Buying

5 Zoning Issues You Need to Be Aware of Before Buying Farm Land

If you thought neighbors were quick to complain about loud music and barking dogs, wait until you start raising bees, chickens or goats in your back yard. If you’ve failed to do your due diligence before buying a home and property to farm, you’re going to be in for a lot of headaches. On the other hand, if you have dreams of living in the country without the smells, sounds and culture of farm life make sure you know what you’re getting into as well.

It is possible to find property where you can peacefully co-exist with neighbors and have livestock and a huge garden, or not; but there are five things you’ll want to know first — and the right Realtor can help you find those answers.

What are the zoning and tax laws, covenants, and water rights status of the land?

Your real estate agent should be familiar with farmland in general, as well as things like soil types or makeup, and water rights. This is more critical in the West where senior water rights holders, water certificates and irrigation is more critical. Your agent should already know the land, or be able to find out what you need to know. If you’re planning on farming the land, water rights and access can be a deal breaker.

Agricultural or “Ag Zoning,” refers to designations made by local jurisdictions that are intended to protect farmland and farming activities from incompatible non-farm uses. Usually designated as “A-1” land or zoning, the purpose of the zoning is to conserve and protect open land uses, foster orderly growth in rural areas and prevent urban agricultural land use conflicts.

image of sleeping cows at sunrise

This doesn’t mean A-1 is reserved just for farm or agricultural uses. Churches, schools, utility facilities (water or electric storage yards), business offices, hospitals, clubs, bed & breakfast inns, kennels, feed stores, etc., are also allowed to build on A-1 zoned property. If you’re planning to buy A-1 land and build a house there, you should be comfortable potentially sharing the space with animals, or farmland within sight (or smelling distance) of livestock. If you buy land next to a farm where there are pigs, horses, or cattle, they have just as much right to be there as you do because of the A-1 zoning. So don’t buy and build and then complain about the zoning. Find out ahead of time how that beautifully wooded lot is zoned and plan accordingly.

Find out what the land’s tax status is. Exclusive farm use can put you into a much lower tax bracket, unless the current owner stopped farming it and lost the farm tax status. Check with the county tax assessor before you buy so you know what you’re buying.

Is the land in a flood zone?

Image of Riverside Community

Land being in a flood zone is not necessarily a bad thing. When rivers flood they leave behind rich deposits that actually enrich the soil. If you have buildings, structures or roads on that land, that’s a different story. Either way, you’ll need to find out if any part of your land is in a flood zone. If you’re financing the farm, your lender will insist on this. If you are in a flood zone, even a partial one, they’ll require the purchase of “flood insurance” as a condition of making the loan. Federal law requires this insurance. No matter what excuses you offer, it can’t be waived for any reason. The cost of the insurance can be very expensive depending on the type of buildings or structures. Do your due diligence, even if the land isn’t next to a river, it can still be within a designated flood zone.

Change is a constant, but zoning isn’t

Image of Bee hives on lavender fields, near Valensole, Provence.

As any farmer knows, you may start out wanting to raise chickens, and end up raising goats or pigs. That’s fine if you’ve picked the right property to begin with, more difficult if zoning or other restrictions allows for chickens, but nothing else. When purchasing property make sure to find out exactly what you can, and can’t do on it in terms of livestock, fencing, and even gardening. Some property may be zoned for chickens and bees, but forbid any other livestock. This is particularly true in bedroom communities or some suburban areas. Your tastes and desire to raise different creatures will change, but it’s not likely the zoning will. Find out the limits before you buy. Talk to your State Representative to find out if there are any upcoming laws or bills that may adversely affect your ability to raise bees or chickens for instance. Many communities are moving to restrict these two creatures, while others are opting to allow them.

Ask your real estate agent about state programs that help new farmers

Image of Farmer and businessman examining plant in field

Some states offer help for new farmers through various programs, especially if the land is already zoned for farming or agricultural use. Virginia, for instance, has the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program (VBFRCP). Under the umbrella of a statewide coalition, this program is a collaboration of 26 agricultural-based organizations, agencies, and farm businesses throughout Virginia. They offer everything from online resources, social networking, and farmer mentoring to advice on land acquisition. Depending on the property you buy, you may also be eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides payments to agricultural producers to take highly erodible and environmentally sensitive land out of production and install resource-conserving practices for 10 or more years. Even if you aren’t a farmer, the seller may be, and he may already be signed up with this program. Ask. While the CRP has recently discontinued CRP payments to non-farming landowners, they still offer financial assistance to people raising bees, storing produce (beans, corn, grain, sorghum, rice, oats and peanuts, among others), or to qualifying orchardists, nursery owners and tree growers.

Is your potential land eligible for county USDA Farm Service Agency help?

The great thing about the United States Department of Agriculture (USA) is that they not only administer programs to help you with conservation issues including pond construction, erosion control and wildlife enhancement; they also offer a wide variety of loan programs to help buy, establish, improve, expand, transition, and strengthen your farm or ranch.

Buying any property is complex, but when it comes to buying A-1 zoned land, things get even more complex. Find and deal with a Realtor used to buying and selling A-1 zoned listings. You’ll be glad you did.


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Becky Blanton is a full-time ghostwriter and writing coach for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, and business speakers. In 2009 she spoke at TED Global at Oxford University, her first ever public speaking gig. When she's not writing, she's kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay. Her dream home is to live aboard a sailing or houseboat.

3 Replies to 5 Zoning Issues You Need to Be Aware of Before Buying Farm Land

  1. Are you able to have an RV on property to live in until home is built. Also what is the time frame to have home built in A-1 general agriculture zoning

  2. I like that you said that the department of agriculture helps maintain your farm by administering programs and loan programs. My friend told me that he wants to buy a farm so that he can start growing his own food. I’m going to share these tips with him so that he can encourage himself on making it happen.

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