Be forewarned, this is something of a personal rant, but with the expanding organic, and sustainable food movement, coupled with the continuing loss of small scale workable land in this area, I do have to wonder just how many others are as frustrated as we are at the moment.
As writing tends to help me organize my thoughts, and knowing we’re not the only ones in this situation, I figured I’d make this particular rant public. Feel free to bypass this post, as it’s quite long, but if you’re curious about the source, and level of our frustrations, it might be good for a chuckle or two along the way. Besides, if we don’t laugh, we’ll probably cry. Otherwise, we’ll return you to our regularly scheduled programming with our next post, I promise.
Did We Miss The Boat?
We first moved to Santa Cruz county 20 years ago. Back then a large proportion of the county was rural, much of it was farm land, or well suited to being farm land, especially at the south end of the county, and relatively speaking, land was cheap then.
Hindsight being 20/20, we realize now that we should have secured a larger parcel of property then. The trouble with hindsight though, is it’s really only fodder for kicking yourself.
Then of course, as we’re all well aware, the resultant housing bubble changed the landscape, substantially, across much of California, and this area was no exception. Over the course of a decade, some of California’s best, and most productive, farm land was consumed, and paved over. Permanently erased. I watched it happen in California’s Central Valley, where we were living at the time, I just hadn’t appreciated, until now, how much this area had changed as well.
At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, that’s resistant to change, I admit that over the course of 20 years, we’ve changed a lot too.
20 years ago purchasing property involved us finding the best house, in the most structurally sound condition, in the friendliest neighborhood, that we could afford. Our goals were simple, to turn that house into our home, make some modest improvements, and plant an attractive garden. Most would refer to that as living the ‘American Dream’.
We’ve owned other properties since then, but since moving here, our goals have changed significantly.
Why Is This Property Not Working For Us?
As much as we love where we live now, the beautiful woodland, the sunny south facing slopes, the plants, the wildlife, our neighbors, and our neighborhood, running Curbstone Valley here, on this land, is becoming cumbersome to put it mildly. It’s working, just not very efficiently. Don’t get me wrong, we’re very grateful for what we do have, but as goal-oriented people, if we achieve our goals, we have a predictable habit of setting new ones. Our new goals have resulted in us outgrowing the usable space we have here.
The terrain here makes everything 10 times more challenging, and as there’s little flat ground here it’s also impossible to construct the infrastructure we would need to continue to expand and take this farm to the next level. To achieve our future goals.
Over the last few months we’ve been weighing our needs, our future goals, and our options. If we are to expand what we’re doing here, even modestly, and have any chance of making the farm truly profitable, we need to move the farm. There’s no question. However, the reality that is materializing is that moving the farm to another property in this same area may in fact be more dream, than reality.
Why Not Just Move?
For the last 6 months we’ve tried looking for more suitable property in the area, and will continue to do so, but it’s clear that over the last 20 years along this part of the Central Coast that much of the usable land that was once perfect for a small farmstead, has been snapped up by developers, old farm houses bulldozed, the land subdivided, rezoned into ‘estate’ parcels, and sold at 10-30 times the price per square foot.
Even if we TRIED to run a small farm on a parcel the size of our existing lot, now in most areas of the county we’d be either in violation of zoning ordinances, or irritate the neighbors with the sounds and smells of ‘farm life’. We’d have a lovely 1,000 sq ft pristine new kitchen, with cherry cabinets, granite counters, and maple floors…but I have no doubt we’d also be known as “those people” in the neighborhood. Besides, who needs a KITCHEN that big? I’d be happy for a BARN that big!
I’m not joking. One of the ‘best’ 10 acre properties we found recently was in a gated community. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I didn’t give a hoot about the house, but the land was great, and even zoned for small livestock (read HORSES). It made for entertaining conversation over dinner, as we tried to envision livestock trailers and beat up pickup trucks driving through the entrance gate, loaded with hay, or goats, behind a neighbor’s Aston Martin DB9. Or explaining to the neighbors why we don’t have need of their farrier for our hoof-stock.
I’m quite honestly not a ‘ladies who lunch’ type. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not me. Even as a child I was happiest standing in a steaming pile of fresh horse manure, in my favorite Wellington boots, than having to wear long dresses, and ribbons in my hair.
Fundamentally I haven’t changed, and it seems my life has come full circle, in that I still frequently find myself standing in poop, and I still love every gosh-darned minute of it!
Apologies to my husband, but I think the last dress I wore was my wedding dress. I have no desire to have the sparkles, and trimmings, that some feel they can’t live without. I don’t want the biggest house, the shiniest car, the perfect kids (unless they’re goat kids of course). I simply want enough room for more hay storage, for a larger heirloom orchard, a few extra goats, a milk house, some extra hives, a few more chickens, and to enjoy more of the hectic, absurdly busy, peace and quiet that we’ve come to love here.
The reality is that although we’re not bad off, financially speaking, I’ve never felt more poor in my life. Apparently there must be a tremendous amount of absurdly wealthy individuals that moved to this part of the Central Coast in the last 20 years, because despite the wobble in the economy, property prices are still absurd. Even for two professionals. I don’t blame people for wanting to live here, it’s beautiful. Maybe I simply underestimated the number of people who work for Apple, or Google, who would demand estate pseudo-agrarian living, sans poop of course, in the countryside. Regardless, Toto, it’s clear we’re not in ‘Kansas’ anymore, and moving the farm elsewhere in this area is possibly no more than a pipe dream.
We Could Afford to Live Here — What’s Changed?
When we purchased our first house on the Central Coast, land was quite expensive. You can change a house, but not the property line, so the goal when we returned to this area after an absence of a few years, was to shop for the land, not the house, as a house can be changed. We thought we’d found the land, we just didn’t expect to outgrow it.
The opposite appears to be true today, land is comparatively cheap. However, the vast majority of 10-20 acre parcels, with usable land, now have 3000-5000 sq ft McMansions built on them. Even though prices have come down, prices are still prohibitive because current real estate costs are per square foot of land improvement, and even at $400 a square, a 10 acre lot with a 5,000 sq ft house, quickly jumps to…well, you get it, you can do the math. No, that doesn’t include a barn…and let’s not even discuss the property taxes.
We’ve found a few promising properties in recent months, and we’re not at all averse to mucking in, and applying some elbow grease to improve a property to the way we want it. In fact, we’d prefer it. I’ve spent the last three years writing about that, and the last twenty living it. Fixer uppers are fine, and I’m a dab hand at sheet rock, mud and tape! Not to mention a tiling whiz, and a far better painter, than most I’ve seen hired. Not to toot my own horn. However, there’s a new wrench in the system. The banks.
What’s With the Banks?
As an example, there’s a parcel for sale just up the road from where we are now. It has a ridiculously large house (4,500 sq ft), that’s newer than the house we have now, on a more level, sunny lot, with existing stables. The total acreage is smaller than what we have now, but more of it is usable. The price seemed too good to be true, and we’ve been around the block a few times, so we expected something to be seriously amiss. Cracked foundation? Failed septic? Worn out well? Termites? Sink hole? Soil contamination? But at the listing price we were surprised, even in this economy, that in six months it hadn’t sold (we personally vetoed the property because of the size of the house, as we don’t want to maintain a house that large).
We’ve been keeping an eye on the property because it affects our comps if we decide to sell. On further inspection, it turns out that because the house is in need of a few repairs, some structural, but mostly cosmetic, banks won’t carry a loan on the property. Seriously? So unless a homeowner is willing to carry the note, the property is now to be sold either as raw land (at an improved property price no less — welcome to California), or must be a ‘cash-only’ sale. Cash only? For a 30 year old house? Now I’M scared! If we wanted to sell Curbstone Valley, could we? Who knows?
We had also looked at a property, with an existing orchard, and TWO houses on it, a main house, and a caretaker’s house, all on…brace yourself…75 acres. With the property as-is it was priced at the upper end of our budget. We’re always joking about needing a farmhand or three, so the extra house sounded perfect. We were warned up front that the bank wouldn’t approve a conforming loan, so it would be a ‘land only’ sale. Two houses on the property, but a land only sale. This requires 50% down, fair enough, but the kicker is the balance has to be paid in 18 months. Gulp. Forget getting a loan to cover the costs of improvements. However, it didn’t hurt to look, so we did.
After seeing the property in person I understand, completely, why the bank wouldn’t loan on it. The main house was 100 years old, with a rickety post-and-pier foundation, and numerous non-permitted additions, in bad shape, with no improvements since about 1940. There was no well, just a spring water storage tank in need of replacement, and the septic (an ancient redwood tank), and both houses likely need to be torn out, and replaced. I get it. Other than the orchard, the best part of the property was the cement pad for the cattle chute, and the hay barn.
The other property, close to us, didn’t even compare. It’s a mere 30 year-old fixer upper, and yet funding can’t be secured by interested buyers. How bad could it be possibly be in comparison? Really? I now feel sorry for that owner, and wonder if they’ll ever sell. I also wonder how many other sellers are finding themselves in a similar situation. The buyers are out there, and I’m sure many are perfectly capable of fulfilling their loan obligations, we know, because we’re one of them, but the banks simply won’t write the loans, regardless of your intentions to build or improve on the land.
So what goes through my mind is what in green acres are the banks playing at? Our first house, before we improved it, was in far worse shape than the property up the road, especially after it flooded in the El Niño of 1998.
Are banks in this area so scared of making loans that now they’ll only loan on modern, improved, pristine properties? 10 years ago, all you needed for a mortgage was a pulse. With a mortgage to carry the difference, we could easily have afforded that property, and a few of the others that we’ve looked at. Banks though are now clearly afraid to take the risk that the properties won’t be improved, and now seem to be refusing to loan on property that we would have previously been considered to be modest fixer uppers. The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction to where it was during the boom. Oh, and it doesn’t matter if you have the collateral for the loan, and/or a healthy down payment either.
We’ve seen half a dozen ‘suitable properties’ (i.e. appropriately zoned, with enough usable land) go pending on the market, get relisted, and then had their terms of sale amended to clarify that loans may not be able to be secured, owner is now willing to carry the note, or the property is a ‘cash only’ sale. If buyers can’t secure mortgages on properties, even properties they can clearly afford, sellers can’t sell. Period. Aren’t the banks doing a fabulous job at stimulating the economy?
Realize, I’m a potential buyer in this scenario, not the seller, so there may be more to some of this than meets the eye. But, even after talking with area realtors, it’s more than off-putting to say the least.
So, after our initial exploration, it seems that while on the one hand this region is experiencing a boom in regards to consumer interest for locally grown, sustainably farmed produce, cheeses, and meats, much of the land that was ideal for small to mid-sized farmsteads is either gone, forced into cash only sales, or likely soon to be developed. Paved over, rezoned residential, and priced out of reach.
The few remaining properties that have not yet been developed, are more often than not so old, and in need of repair, or new infrastructure, that a bank wouldn’t loan on it anyway. Or, if you read the fine print, local towns and cities have already approved the lot to be subdivided to encourage its sale to developers. This has been a surprisingly common scenario in our recent search. That’s just simple economics from the city’s perspective, more parcels, equals more property tax revenue for local governments. If you’re in the market to buy property for a farmstead, my primary advice is caveat emptor! Explore your county’s long range development plan BEFORE making an offer. Or at the very least, make the results of such a search a contingency for the purchase of the property. That way, if necessary, you have the option to back out.
We just looked at such a 22 acre property, surrounded by brand new mini-mansions on 10,000 square foot lots. We could afford it, because in the current market it’s no better than an unimproved lot. However, even if we wanted to, we can’t buy it, because it’s already rezoned as an estate RESIDENTIAL lot, should someone choose to purchase it, and keep the 22-acre parcel intact. Seriously, who needs 22 acres without livestock?
I was flabbergasted. However, it’s also been approved to be subdivided, and zoning aside, even if we dared to make an offer, we’d likely be outbid by a developer. We can’t compete against a developer. It’s sad, as the old farm house is actually quite quaint, with charm, and potential, to use realtor terms for ‘it needs a little work’. I suppose that’s the price of ‘progress’? Personally, I think it’s just sad.
We know there’s increasing demand for organic, sustainable product, and we’re fortunate to live in an area where consumer demand is high. Unfortunately, the reality is that expanding the farm in this area is looking to be less, and less likely, and we’re not willing to ‘bet the farm’ so to speak and take too large a financial risk, especially in this economy.
We’ve seen other small farms close in this area, and move away, and it’s obvious why. There are some larger farms, some even already certified organic, that we’ve seen listed for sale, but it’s not a scale on which I want to necessarily farm, or would want to HAVE to farm, just to stay afloat. I’m not sure it’s worth it.
For more perspective we’re currently reading Rebecca Thistlethwaite’s new book “Farms with a Future”, which is probably part of prompted me to write down my own thoughts in this post. Her family used to own TLC Ranch in the county, and I remember when it closed, and reading about her own reasons for choosing to close. I remember being saddened and frustrated for her, and her family, and tremendously disappointed at the lack of support, and land options, for truly small-scale family farmers in this area. I thought I understood her plight then. Now, I can honestly say “I get it”, really I do. It’s clear though that there’s such an imbalance in this area, that unless you’re independently wealthy, the math in regards to operating a small farmstead in this region simply doesn’t add up. I’m happy to say Rebecca and her family have gone on to find much success – out of state. NOT in California. That seems to be the linch-pin.
Ok, That’s Our Loss – So What?
It makes me wonder how many truly local, artisan, small-scale, responsible, and sustainable farms will be in this area in another decade, or two. As it is, when I press some of our local farmer’s market vendors, some admit to NOT producing food locally, but trucking much of it in from afar. Depending on the season, this gives some of them an enormous, and rather unfair, advantage over local growers. If you’re not farming here, maybe that doesn’t matter to you. If you’re a consumer, and content with shopping at your local mega-mart, maybe it’s not of any consequence. But if you want truly local, sustainable produce at your farmer’s markets, it’s important to support local producers. However, if the current trend of subdividing the remaining local area farm land continues, local products may become increasingly more difficult to source.
I also wonder how many small-scale farmers could have been, but were forced to give up, or to move elsewhere to realize their dream so they don’t financially ruin themselves in the process. For each small local producer that leaves, I think it’s our loss, as a community, and it saddens me to think that as a society we would rather have 5,000 square foot monster houses, and wholesale grocery establishments, than quality, responsibly produced, wholesome, sustainable food.
We know that if we want to grow our farm the logical choice is to move away from the area. Away from our potential market. Therein lies the double-edged sword of small-scale farming. We’ve looked out of state, and we can have everything we want and more, somewhere else. Anywhere else. Just maybe not here. For a host of professional reasons though, at this point in time, it’s simply not an option for us to relocate out of the area.
That said though, we’re not giving up. For now we’re tied to this area due to our ‘day jobs’. Ever optimistic, albeit massively frustrated, we’ll keep looking, and hopefully, if we’re patient, and persistent, something will turn up that proves to be a good fit for us. Who knows maybe we will find a suitable parcel somewhere, that’s fenced, with a small house that’s not in imminent danger of falling down, and no entry gate or security guard, but for now we’ll keep doing our best to make what we do have here work as best as we can. All the while knowing that in all likelihood, we may ultimately need to leave this area. If nothing else, our search has caused me to appreciate all the more what we do have, and what we’ve managed to achieve here to date.
I just need to come to terms with my frustration, and accept that for now, this is Curbstone Valley Farm. It’s not perfect, but it’s ours.