This Land Is Our Land

Tired of hunting crowded public lands? Then follow the example of these Iowans, who partnered up to purchase their own piece of game-rich property. It's not as expensive as you think.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I am motoring around a field of native prairie grasses on a 1960s Oliver tractor, mowing weeds under the puffy clouds of a June evening. Sitting next to me is my friend Dan Vonderhaar. Although we're both Iowa natives, neither of us grew up on a tractor seat like the farm kids did. My swaths aren't very straight, but I'm having too much fun to give up the wheel.

Six months later, I return to Dan's land to help finish the harvest with a 12-gauge shotgun. My setter and his Lab hustle up three roosters and we cut them down, bringing the season's yield to almost 60 pheasants, a couple of does, and a 140-inch buck-a bumper crop for a 120-acre farm in eastern Iowa.

Dan and his good friend and partner, Dave Kallsen, are what you might call "recreational farmers," members of a growing demographic in the changing rural landscape. Like them, hunters who have become frustrated by the crowds on public land or by diminished access to private ground are buying places of their own. "As we became more involved with our families, we had less time to maintain contacts with landowners," says Dan. "With our own place, there's no one to ask. If I get an afternoon off, I can go hunting." Another benefit to owning a place is that a sportsman-farmer becomes a steward of the land and not just a consumptive user, which enriches the hunting experience. "I get real satisfaction out of bringing someone to my place and putting them onto my birds," says Dave.

In areas where leasing is widespread, buying a place can make financial sense, like the difference between renting and buying a home. As an investment, farmland can return as much as 4 to 5 percent a year, and the price of good land will usually increase in value over time. And the best part? The federal government provides financial incentives for ownership: In many cases, U.S. Department of Agriculture land conservation programs will pay you to convert farmland into wildlife habitat.

Although real estate has appreciated fast enough in the last decade that the phrase "dirt cheap" has become an oxymoron, owning game-rich ground isn't limited to millionaires. Take heart from the example of Dan, 39, a teacher, and Dave, 42, a Wal-Mart pharmacist. By splitting the costs, doing the farmwork themselves, and taking full advantage of help from Uncle Sam, the two have turned a marginal cornfield and a logged-out woodlot into quality hunting habitat, and it didn't break either man's bank.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] Dan and Dave, good friends for a dozen years, had always talked about buying a place of their own and had hunted for several seasons all around the farm they eventually bought. The owner of the adjacent farm knew they were looking and that his neighbor was interested in selling the property, so he introduced them. Although the 120 acres of flood-prone cropland and locust trees didn't look like much, it lay in a prime location, adjoining 200 acres of hardwood timber full of Iowa's famous corn-fed deer and turkeys. A county-owned wildlife area a quarter mile away had a marsh and plentiful pheasants, and the English River, which ran through the place, had great potential to be a wildlife corridor. Dan and Dave were convinced that if they developed suitable habitat, the land would become a magnet for game. Because the farm was currently in production and was often flooded, it would qualify for at least one of many USDA set-aside programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program. Plus, the farm was only a 30-minute drive from their homes in Iowa City. They offered $800 an acre, and four months later, the place was theirs.

**Finding Property **
Type recreational land or farm and ranch into an Internet search engine and you'll discover hundreds of real estate brokers across the country. Farming magazines advertise land for sale, as do local papers: A recent classified in the Des Moines Register featured a picture of a happy hunt and a buck: "156 acres Wayne County IA 113 acres CRP, 20 acres timber, pond, good home site, great hunting with income. $1100 per acre." And some real estate agents have begun to specialize in the category. Mike Lashley of Sutherland, Nebraska, started 15 years ago as a farm and ranch broker. Now, the demand is so great for property with good potential as hunting land that he handles that kind of listing exclusively. An ardent hunter, Lashley advises potential buyers to do their homework before taking the plunge.

"Talk to the game warden," he says. "They know where the game is. For instance, although the Platte River in Nebraska is famous for its waterfowl hunting, there are parts of the Platte that just don't attract ducks and geese. Talk to the neighbors and to the local wildlife biologist. Ideally, you should hunt the place before you buy it."

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] Habitat, or the potential to create it, is the key factor to consider. In an area rich in habitat, you can take some land that has been heavily farmed and, with proper management, attract game. On the other hand, if the surrounding area has been cultivated into a biological desert, no amount of improvements will make a difference. Arable land is desirable-agricultural crops provide food for wildlife and can be a source of income for the owner, and most government-sponsored conservation programs apply only to farms.

How much land do you need? That depends on where you live and what kind of game you enjoy hunting. As little as 40 acres of timber might be enough property for a food plot and a couple of tree stands in the East, South, or Midwest, although 80 to 100 acres would be better. If you need a lot of terrain for upland bird hunting or for chasing turkeys, you may have to find partners to increase your buying power and your acreage.

Making a Purchase
Buying agricultural land isn't much different from buying a house. After negotiating the price with the landowner, Dan and Dave spent a few hundred dollars to pay an attorney to draw up the purchase agreement. With their offer accepted, they shopped for financing and found the best deal on a loan at a small-town farmer's bank that required only a $6,000 down payment. After a blur of signing documents and writing checks at closing, they walked out the door as landowners.

For a hassle-free transaction, Lashley urges out-of-towners to hire a local attorney. It's vital, too, he says, to be sure the seller gives a clear, legal description of the boundaries, especially on riverbottom properties, where lines can change as the river shifts course. Lashley learned that lesson the hard way when he represented a buyer in a boundary dispute that dragged out in court over two years, which bled both sides for thousands of dollars and benefited no one but the attorneys.

[NEXT "Story Continued..."] After the offer is made and accepted, but before the closing, comes the due diligence period, when you and your partners inspect the property and look for flaws, problems, or unwanted surprises. "During that time I would personally interview the neighbors," says Lashley. "If they're tree-huggers or if they have 20 goose pits on your fenceline, they can make your life really hard." Say that you're hoping to grow big whitetails on the place-you'll be wasting your time unless all the surrounding landowners agree to participate in a Quality Deer Management plan.

Conservation Easements Proud owners of a short stretch of the English River, a hillside covered with thorny locust trees, and an unproductive cornfield, Dan and Dave began the conversion process. They contacted an Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who visited the farm and recommended a habitat management plan. They picked up a Conservation Reserve Program packet from the county Natural Resources Conservation Service office and waded through the application forms and worksheets, hoping to register the property for federal funding to convert it to grassland habitat. When they finally returned with the completed application, they were expecting a snarl of red tape and rules. Instead, they got expert assistance.

"They looked at our worksheet and said, ¿¿¿You don't want to be in this program. You'll qualify for this one and this one, and maybe this other one.' They were incredibly helpful," says Dave. "They want to sign up landowners."

The 88 acres of tillable land qualified for three programs: one section would be retired as a riparian buffer; the rest was eligible for two wetlands restoration projects. But first, there was work to be done. In order to meet the requirements, they had to build marsh basins to facilitate wetlands repairs, which required a minimal investment. But once the land was enrolled, the funds they received for participating were almost enough to offset the mortgage and tax payments.

"It kind of rubs me the wrong way that we're getting paid to do what we would have done anyway," says Dave, a staunch conservative. "But I've come to realize these programs are good for everybody. They benefit wildlife and water quality, and they keep the price of grain up by taking land out of production." [NEXT "Story Continued..."]

Sweat Equity
Some hunter-landowners hire a farm manager (who typically takes 6 to 10 percent of the agricultural proceeds). Dan and Dave rent their arable ground to a neighbor and handle the maintenance and upkeep-fences, gates, seeding, and mowing-with the help of their friend Chad Lambe, an engineer who grew up on a farm. "Dan and I are town guys," says Dave. "We rely on Chad to tell us what to plant when, and he does our bulldozing, too." Last year, they put in corn, sorghum, and sunflower food plots, and they planted ninebark, cedar trees, wild plums, highbush cranberry, arrowwood, hazelnuts, apple trees, buttonbush, lilacs, and mixed native grasses. Then they felled trees to create brushpiles and second-growth areas where deer could bed and browse.

The improvements paid off immediately, tripling the pheasant population from the year before. After the season closed, they routinely saw flocks of 100 birds feeding in the standing corn. Although the farm gave up a trophy buck the first year they owned it, they believe that deer was in transit. This season, the brushpiles and second growth held deer on the farm, while the standing corn in the food plot drew other whitetails from up and down the riverbottom. One morning, bowhunting on the edge of the corn, Dan counted eight bucks. In November, Lambe took a deer that scored 140 Boone and Crockett points.

As with any property, expenses-planned and unexpected-are part of the responsibilities of ownership. "It's not for someone who lives paycheck to paycheck," says Dan. "forms and worksheets, hoping to register the property for federal funding to convert it to grassland habitat. When they finally returned with the completed application, they were expecting a snarl of red tape and rules. Instead, they got expert assistance.

"They looked at our worksheet and said, ¿¿¿You don't want to be in this program. You'll qualify for this one and this one, and maybe this other one.' They were incredibly helpful," says Dave. "They want to sign up landowners."

The 88 acres of tillable land qualified for three programs: one section would be retired as a riparian buffer; the rest was eligible for two wetlands restoration projects. But first, there was work to be done. In order to meet the requirements, they had to build marsh basins to facilitate wetlands repairs, which required a minimal investment. But once the land was enrolled, the funds they received for participating were almost enough to offset the mortgage and tax payments.

"It kind of rubs me the wrong way that we're getting paid to do what we would have done anyway," says Dave, a staunch conservative. "But I've come to realize these programs are good for everybody. They benefit wildlife and water quality, and they keep the price of grain up by taking land out of production." [NEXT "Story Continued..."]

Sweat Equity
Some hunter-landowners hire a farm manager (who typically takes 6 to 10 percent of the agricultural proceeds). Dan and Dave rent their arable ground to a neighbor and handle the maintenance and upkeep-fences, gates, seeding, and mowing-with the help of their friend Chad Lambe, an engineer who grew up on a farm. "Dan and I are town guys," says Dave. "We rely on Chad to tell us what to plant when, and he does our bulldozing, too." Last year, they put in corn, sorghum, and sunflower food plots, and they planted ninebark, cedar trees, wild plums, highbush cranberry, arrowwood, hazelnuts, apple trees, buttonbush, lilacs, and mixed native grasses. Then they felled trees to create brushpiles and second-growth areas where deer could bed and browse.

The improvements paid off immediately, tripling the pheasant population from the year before. After the season closed, they routinely saw flocks of 100 birds feeding in the standing corn. Although the farm gave up a trophy buck the first year they owned it, they believe that deer was in transit. This season, the brushpiles and second growth held deer on the farm, while the standing corn in the food plot drew other whitetails from up and down the riverbottom. One morning, bowhunting on the edge of the corn, Dan counted eight bucks. In November, Lambe took a deer that scored 140 Boone and Crockett points.

As with any property, expenses-planned and unexpected-are part of the responsibilities of ownership. "It's not for someone who lives paycheck to paycheck," says Dan. "