboring parcel will be invaluable if not indispensable. Verifying an access easement will likely require research into the Register of Deeds property records, again ideally with professional legal assistance. If no access easement is found, prospective buyers may want to include that as a condition of purchase.
TRASH, CONTAMINATION, ETC
It’s not uncommon for rural parcels to have trash piles, abandoned vehicles, and other debris. Old storage buildings could contain hazardous chemicals such as solvents and pesticides.
The impact of these could range from minor inconvenience to prohibitive expense. Even more problematic (although less likely) scenarios include buried fuel/oil tanks, chemical spills, etc. Risk mitigating strategies could include thorough research into past uses of the property, assessment by a qualified expert, conditions in the sales contract, and/or appropriate insurance coverage. Of course, there is no substitute for conducting a “boots on the ground” survey of all portions of the property. Conducting such a survey in winter when much of the vegetation has died back or dropped leaves could reveal issues that might otherwise remain hidden.
PROXIMITY TO MARKETS, SHOPPING, SERVICES
Obviously, the location of the parcel will be a key factor in the decision. Proximity to schools, medical care, shopping, place of worship and other amenities are important considerations. Other important location considerations include distance to markets, farm supply retailers, processing facilities and other farm related businesses and amenities.
This article is intended only as an overview of evaluation and research methods for assessing a parcel of land for use as a small farm or homestead, and is not intended to be comprehensive. A great starting point is to carefully develop clear goals and priorities. For parcels under consideration, thorough assessment with the assistance of qualified professionals can help prospective land buyers achieve those goals more effectively.