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Sept/Oct 2011-Farming bits & pieces

Count ‘em—eight landlords!

With land prices running as high as $100,000/acre in our community there is no hope that my wife and I can add to the two acres that we own or to the 30 acres that her parents own and that constitute the core of our farm.
And I mean no way. Zero. Ziltch. Not going to happen.
In an odd way the situation is comforting because I never think about buying land, as I would if it were a more reasonable but still-difficult-to-justify $50,000/acre, as land is in some parts of the country. Of the many things to covet for the farm (oh for a better combine!) I never seriously wish to own more property.
Instead, we’ve followed an increasing popular model with farmers and assembled our farm from bits and pieces of leased land. In total, we farm about 100 acres; of that 32 acres are in the family and the rest is held by eight landlords. The leased properties are between 1 and 5 km from our home.
It makes for a different farm than it would if we owned a single 100 acre property, but it is not the distant second choice from ownership that many people assume.

Advantages of leasing:

Capital is not tied up in the land. The farm isn’t saddled with hefty mortgage payments, freeing up money to try new ventures, improve fences etc. We pay nothing for most of the leased properties and a modest amount for an 8 acre field that includes a 2 storey 10,000 sq ft barn.

Distributes risk. When dogs or cougars attack our sheep, we have the option of moving a flock right away from the area. Similarly—and even though the leased properties are quite close to each other as the crow flies—the quality of crops varies from property to property. The southeast facing slope of the Lennox field means we can take off the hay before the later maturing fields elsewhere are close to being ready.

Includes more people in farming. Several of our landlords keep an eye on our livestock and are quick to report problems. They feel very much a part of the farm and we always take time to explain to them what we are doing and why. In a community under pressure from developers, it is good to have as many farm-minded allies as possible!

Disadvantages of leasing:

Reluctance to put money into long-term improvements. Without long-term leases, we are reluctant to invest in larger scale projects like drainage. In some cases, where we feel we could lose the land at any time, we literally keep fences up with haywire and twine. Result: more escapes, more hassles.

Problem properties. Although some of our landlords are good about watching the flock, a couple wouldn’t know a dead sheep from a hot tub. Gates get left open, trimmings from the flower garden, sometimes including poisonous plants, get pitched into the paddock. More escapes, more hassles.

We drive a lot! There is less moving of livestock and equipment within the farm and more moving on roads. Higher fuel bills, more chance of an accident.

Don’t get to see the lambs frolicking. Okay, this sounds kind of feeble but. . . a part of why we farm is to enjoy the livestock. With the sheep often at pasture on leased fields we are left watching the neighbour mowing her lawn. Interesting when she hits a submerged tire iron, not bucolic.

Let’s be honest: I’d rather own than lease. But to those people who still say that ownership is a prerequisite for farming, the patchwork leasing model proves there is another option.