By Ariana Taylor-Stanley, Owner and Operator of Here We Are Farm
Though my husband, Adrian, grew up on a little farm, he has since become a computer scientist and, if not for my agricultural inclinations, would probably live in a sparse, walkable studio apartment in some metropolis. Conversely, I grew up in a downtown duplex and discovered in my twenties that I wanted to be a farmer. So we compromised for each other. When he finished his PhD two years ago and began looking for tenure track faculty positions, I would move wherever in the world he found work, as long as we could buy land there for me to farm. He got an offer from Cornell University, and we decided to move to Ithaca, New York, a small city surrounded by farmland about 3,000 miles from our home in Washington state.
A year before moving, we visited Ithaca to scope it out. The university introduced us to a realtor, who showed us enough listings of small farms close to campus to convince us that it would be possible to find a place where I could farm and Adrian could bike to work. He also showed us a website where we could search on our own for listings that met our criteria: 5-20 clear acres, within 10 miles of campus, under $400,000, ideally with a house and a barn. I checked the website obsessively during the year before we moved. A few options came and went, but none we loved so much we had to fly out to see. Meanwhile, over phone and email, a lender pre-approved us for a mortgage. Adrian’s salary and the money we had saved over the past seven years – plus some he had inherited from his grandfather – allowed us to qualify for a traditional mortgage, and rates were very low at the time. Consequently, we did not seek assistance from any USDA programs.
We moved east in July, into a rental house in town. I took a job on a farm crew and continued to obsess over the real estate website. We found a few properties and visited them with the realtor, but none were perfect. Some didn’t have enough open acreage. Some had too much. Some had giant, century-old houses that would be too costly to heat in the cold northern winters. Some were too expensive. Some were too far from town. One was in an actual swamp.
After a fruitless four-month search and several conversations with my Beginning Farmers Institute cohort, we began to suspect we needed another strategy. We realized that perhaps we needed a different real estate agent who knew the farming community better and could help us find a farmer looking to retire. We signed up on a local land link website that promised to help do this, but heard nothing. Around this time, though, a new property came on the market. It was a little further from town than we had hoped, but it was on a bus line that went straight to campus and was also close to a village that we really liked. Plus, it had twelve acres, a small house, a barn, a field, an orchard, a woodlot, and a creek, and cost less than $200,000.
We immediately emailed our realtor asking to see the place, who wrote back, “I strongly doubt it is a fit for you.” But as my mom reminded me, real estate agents make a percentage of sale price, so it’s in their interest that you buy a more expensive property. Perhaps the low price of this listing discouraged our agent from wanting to show it to us. However, we persisted; the concerns he raised about the house were aesthetic and easily fixable, especially since we would have some money left in our budget for renovations. We visited the property and fell in love. The house was dated but structurally sound, the barn was in great shape, the field had established hedgerows protecting it from drift from neighboring fields, the small orchard was full of ripe Northern Spy apples, and the woods were beautiful and golden in their autumn leaves.
A few days later, we submitted an offer below the asking price, which was accepted after a few negotiations. Next, we had a window for an inspection, during which I also took a soil sample. I pleaded with the local soil testing lab to prioritize it so we would have results before the end of the inspection window. Both results turned up fine – no structural issues, no soil contaminants – so we agreed to the sale. Our mortgage paperwork then took several months to complete, pushing back the closing to the end of December. One delay resulted from the challenge of finding homeowner’s insurance for a working farm. Regular insurance policies don’t cover this, and state law required us to have the insurance in place before the mortgage was finalized.
Once the mortgage was approved and all the other paperwork complete, we met the sellers, our realtor, and a notary public in our real estate lawyer’s office to sign endless piles of documents. When it was over, the sellers, who had lived on the property for 37 years, handed over a ziplock baggie full of keys, and we went celebrated over waffles.
Ariana Taylor-Stanley owns and operates Here We Are Farm in Trumansburg, New York, eight miles from Ithaca, where she will grow vegetables for CSA and farmers market this season. She has six previous years of farming experience, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. When not on the farm, Ariana teaches at Tompkins Cortland Community College, manages a USDA grant project at Cornell, and is active with Ithaca Showing Up for Racial Justice.