Posted: January 11, 2022

This article, which offers advice on how to find and select rural and agricultural properties for restoration, is the first of two articles in a series. The second article will offer suggestions for planning and carrying out restoration activities on a newly-purchased property. This advice is drawn from Paul’s experience finding and restoring eight rural agricultural properties totaling 1,126 acres over several decades.

Timberidge Farms: This restored 21-acre York County property features agricultural tracts, woodland, and a spring-fed stream which flows year-round. Image by Paul Solomon

Timberidge Farms: This restored 21-acre York County property features agricultural tracts, woodland, and a spring-fed stream which flows year-round. Image by Paul Solomon

Introduction

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic effects of climate change have brought forth a renewed appreciation for the many ways in which the natural world sustains, enriches, and inspires our lives. For those who may be seeking a way to connect more closely with nature, owning an agricultural or rural property presents an opportunity to forge deep connections to the natural resources and landscapes which surround us. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture reports that 39% of farm acreage is owned by those who do not farm the land themselves, suggesting that many agricultural property owners own land for reasons beyond farming.

Purchasing and restoring a rural or agricultural property can be a truly worthwhile endeavor. It is uniquely gratifying to create a vision to improve the ecological health, aesthetics, and function of a property, to learn about the practices for making that vision a reality, and to share the special place you have created with others. When we undertake the stewardship of a property, we truly have the potential to create a masterpiece within the confines of the natural world which enriches our own lives as well as those of our families, friends, neighbors, and the community at large.

For those who might wish to find a special property to restore, here are some lessons I have learned in purchasing and restoring eight properties totaling 1,126 acres over the past six decades.

Finding That Special Property

Finding a property with sound underlying characteristics is the foundation of a successful restoration project. Locating a property which possesses these characteristics, yet may currently be unattractive, allows you to make a purchase well below average market value and then to implement a unique vision. Over the years, I have developed a specific process for locating these special properties.

To begin, I give careful thought to the uses I might like to pursue on the property. I then identify the characteristics it must possess to enable me to do so. If you don’t have a specific goal or use in mind, consider seeking a property which offers a variety of possibilities so you can decide later which interest you the most. Having property uses and characteristics in mind enables me to begin my search in a particular region of a state that is likely to contain the type of property I am seeking.

I then traverse the region for an extended period of time, observing many properties in order to get the lay of the land and acquaint myself with the community in which each property is located. These travels are wonderful opportunities to get to know different areas of the state and the people who inhabit them. I encourage you to enjoy these early explorations as you get to know the rural landscapes. Only later will you come to realize how much you have learned about different areas and communities and ways of evaluating prospective farm properties.

Once I have thoroughly explored the region of interest, I narrow my focus to a specific county or area of a county which has particular appeal. Narrowing the area of interest enables me to thoroughly familiarize myself with the quality and diversity of farmland or rural land, the surrounding infrastructure, the extent and nature of nearby residential development, eyesores, and other characteristics of the landscape. I then choose specific locations of interest within the area.

Next, I seek out a qualified local real estate agency or agent who specializes in farms and rural land and can assist me in identifying potential properties. These professionals frequently possess agricultural backgrounds themselves and can offer great insights into the pros and cons of particular properties. Farm newspapers, such as the Lancaster Farming weekly, contain a large number of listings for farm properties throughout the mid-Atlantic, including notices of public sales and offerings by landowners themselves. These local and regional publications can be excellent sources of information. I then may choose to visit some properties myself and/or work with the knowledgeable local realtor to visit those with the characteristics I am seeking. In my property searches, I draw upon information from multiple sources to enable me to compare properties and select the ones that interest me the most.

The specific features I seek and avoid when considering a property to purchase are summarized below. Your own preferences may evolve after you have visited a number of properties.

What to look for...

  • Blend of land uses (including cropland, pasture, woodlands, farmstead)
  • Reasonably healthy woodlands containing stand(s) of desirable native trees with few non-native species and free of significant damage from prior harvesting
  • Deep, well-drained soils, ideally silt loam versus clay or sand-based soils based on
    • Detailed soil information from county soil surveys
    • Soil probes to determine depth and composition of soils on a particular property
  • Land containing gentle or rolling slopes which foster suitable drainage
  • Clean, reliable water source sufficient to supply a home, farm, and water bodies such as ponds and wetlands
  • Functional, historic, and architecturally desirable structures with potential for restoration and for which purchaser has a need
  • Local land use ordinances which protect agricultural land and sensitive environmental areas from encroachment by non-farm or conflicting uses
  • Private setting

What to avoid...

  • Presence or high risk of on-site environmental contaminants
  • Presence or evidence of past pollutants, soil removal, dumping, or serious erosion
  • Nearby or adjacent eyesores or poorly managed properties
  • Damaged woodlots (e.g., by poor harvesting practices or use by livestock)
  • Large areas of steep topography
  • A local government which promotes development and has no land preservation goals

It is critical to verify that the properties of greatest interest actually do have the features you require. Inspect the on-site conditions, or characteristics of the terrain, e.g., steep slopes, as these may prevent certain kinds of activities. If you hope to grow certain crops, pay particular attention to area soil surveys, as these provide a wealth of information about crop yields in the various types of soil in the area. If you have specific agricultural uses in mind, comparing information from soil surveys with the results of soil probe tests on a potential property is essential to confirm that the property is well-suited for the crops of interest. If you have plans to hunt on the property, seek out neighboring hunters willing to share information about the wildlife populations and species in the area. Draw on a variety of sources before making a purchase to ensure that the property of interest actually has the features that are most important to you.

Once you have found and purchased your special property, you can begin to imagine how you might enhance the landscape and structures to create a masterpiece of your own.

By Paul Solomon, Pennsylvania Forest Steward and Master Watershed Steward, and Jeanne Riley, Pennsylvania Forest Steward and Center for Private Forests Council Member

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802

Center for Private Forests

Address

416 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802