Buying Hunting Land

Hunt 365 June-Buying Your Own Farm (A shorter version of this article is published in the June issue of Iowa Sportsman Magazine)

Hunt 365 has been about habitat and hunting strategies.  In many ways, the articles pertain to hunters who have access to a farm they can control and manage, or hunters who own their own farm.  I’m often asked how is it a working class hunter could ever afford to buy hunting land unless it was handed down or somehow a great deal was had from a relative.  Well, I thought in this month’s article I would mix it up a little bit and give you some ideas on how to gain access to your own farm to manage and hunt.

Option 1 When I was just seventeen, I organized the first Quality Deer Management meeting for the township I lived in.   I went door to door to all the neighbors and gave my pitch and invited them to the meeting.  Most of the neighboring landowners were pleasant enough, but I could tell early on that managing the deer herd for anything other than filling tags was not going to be a huge priority.  And honestly, getting a deer management pitch from a kid still in high school probably didn’t help much either.  Fast forward a couple years and the hunting on the family farm got better…noticeably better.  We went from hardly ever seeing a good buck (OK never seeing a good buck) to having a chance at a 2 or 3 year old buck each year.  The hunting pressure in the area was intense to say the least; but putting a strong effort into managing the local deer herd was rewarding and having some although not much effect on improving our hunt.

Managing your current hunting grounds for a more quality hunt is a very good option.  Many times this is about hunting the family farm or having access to a relative or friends place.  All the articles in the Whitetails 365 series can help with hunters focusing on improving current hunting grounds.  The draw back with trying to squeeze more out of current hunting areas can be many.  If you don’t own the property, you might find yourself with limited control over management goals and what gets harvested.  Putting in all the work and spending all the money yourself can be a problem too if nobody else is willing to go along.  Disagreements and arguments can take place as well.  More than one family of hunters or group of friends have broken up with sour tastes in their mouths.  This may be the easiest and cheapest route to take, but results and personal satisfaction are probably limited.  When the land gets sold or passes hands someday your access might come to an end.  If this is your only option, don’t give up.  Sometimes the best way to see if you can improve the hunting with family or friends is to have a yearly hunting meeting in the spring or right after the season ends.  This is usually the time when most hunters are reflecting on their past season and want to make it better.  It’s a good time to get time and money commitments (if those are the problems) with all the members of your hunting group.  A word of advice; don’t let differences of opinion ruin good friends and family.  Learn to compromise and write what you agree to down so there are no “misunderstandings” down the road.

Option 2 Hunting the family farm with relation and neighbors who didn’t share my view on whitetail management, I knew I had to either move on or be satisfied with what I had.   It was frustrating to say the least but I have many good memories from those years.  After a decade or so of hunting this way, my patience finally withered away and I sought access to better hunting grounds.  Still having the goal of owning my own farm someday, but lacking the finances as of yet to pull it off, I sought out a hunting lease with a group of friends.

Almost overnight, I went from consistently being frustrated with my hunting to being in hunter’s heaven.  The very first year I killed my biggest buck to that point.  The farm we had was in a great location with a lot of like-minded hunters in the area practicing QDM.  The farmer we leased from was a great guy and allowed us to manage the land, put in food plots, make bedding areas, and harvest as many does as we wanted.  The hunting got better and better.  We had a written agreement that spelled out the cost of the lease, who could hunt the land, contingencies for our camper and electrical usage, etc.  But, what I didn’t plan for were the inevitable disagreements within our own hunting group.  How much were we all willing to spend on stands, food plots, and our camper?  Who would do all the work?  How do we decide who gets to sit what stand when?  What are the harvest goals…are we killing 3 year old deer or waiting on only 4 or 5 years olds?  When you are leasing with a group of other hunters, knowing what they want out of the lease is crucial to making sure it succeeds and no arguments take place.  Have a yearly meeting right after the season ends each year and openly discuss how the season went and how can things get better.  Write down what you can agree on and be open to compromise once again.  Including the land owner in this yearly meeting is a great way to keep and build your relationship with him or her.

Leasing was great for a while.  It allowed me to spend nominal amounts of time and money and still have good hunting.  But…owning my own land still weighed on me.  My dream of owning my own farm pulled at me harder each hunting season.  And like hunting the family farm or with friends, leasing is not permanent and has major drawbacks.  I knew even though my lease was good, it would also come to an end someday.

Option 3  My wife Amy and I started saving for our own farm in our early 20’s.  Back then, we started out with nothing.  Along the way we resisted the temptation to buy things that didn’t get us to our goal…owning our own whitetail paradise.  When all my friends had new cars and trucks…we didn’t.  We worked our fair share of overtime at work, did extra work on the side roofing and remodeling houses (yes Amy was there up on the roofs as well).  The point is, coming up with enough money to buy your own farm takes years of hard work and discipline for most working class hunters.  Still, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hunt deer makes very little economic sense unless the investment in the land has a return all its own.

Here, I'm posing with Amy and Forest on our farm the day of closing back in 2012.

Here, I’m posing with Amy and Forest on our farm the day of closing back in 2012.

The Case for Buying Land—When I was born in 1972, much of the land across the Midwest was in the low hundreds per acre.  In 1970, historic land values for Decatur, Van Buren, and Clayton counties (Iowa) for example were $197, $274, and $328 per acre respectively.  Today, those same counties (as of 2013) are $3628, $5406, and $7814 per acre averaged across each county.  Throughout this 40 plus year period, land values grew at an average rate of over 7% a year.  Over this same time period the stock market has coincidentally averaged around 7% also.  But it doesn’t end there with land!

If you buy recreational land in a farming environment and can target properties with farm income on them, you now have the added benefit of your land producing income as well.  For the past 30 years or so farm rental rates have also been nicely increasing at an average rate of 3 or 4 percent/year depending on the county.  Using the same three counties mentioned earlier, farm rental rates currently average $168, $158, and $260/acre.  CRP and/or other conservation plan payments typically mimic farm rental rates so you can also expect similar income for those programs.  If you can target a combination hunting and tillable farm you can expect to get a fairly decent return on your investment.  To illustrate my point…say you bought an 80 acre combination farm in Van Buren County for $320,000.  The farm has 50 good tillable acres on it.  The farm value itself over the long haul should provide you with a decent return on your investment if you go to sell it someday.  If you rented out the tillable ground at the county average you would have yearly income of $7,900 (50acres X $158) coming in each year.  That’s about a 2.5% yearly return of income on your purchase ($7,900/$320,000)…when’s the last time a bank offered you 2.5% on your savings?  Of course none of this is ever guaranteed but farm land values and rental rates have been far more reliable and steady than investing in the stock market in my opinion.

I can make a strong argument with any investor or hunter on why it is a great economic decision to buy land…especially land with farm income.  But for working class hunters this isn’t all that easy.  Coming up with $320,000 to buy land doesn’t happen overnight.  As of the writing of this article, Farm Credit Services would require 35% down plus the income capacity to pay off a loan.  That’s $112,000 just for a down payment on my 80 acre example!  And yet, if you are committed to owning your own land someday you’ll find a way to do it right?  That’s where we go back to the beginning of my story.  It took us 20 years of hard work and saving to buy our first farm.  That’s a lot of not having what everyone else might have to save up for that dream farm.  But I can tell you that having your own property to hunt and manage can be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do as a committed whitetail hunter.  And, in my examples I’ve used 80 acres as a reference…you don’t need 80 acres to have a great land owner experience.  There are many places where a smaller piece of land will get you that same experience of owning your own land.  Author’s Note: In this article I specifically used three different counties in Iowa as examples.  Very similar situations occur throughout the mid-west or anywhere row crop farming exists.

Precautions in Buying Land  When you are buying combination land for hunting and income, it is easy to be overcome with emotion.  These emotions can get us to make bad decisions when buying recreational land.

When looking at the income potential of land, you must be cautious to not buy into marketing schemes that inflate potential income.  I’ll give you some examples.  If the farm is advertised as having tillable acres with rental income…check to see if the farm has a crop history through the county Farm Service Agency office where the land is.  Many times I’ve seen farm ground go fallow because it is marginal ground that is hard to farm.  The year before a sale, the owner will get anybody they can to farm the ground to give the illusion of tillable income that may or may not exist.  If the farm doesn’t have an FSA crop history, be very leery of the income potential.  I’ve also seen farms listed with a heading “current tillable leases at $220/acre”.  This also gives the impression that the tillable ground will rent for $220/acre…when in fact local rental rates are closer to $150.  This inflates income potential.  A good way to verify rental rates is by comparing advertised rental rates with potential Conservation Reserve Program rates or published county averages.

When looking at hunting possibilities, don’t fall into the hype trap of some listing agents.  Pictures of huge bucks on trail cams can get us dreaming giant bucks are behind every tree.  Or the realtor who will profess just about every listing they have is in an area that has huge deer, great genetics, and strict management.  Not all properties are great for hunting.  You must do your own homework walking the property looking for mature buck sign like giant rubs.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet a great realtor who can advocate on my behalf when it comes to looking for a great combination farm.  He steered me to my current property and has pushed me away from others (by providing non-emotional insight) in my current search for a second farm.  Jason Hull is a realtor for Mossy Oak Properties and specializes in southern and southeastern Iowa farms.  If you are looking for land in this area I would definitely steer you toward him (and I rarely offer up an endorsement of any person or product).  If you are just starting out or are on your way to making land ownership a reality, remember to use good judgment and research before jumping into a deal this big.  There are many good realtors out there that can help you find the right piece just for you…but there are also some shady ones too!  I only bring this up because once I was ready to buy my first farm, I had yet to do any research finding a good realtor or advocate on my behalf.  I was lucky to find Jason.  As much time as you might spend looking for that perfect property, spend a little time finding a good realtor who can advocate on your behalf to make sure you get a land deal that meets your interests.  A land/farm specialist that knows the ins and outs of farm land would be a good place to start.

When checking for good hunting land, you must walk the property yourself. I like keying in on huge rubs...but never forget to look at the quality of the tillable portion of a farm. The income is what makes any purchase possible.

When checking for good hunting land, you must walk the property yourself. I like keying in on huge rubs…but never forget to look at the quality of the tillable portion of a farm. The income is what makes any purchase possible.

As in most years on my farm, I will be spending the month of June doing weed control on my food plots.  I have two plots electric fenced in right now to make sure there are grain food sources available for late muzzleloader season…those fences need some work as well.  By late June, I will start spending some time behind my spotting scope as well glassing velvet bucks!

In July’s article I will cover over-seeding your spring planted food plots in mid to late summer.  What seeds to use, how to over-seed and when to do it.  If you have questions about summer over-seeding…I hope you’ll get them answered.

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