Buying farm land – top tips for small farmers

Nobody should buy a small farm on a whim. Whatever your reasons for buying a small farm – whether it’s a going to be your retreat, weekender, hobby  farm, conservation or self-sufficiency block, or maybe an investment or a working farm – you shouldn’t make any decisions before considering these  important purchasing tips.

1. Use a reputable agent 
Use an agent who is familiar with the local area and has a sound knowledge of farming land. Most agents specialise in residential properties. Few, however, specialise in rural properties. When choosing an agent, find one that can provide clear answers to basic farm questions, including information about council rates, land size and use, soil type, water availability and other aspects that are important for small farmers. If the process is taking too long, write up a wish list (essential, non-essential and desirable) and send it to a number of other local agents.

2. Check planning restrictions and legal responsibilities 
Buying farm land involves a number of legal responsibilities including:

  • the control of noxious weeds and pests,
  • animal welfare,
  • chemical use,
  • boundary fences (along public roads),
  • fire preparation. 

Three tiers of government – federal, state and local – enforce these and other laws. Before buying a small farm, check with the local government authority to ensure the property’s zoning is appropriate for its intended use. Suitable zoning would be general agriculture, rural residential or rural small holding.

Also, search the property title to check if any easement agreement (i.e. the right to use the property for a specific purpose), carbon, conservation or  heritage caveats (third party rights over the property) or covenants (written agreement between the seller and buyer restricting land use) are in place. 

3. Inspect farm infrastructure
Farm infrastructure includes the homestead, sheds, fences, tracks and drains, yards, water supply (tanks, dams, pipes, troughs) and power supply  (location, single or three phase). Infrastructure should match your plans for the farm and if it is not present or suitable, you will need to consider the cost of  implementing or improving it. Understand local council building requirements (development approval) and restrictions (e.g. one dwelling per farm). Ensure  relevant farm infrastructure included in the sale is clearly marked on the first page of the sale contract.

4. Check access to markets and services
Farm land and its distance from markets can greatly increase the cost of farm inputs and the cost of selling goods. If markets are a long distance away, investigate opportunities to pool and sell similar products with other small farmers in the area. 

Not all rural localities enjoy easy access to services and utilities commonly associated with modern life, such as health care, education, power, water,  internet and phone connections. Check that the necessary utilities are available and if not, investigate the cost of having them installed. Ensure farm  access is all weather (wet and dry) and if access is via a dirt road, find out who is responsible for its maintenance.

5. Understand land and water
A farm’s soil type will directly influence the range of crops that can be grown and the land’s suitability for its intended purpose. Before buying farm land, you  should request soil tests (or obtain previous test results) and use these in conjunction with an onsite inspection to assess the suitability of the soil. Inspect  the farm for signs of land degradation (salinity, erosion and chemical contamination), as these can be costly to repair. Assess farm water (quality and  quantity) for domestic, fire control, livestock and irrigation purposes. A comprehensive water test ($100) is worthwhile prior to purchase. If the farm land has  irrigation, contact the relevant government authority regarding water rights and restrictions.

6. Consider weeds and pests
Inspect the farm for pest and weed infestations. If you are unsure of local declared weeds, consult with an agronomist for a correct identification. Identify  potential sources of weed and pest infestations, including rail lines, neighbouring land, water ways, state forests and access roads. Control of declared  weeds on private land is the responsibility of the owner and is a legal requirement of owning land.

7. Assess natural resources
Natural resources –  including remnant vegetation and wildlife habitats – can be significant environmental and farm assets. Work that is likely to impact on  native vegetation will require a permit, which may be costly and time consuming to apply for.

8. Meet the neighbours and assess any land use impacts 
In rural areas it is important to get on with your neighbours, particularly if you are an absentee owner. Neighbours will be your eyes and ears when you are  not present. If you are buying a small farm for aesthetic reasons, check with neighbours regarding their land use to ensure your views are secure.  Investigate if your intended land use will impact on neighbouring farms and whether this has the potential to cause conflict.

9. Be realistic about farm skills and knowledge
If you do not have the skills or knowledge to run the farm, investigate if other help is available (i.e. contractors) and/or where you can go to increase your  farming skills and knowledge.

Where to from here?
Before committing to buying farm land, it is helpful to have someone who is not emotionally involved in the purchase accompany you on a farm inspection. They may see something you don’t. It’s even better if that person is familiar with farming and knows what they’re looking at. If you are considering buying a small farm and are unsure whether the farm suits your needs, you can have one of our experienced farm consultants conduct a pre-purchase farm inspection. This may prove to be the best small farm buying tip of all!

About the author
The author Charlie Roberts is one of the FarmStyle Australia experts, he runs this website along with a successful farm near Dubbo in Central New South Wales, so he walks the talk. Charlie has a Bachelor of Farm Management and is currently completing a Masters of Business Administration. He has worked for a number of agricultural companies in both New Zealand and Australia. He has a wealth of experience working with farmers in a range of environments.

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