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Buying a Farm

BUYING A FARM: CHOOSING A GOOD SITE

The location, size and internal characteristics of a farm must be appropriate for the type of farm you are operating.

The amount of land required for a successful farm operation depends upon the type of farming to be undertaken and the required size of the enterprise. Farm size can range from a few hectares in the case of intensive fresh herb production, to over ten hectares for a poultry farm or vineyard, and to hundreds, even thousands of hectares for grazing properties.

The size of land required can depend on the following:

  • Cost of Land - a compromise may be necessary due to what can be afforded. A property that is further away from services, markets and cities can be obtained at cheaper prices.
  • What is available - restricted by what is available on the market (i.e. you may need 150 hectares, but land might only be selling in 100 hectare or 500 hectare lots in your preferred locality).

  • Amount of land required to produce a reasonable living. This could depend upon whether the farm will be the sole income of the family, or whether you will have off-farm income (e.g. investments, or other employment).

FARM SITE CHARACTERISTICS

If you are contemplating purchasing a property for use as a farm, or evaluating an existing one, consider the following:

1. SITE CHARACTERISTICS

Slope

Sloping sites can be very difficult for stock to traverse, or cultivate. They may require expensive earth works to prepare suitable sites for buildings, and terracing for areas to work on. Sloped sites will generally have good drainage, although steeper slopes that are subjected to heavy rainfall may result in high surface run-off and erosion. Slopes on unstable soil are also more likely to fail (landslips).

Aspect

For crop production choose sites for maximum sunlight hours and for protection from prevailing winds, for example, in Australia, North to North - East facing slopes are generally preferred.

Soil

Soil characteristics play a major part in the success of both pasture and crop production. Contact the local Department of Agriculture, Land Management or similar body to discuss any potential problems (e.g. salinity, erosion) of targeted properties.

Factors to consider include:

  • Nutrient levels - Many Australian soils, particularly those that have been used previously for agricultural purposes, may be deficient in some nutrient elements. This can often be rectified by fertiliser applications. It can be quite expensive, however, to do so when large scale production is planned. Soils that have a high initial fertility will save time and money. In rare cases soils may even have toxic levels of some nutrients that can damage or even kill your plants. Tests should be carried out to determine nutrient levels prior to land purchase to see if they are suitable.

  • Soil structure - A well structured soil will have a crumbly friable structure that is easily cultivated. Well structured soils have good aeration and good drainage, plant roots can readily penetrate the soil. Soil structure can be improved by the addition of materials such as lime, gypsum and organic matter. Soils that have good structure to begin with will enable you to commence production earlier and be easier to maintain in good condition.

  • Soil pH - The degree of acidity or alkalinity of a soil is critical to maintaining the health of pasture and other crop plants, and in turn maximising production. Each type of plant has a preferred pH range. Most will grow quite successfully in the pH range 5.5 to 7.0. Some may prefer slightly more alkaline conditions (above pH 7). When soil pH is not far out of the preferred range it can be modified fairly easily using acidifying materials such as super phosphate or ammonium sulphate fertilisers to lower pH, or alkalising materials such as lime to raise pH. Soils that have very low or high pH conditions should be avoided. These are often very hard to modify or maintain to a suitable pH range. Soil pH can be easily and quickly measured using a simple test kit or pH meter.

  • Salinity - Increasing salinity of both land and water is a problem in many countries. Soils for crop production should have low salinity levels, alternatively, crops that are tolerant of saline conditions may be necessary.

  • Drainage  -This includes both infiltration into the soil, and surface run-off (i.e. how much surface run-off and where does it run to?). Speak with neighbours! Consider all parts of the property. Are any areas prone to flooding? The presence of moisture loving plants, such as rushes found in an open paddock, will give an indication of areas that tend to remain moist. If possible try and visit any properties you are considering purchasing, during, or as soon as possible after, a heavy downpour to help determine any drainage problems.

2. CLIMATE

All plants and animals are adapted to particular climatic conditions. To get the best out of them in terms of both quantity and quality you need to choose a site that provides conditions best suited to the particular plants and/or animals you are growing. If you already have a site, select plants and/or animals that suit that site. Modification of the site to alter conditions may make it more suitable for the plants and/or animals you wish to grow (i.e. build dams to provide additional water for irrigation, or grow windbreaks for shelter).

Climatic data for an area is often available, the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia provides climatic data in a variety of forms for most of the continent that can be easily used to determine growing conditions in most areas.

Temperature

All plants have a range of temperatures in which they will grow. Within this range is an optimum range where the plants will give their best results. For example a particular plant may grow within the range 4 - 35 degrees celsius with an optimum range of 15 - 25 degrees celsius. Maximum temperatures at a potential site are generally not as critical as minimum temperatures. At high temperatures plants may slow their growth to reduce water loss, whereas at low temperatures the plants may cease growth or even die. As temperatures can vary quite significantly, not only from season to season, but also from day to night, it is important to consider the annual temperature cycle for each potential farm site. Tables or maps that indicate the average maximum and minimum temperatures for each month can be used to determine the potential growing season for different plants at that site.

As with plants animals also are adapted to certain climatic conditions. For example there are cattle breeds that are better suited to warm climates, such as the brahman, and its crosses, and ones that are better suited to cooler areas (e.g. angus). It is far easier to select animals that are suited to your local climatic conditions than to try and modify your property to suit the particular animals you wish to grow. Simply driving around the area and seeing which crops and animals are growing well, or talking to local farmers, can give you a good indication of what to grow yourself.

Frosts

Frosts can cause major damage to plants. Plants recently removed from protected conditions, such as in a greenhouse or shadehouse, and not had enough time to "harden up" are prone to damaged by frost. Many fruit crops are susceptible to damage by frost. Frost frequency depends on location and on local topography. Frost conditions are most likely to occur on clear cold nights, with little or no wind, at inland sites or at higher altitudes. It is least likely to occur in slightly elevated coastal areas, particularly where it is windy.  The likelihood of frost occurrence can be established from climatic records, and from talking to locals.

Rainfall

A major limiting factor which will determine what can be grown (plant or animal) on a particular site is the rainfall the site receives. Low rainfall can be offset by irrigation from alternative sources of water. If these sources are not available, the quality is poor, or if the cost to supply the irrigation water is prohibitive then you need to choose a site that provides sufficient natural rainfall. There are four major points to consider regarding rainfall. These are:-

  • Distribution - This refers to when the rain falls. An inch (25 mm) of rainfall in a normally moist site during winter conditions will not have the same significance as the same amount falling in a normally drier site, or in summer.

  • Variability - Some areas have a very consistent rainfall, others do not. Two sites may have the same average annual rainfall, but there may be quite different variation around that average at each site. For example, each site may have an average annual rainfall of 1000 mm (40 inches) but one may vary between 250 and 2000 mm from year to year, while the other may only vary between 750 and 1300 mm from year to year. This has important consequences in determining what crops/animals to grow, and the extent of water storages (e.g. dams), and alternative water sources required (e.g. bores).

  • Frequency - This is a measure of how often it rains, and can be important in determining the size of water storages. For example where there is a large interval between periods of rain then water storages (e.g. farm tanks) will have to be larger than for sites where rain falls frequently. Sydney for example has a higher average annual rainfall than Melbourne, but it rains more often on average in Melbourne (a lower intensity) than in Sydney.
    Intensity - This is the total rainfall annual divided by the number of wet days (days exceeding 0.2mm of rain). This is very important in terms of run-off. In areas of high intensity rainfall, run-off is generally high, and, consequently the percentage of water infiltrating into the soil is low in comparison to areas with low intensity rainfall. Erosion can be a major problem in high intensity rainfall areas, while getting sufficient run-off to boost water storages can be a problem in low intensity areas. Generally in Australia southern areas such as Southern Victoria and South-West Western Australia have low intensity rainfall, with intensity much higher along the eastern coastline, and in particular the northern part of the continent.

Evaporation

Evaporation is the loss of water as water vapour. It increases as temperatures increase, humidity drops and winds increase. It can be measured by determining the amount of water evaporated from a free water surface exposed in a pan. In countries, such as Australia, where surface water storage is extremely important for agricultural purposes, evaporation is very significant. As with other climatic data, maps or tables of evaporation data are generally readily available.

Effective Rainfall

Perhaps the most important climatic parameter that determines the growing season (for crops and pasture) at a particular site is 'Effective Rainfall'. This can be defined as the rainfall over a certain period (e.g. month) minus the soil evaporation (equivalent to approximately one third of pan evaporation figures) during the same period. Positive figures indicate that soil moisture is increasing, or in other words the amount of rainfall received in that period exceeded the amount of water lost by evaporation. Negative figures indicate that evaporation has exceeded rainfall and that the soil is drying up. The number of months in succession in which rainfall exceeds evaporation (as long as temperature isn't a limiting factor) determines the growing season of a particular site.

Wind

Wind is important in a number of ways. The stronger the wind the greater the amount of evaporation. Vegetation and soils will dry out more quickly, water storages will be reduced. Strong winds can physically damage plants and facilities (e.g. polyhouses, packing sheds, stables). Animal stock can be injured by falling branches or wind blown debris. Cool winds can result in reduced production as animals burn up energy to keep warm, instead of utilising it for growth. Slight winds on cold clear nights help prevent frosts occurring. Sites subject to regular strong or gusty winds, hot dry winds, or very cold winds should be avoided unless the site can be readily modified, for example by wind breaks, or protective structures such as greenhouses.

Extreme hazards

Some areas will be subject to hazards such as hail, snowfalls, thunderstorms, lightning, or bush fires. These may be infrequent, but they can do a lot of damage to stock, equipment and facilities. Both climatic records and historical records (e.g. newspapers, meteorological websites) can be useful in determining the likelihood of such events occurring.

Microclimates

These occur when local conditions modify the climate in some way from the general overall climatic conditions of the area. For example trees provide shade and maybe frost or sun protection, but can restrict light and reduce growth rates of plants (an advantage with some and disadvantage with other plants). Careful inspection of the farm site will help in identifying where such conditions occur.

3. BIOLOGICAL

Pest and Diseases

Some sites, particularly those that have been used previously for agriculture, may have populations present of particular pests and diseases that could be damaging to plants and animals. Control of these can often be very costly and time consuming. Inspection of existing vegetation on-site, or of crops on adjacent properties should give some indication of what types of pest and diseases are around. Talking to neighbours will give you an idea of what pests and diseases are problems in the area.

Existing Vegetation

Existing vegetation can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. Clearing large areas of vegetation so you can establish a farm can be quite expensive. Large areas of vegetation can pose a fire risk, or they may provide shelter for pests and diseases. Tall trees may create shaded areas. Weed infestations may be widespread. Existing vegetation may be utilised as a windbreak, for erosion control, as a buffer strip alongside streams or other water bodies, providing privacy, providing valuable timber or firewood, or be important for wildlife conservation. One method of clearing thick undergrowth is to introduce goats onto the affected land.

4. WATER

Virtually all farms will require an additional source of water to supplement natural rainfall. The amount of water required will depend on the amount, reliability, frequency and distribution of rainfall coupled with how many and what type of plants and/or animals you are growing. Additional water for irrigation is generally obtained from the following sources:

  • On-site storage such as dams or tanks where run-off is collected and stored for later use.

  • Bore water (degree of use will be depend on flow rates and quality).
    Irrigation channels where water is distributed from storages often large distances away.

  • From lakes, streams or rivers.

  • From mains or town water systems (usually carried by pipes and/or aqueducts or channels).

The chosen site will need to have access to one or more of these water sources. A license to draw suitable amounts of water from them may also be necessary and should be checked out.

The quality of the water is very important. Chemicals in the water may result in toxic symptoms or slow death of plants and animals. Salinity levels should be low, otherwise plants could be damaged, or the structure of soils affected. Sediment levels should also be low or blockages of pipes or sprinklers could occur and leaf surfaces on plants may become coated with deposited sediment affecting both the plants ability to photosynthesise, and it's palatability to stock.

5. OTHER FACTORS

Closeness to Markets

Marketing costs are cheaper if customers or transportation to customers is close.

Cost of Land

In some cases it is cheaper to move further away from your market to enable you to by suitable land at a far cheaper price than you can obtain closer to your market.

Access

Good, all weather access to, onto and around the site is very important if you want to have a safe, efficient farm.

Existing Facilities

Does the site have existing facilities such as buildings, watering systems, power, phone, dams, roadways, windmills or bores? The presence of these could save not only the money required to build them, but also the time saved could enable you to start production earlier.

Services

If you have to pay for water, power, phone etc., to be brought some distance to your property, this can prove to be very expensive. In many cases the land may seem a real bargain until you take into consideration the cost of supplying these necessary services.

Air Quality

Some consideration should be given to nearby industrial businesses. Pollutants can contaminate the air and deposit residue on plant stock. If there is a pungent smell in the air, prospective customers may be deterred from visiting your farm.

Labour Supply

Farms that are situated far from populated districts may have difficulty in obtaining staff during busy periods. This is a common place occurrence with fruit growers, where pickers can often be in short supply, even in times of high unemployment.

Security

Security is important to help avoid damage from both animals and humans. Native and domestic animals can all effect crop production by eating plants, causing damage to irrigation systems, killing stock, or knocking over and breaking plants. Humans may cause damage through vandalism or theft. Security can sometimes be essential. Alternatively, a house on the property provides continuous security if someone is living at the site.

Governmental Regulations

Certain farm operations can only be established in a suitable land planning zone. Local government planning schemes should be carefully checked, and necessary planning permits obtained. All state and federal government regulations, compliance and statutory requirements must be met.

LEARN MORE

If you work on a farm or manage a farm, learn with ACS to improve your knowledge and skills. Take a look at our wide range of Agriculture Courses, with a choice of study levels and wide array of subjects covered.

If you have any QUESTIONS or need help deciding what course to study, please do get in touch with our Agriculture specialists using our FREE COURSE COUNSELLING SERVICE - they will be more than happy to help you. 

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