The following information on choosing a farm comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.
Often too little attention is given to the condition of the soil and the lay of the fields with reference to ease of cultivation. (Chapter 7.)[*Part of what follows is condensed from Selecting a Farm, Farmer’s Bulletin, 1088.] Crop land in itself is of little value unless it is so situated that it can be made to yield profitable returns through the use of labor and machinery. A farm valued at $100 an acre may be a much better bargain if practically all of the land can be put to profitable use than another farm of equal size purchasable at $50 an acre, of which large areas are practically useless owing to streams, swamps which cannot be drained, or rough stony areas not suitable for pasture.
In choosing a farm, therefore, it is essential that not the total area conveyed by the deed or contract be considered, but the area available for profitable use. Any additional land may be really a liability instead of an asset, since often the returns do not pay the taxes. Many mistakes are made on this point alone, the buyer often thinking that he can crop the land but later finding it more profitable to let it grow brush or woods.
Another factor is ease of cultivation. If the land is steep or broken it is not practical to use improved machinery and it is difficult to harvest crops by older methods. Such fields may possibly be worked but the cost of production is necessarily higher than on fields which permit efficient use of labor and machinery. This difference in cost must be reflected in lower valuation and hence in lower taxes and interest or rental charges, otherwise the farmer must pay these increased costs out of returns from his own labor.
The physical condition of the soil should receive first attention particularly from the beginner with small capital. Often even on high grade farms soils get into poor condition through a few years of mismanagement. It is easy to cause damage to good land through improper tillage or careless handling. To correct such damage usually takes several years.
One should distinguish between soils which cannot easily be corrected because of naturally poor physical condition and those which through improper management are in poor physical condition but which can be restored by good handling. Putting a soil in prime condition for planting is a fine art that can be fully learned only through long experience in handling the specific type of land involved.
The depth of the soil is of great importance. It should be determined when the land is first examined. Shallow soil is often a liability. Its utility is sharply limited for practically all farming purposes because it is cold and wet in spring, the water table being close to the surface. Later it dries out rapidly and bakes hard. It is quickly affected by drouth. Shallowness is a common defect in many areas. It may not necessarily be due to rock close to the surface but to hard-pan.
Depth can best be detected by the soil auger. If it is general or characteristic of the region it may be detected by the tree growth since only shallow rooted trees will be found there such as red and silver maples; whereas, deep rooting trees such as black walnut and hickory will be absent or greatly stunted.
Closely connected with thin soils is drainage. A person choosing a farm should make assurance doubly sure on this point; first aa to the natural drainage of the fields and second as to the possibility of draining if artificial drainage is necessary. Most soils need drainage, at least in spots. (Chapter 16.)
In choosing a farm one can rarely find the ideal arrangement of buildings and fields. A farm which may be desirable in many other particulars may be undesirable in this respect. Saving of labor is highly important. Hence the arrangement of fields and buildings may be such that time is lost because of irregularity of fields or because important fields are far from the buildings. The latter fault sometimes cannot be remedied.
In the Eastern states three factors have determined, more or less, the location of the buildings: 1, water supply; 2, roads; and 3, area of arable land near by. In regions where spring water is available the buildings were generally placed so water could be piped to them. Thus water supply had a greater weight in determining the location than ease of reaching the fields or the highway. Often the best fields are distant from the buildings or the buildings far removed from the highway. Such arrangements greatly depreciate the value of farms.
The arrangement of the buildings themselves, as regards ease of doing chores or other work about them is important. Often planning was for one type of farming which, having been discontinued and another taken up, the buildings are not suited to the specific type of farming now practiced. Sometimes conditions may be such that alterations cannot be made economically to improve arrangement. So here is another point to determine when locating a farm.
Social conditions of the neighborhood, though of no moment so far as crop production is concerned, must not be overlooked. If the family includes children good and easily accessible schools are essential. But what are their up-keep taxes? How about churches and other institutions? Stores, lumber and coal yards? These have an important bearing upon the desirability of the farm. So has the character of the permanent residents. Such apparently extraneous conditions may make or mar the home life and comfort of the new farm family and either decide favorably for or against an otherwise desirable property.
No matter whether you decide to buy or to rent be sure that you first thoroughly understand the fundamental principles which govern farming. If you overlook or ignore these you are almost certain to waste both money and time trying to overcome some unsuspected handicap with which you would not have to contend if your farm had been chosen where these principles helped instead of hindered you.
Ask yourself: 1. Is the area large enough to produce a profitable volume of business? 2. Is the soil suited to the crops to be grown or the animals to be reared and to produce a profit? 3. Are the natural resources with respect to crops and animals, and the environment with respect to sales of products favorable to the development of a profitable business?
Mere size of place is not necessarily a factor; for many a farm of several hundred acres pays only a small net income or is run at a loss, whereas many a small one specially adapted, well situated and well managed pays handsomely. For instance, on Long Island scores if not hundreds of market gardeners have grown wealthy on 5 acres or less. Ordinarily and until one has experience, however, when the area is small the gross income is small and so is the net. Usually the deciding factor is the use made of effective implements rather than with hand labor. To be of productive value land, buildings and equipment must contribute their quotas of income.
Factors that contribute to farm income are: 1, profit on the uses of the land; 2, profit on the working capital; and, 3, profit on the personal and hired labor employed. Capital alone can do nothing; it must be worked; land not used for crops or animals is an expense—for taxes, if for nothing else; area if small or limited in its opportunities to employ labor profitably necessarily curtails income except in such cases as market gardening, but these demand considerable hand labor. In fact, costs of production are proportionately higher for small than for large areas because hand labor instead of power implements must be used.
From all this it is evident that volume of business—size of farm—is perhaps the most important factor to insist upon when choosing a farm. So before you buy make sure, 1, that the property is potentially capable of producing the necessary volume of business. This is suggested mainly by the tillable area and the opportunities for making sales; 2, that costs of production are likely to be economical; 3, that the potential volume of business will yield a profit above all necessary costs and after deducting the value of farm products used by the family. In short, the farm should give opportunity to use capital and labor profitably and to market the products at a profit.