Negotiations

mushrooms on an apple tree

If you’ve been anxiously awaiting news regarding my bid for the Swinging Bridge Farm, then I am glad for the company. It has been a long week of negotiations and I had hoped to be able to post with cause for celebration, but as of this moment I cannot say if my offer will be accepted by the landowner.

swinging bridge farm old farmhouse
The Swinging Bridge Farm!

The Offer(s)

The initial offer went out on Monday night for the old cape, the 103 acres it sits on, and the adjoining 49 acres that sit across the road. Leah Watkins, my realtor, suggested I write  a Love Letter for the property to accompany my offer, and as you can imagine I poured myself into that piece of writing in hopes of swaying the landowner to work with me.

Admittedly I went in low, thinking of it as the start of a negotiation process. Paul and I discussed it extensively. We considered the fact that this is not prime farmland─or even prime land for development─given that it is so super rocky. The terrain there is also difficult, being largely uphill on the house side, and on the opposite side of the road the land drops down into a gorge where the little stream that runs through the land spreads out to create a marshy wetland. The house itself is in need of modern updates like windows and doors, a chimney liner, and the roof may or may not be leaking. We offered $132.5K on the first go-round.

It was 36+/- hours of suspense to learn the landowner’s response to our offer. She came back with $183.5K, offering to contribute $4,500 towards closing costs and a promise not to harvest any timber between now and closing. A recent appraisal estimated the value of the property at $179K.

Initially my goal had been to keep my mortgage between $100K and $150K. I’d prefer to keep my debt as low as possible so that I can afford to farm full-time. I’m also very conscious of the fact that if the landowner accepts my offer, I still have to convince the FSA that my business proposal is worth taking a risk on. The more money I ask for, the less likely I am to qualify for financing.

Conferring with Leah, we decided to drop the parcel across the road and made an offer of $142.4K for just the house and the 100-acres it sits on.

Another 36 or so hours passed before we received the landowner’s response. They decided they did not want to split the properties up at this time, and offered the entire 150-acres and the house at $173.5K, with $4500 towards closing costs, but asked for more details regarding when we would know whether or not we qualify for the FSA financing.

The USDA’s FSA process is definitely a little confusing. It’s a little backwards. They don’t have a pre-qualification for financing; the farmer has to already have a sale agreement in place before they apply. There is a whole list of documents the farmer must submit, including a business plan, tax documents, cash flow projections, and so much more. It can take 10-45 days to receive a letter of qualification, and there is a backlog within the USDA so the expected wait for closing on a loan with them is currently projected at 5 months.

Leah sent back a detailed explanation of the process involved with USDA financing and why it takes so long. Ultimately I decided that if the landowner will work with my timeline, then I would meet her price for the entire package.

Now I await final confirmation. The suspense is excruciating.

What if this falls through?

mushrooms on an old apple treeI know full well that it’s not the end of the road if this landowner decides that the FSA timeline is too long a wait to close on the sale of the property. If this falls through I will simply continue searching and try again at the next available opportunity. Afterall, the original plan had been to apply with the FSA next March in 2018. I wonder, though, how long it would take me to find another landowner in a position to even consider my timeline; most cannot afford to.

Even with the price being a little higher than I’d intended, $173.5K is still a good number for 150 acres, with livable housing for my kids─in the school district─and near to the community I’ve cultivated through the Madison Farmers’ Market. There are currently 3 other properties available within my target area, which would serve Runamuk well─with actual farm-land and more comfortable housing. However, those properties are priced between $279K and $394K with between 50 and 90 acres, and ultimately they are out of my reach.

It’s the fact that this property is not prime farmland and the run-down, somewhat neglected condition of the house that makes the Swinging Bridge Farm a possibility for me. And especially the landowner’s initial willingness to work with my timeline.

Is it really suitable for pollinators?

Interestingly enough, the Maine Farmland Trust does not consider it farmland at all. We’d been in contact with Nina Young there in hopes of acquiring an easement for the property, but there is very little open land or farmland soils to qualify it for protection. Staff at MFT met to evaluate the potential for an easement project at the Swinging Bridge Farm, determined this property ineligible, and then questioned the property’s suitability for Runamuk at all. In her email, Nina asked:

Is a property with so little open land a good place for pollinators? Can they survive/make honey on forested land alone? Has Sam actually determined how much open land would be ideal for her bees? Maybe this just isn’t the right property to make her plan work?

Compromise

It’s true that I had hoped to find a property with 10 or 20 acres of established pasture where I could cultivate prime bee forage and then maintain it with bee-friendly mowing practices. I had also hoped to have a view of the mountains I love so much. I went into this knowing that there would be compromises along the way. I’ve accepted my position as a beginning farmer, and the ramifications that come with the financial situation that puts me in.

Thank goodness I was called to beekeeping. I have no shortage of offers for apiary sites from locals throughout the community, and indeed, the currant location of the Runamuk apiary at the Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks is a prime spot amid miles of carefully maintained hay pastures.

Bees will travel up to 3 miles from their hives in search of food, so when I am looking at a potential farm property for Runamuk I’m looking at the landscape within a 3 mile radius of the apiary site using Google Earth. New Portland has a deep-seated agricultural community, and there are many old orchards tucked away in the hills, as well as broad pastures that are still hayed every summer. What’s more, there are actually a lot of trees that provide prime forage for pollinators. I’m confident this site will prove to be a good place for my bees, and for the native pollinators that I hope to encourage as well.

If everything goes through and we find ourselves stewards at the Swinging Bridge Farm, Paul and I would work together over the next few years to open up about 10 acres for gardens and pastures. The bulk of the forest would be maintained as mature growth to preserve the wildlife that lives there.

My best shot

Given that I have been searching for a property in my area and price range for years, and that this landowner is willing to work with me and my FSA-timeline I intend to give it my best shot. I see a big opportunity for Runamuk there.

Please consider donating to the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme campaign to help raise funds for the Runamuk Pollinator Conservation Farm! Even $5 goes a long way in bringing us closer to our goal! Check back soon for more updates on our progress!

Meet my real estate agent!

leah j watkins

A couple of weeks ago this cool thing happened to me where a complete stranger contacted me out of the blue and offered her services as a real estate agent. I was surprised by the unexpected offer and a little caught off guard.

Last winter as I began exploring properties once again, I contacted a local realtor to look at a house in North Anson and he gladly showed it to me. I told him of my quest to find my forever-farm and he offered to serve as my realtor, promising to show me any property I was interested in. But I never heard from him again.

I felt like he had stood me up because he lacked faith in my farm, or had no regard for the local food movement. It could have been any number of reasons really, but the incident put me off the whole realtor thing.

Most realtors are unfamiliar with the issues that come into play when a farmer is searching for a property to move his/her operation to. They’re not farmers and are more accustomed to dealing with residential homeowners or land developers. How could they possibly understand my particular needs?

Furthermore, my approach in response to my difficult circumstances as a beginning farmer are rather unorthodox and most realtors don’t understand how I could hope to make any of this work. Crowdfunding and loans through the FSA are not a common thing in rural central Maine.

I talked it out with some peeps on facebook, who all stated emphatically that their realtors had all been huge assets in the home-buying process. One friend is a realtor out of the Lewiston/Auburn area, who recommended I be sure to interview any potential agents and not just settle for the first one who comes along.

With this in mind I did some research into what exactly a prospective home-buyer should be looking for in their real estate agent and I made up a series of 10 questions, which I sent off to Leah.

Meanwhile I contacted Nina Young, a realtor with Maine Farms Realty and the Maine Farmland Trust, to see if she might be available to serve as my agent. Who better to represent me than an agent dealing exclusively with farmland?

It turns out that Nina is on the payroll at MFT, brokering the properties the Trust buys and sells. Nina told me that while it is true that most realtors in Maine are unaware of the issues involved when it comes to the sale of farmland, MFT is working to change that. Recently a representative from Land for Good came to Maine to teach a course on the subject. The course was well received, with more than 30 realtor in attendance. Nina says they fully intend to hold several more workshops in the not-too-distant future, in hopes of further protecting Maine’s farmlands for future generations.

She said she could not represent me, but offered to speak with whomever I chose as my representative, to answer any questions that might come up along the way.

Enter Leah J. Watkins of the NextHome Experience in Bangor.

Leah J Watkins real estate agent NextHome

Leah saw my facebook post with the forever-farms graphic I had made to promote my search for property to farm on and was inspired to help.

Her answers to my questionnaire revealed that while she is young and somewhat inexperienced, she has a team of realtors around her to draw from (much the same way I draw from the knowledge base and experience of the people I work with). Leah is a proponent of local foods and farms and has ambitions to do more to connect farmers with farmland. Most of all, she’s passionate about helping me take Runamuk home forever.

I really think her youth will be an asset to my team, as she has not yet been jaded by the system and is willing to think outside the box with me to make this dream a reality. So I signed the contract and made it official. Leah J. Watkins is now working for Runamuk! Yaaaaaay!

Already she has set to work promoting my campaign and increasing exposure of my search for my farm home. I never turn down help when it is volunteered so enthusiastically lol!

Please help me in welcoming Leah to the Runamuk community! Leave a comment below!