How To Purchase Hunting Land

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 wild-life 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.

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 hunter 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."

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.

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."

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, high-bush 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 pay-check to paycheck," says Dan. "We had to buy the tractor. We have to pay up front for seed and trees, and it may be six months before we're reimbursed by the NRCS. Our gate was stolen, and we had to replace it. Having a farm like this is like raising a child. It's a lot of work, and you watch it mature and grow." Another big investment is time. "The biggest surprise about this place," adds Dave, "has been how much of our time it takes up. But it's all worth it."

Dan and Dave had another compelling reason to buy their place: They will pass it down to their children. One morning last spring, Dave woke his two girls, Erin, 8, and Christine, 6, long before dawn. They stuffed backpacks full of turkey calls, snacks, and Barbie dolls, and set out for the farm. For three hours they sat in a blind, alternately scraping on calls and playing with the dolls. A jake came in to the decoys, and Dave told his daughters he would like to let the bird get older. The girls voted to spare the young turkey. Then a 2-year-old gobbler materialized in easy range of his 10-gauge muzzleloader. This time, the girls voted to let Dad drop the hammer. "That morning is something none of us will ever forget," he says. "Whether the girls ever hunt or not, this place will always be theirs."

67 WHAT IT ALL COSTS

67 THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS

68 BUYER'S CHECKLIST

68 CONSERVATION PROGRAMS

69 LAND FOR SALE

WHAT IT ALL COSTS

•Buying a place to hunt can make sound financial sense. For instance, if you dream of shooting mallards on Nebraska's famous North Platte River, you could join a duck club and pay $5,000 to $7,000 in annual dues. Or you could go halves with your favorite hunting buddy on this recent listing of 59 acres fronting a half mile of prime waterfowl habitat on the same river. --P.B.

GOLDEN RETREAT

59 acres total, 9.4 acres alfalfa field Price: $179,000

Initial Costs

Down payment (20%) $35,800

Closing Costs

Title insurance (approx.) $1,000

Escrow closing agent's fee $400

Improvements

Enlarge warmwater slough, estimated cost $6,000 (90% cost-share reimbursement available). Net cost $600

Build permanent duck blind $250

Total $38,050

YOUR HALF $19,025

Annual Costs

Mortgage payment* $13,580

Taxes $535

Fence maintenance $100

Blind and shed maintenance $50

Annual Total $14,265

Income from alfalfa $900

Net $ 13,365

YOUR HALF $6,682.50

*20-year loan at 7 ¼% All costs listed are very rough estimates.

THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS

Dave Kallsen and Dan Vonderhaar didn't draw up an official partnership agreement, but most investors should. "The more people you have in the group, the more important it becomes to have a set of written rules," says Mike Lashley, a Nebraska real estate agent. An exit agreement, spelling out what happens when someone decides to leave the partnership, protects everyone's investment. To keep the property running without disputes, adopt bylaws that designate who is in charge of determining hunting rights and schedules.

Lashley recommends hiring an attorney to set up an LLC (limited liability corporation), which provides protection against liability in case someone is injured on the property. For the same reason, landowners should also purchase liability insurance.

Two or three partners are optimal, but a well-organized group of eight or 10 guys has tremendous buying power. "Right now I'm putting together an LLC for 10 people to buy a $2.65 million piece of property on the Platte," says Lashley. "None of these guys are millionaires, but they'll have a millionaire's hunting." --P.B.

CONSERVATION PROGRAMS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a number of programs--and considerable financial assistance--to help landowners be good stewards of their land and wildlife. Contact: www.nrcs.usda.gov or your state's conservation office.

•The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) targets erodible farmland. Qualifying owners receive payments to keep arable land idle.

•The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) provides technical and financial support to help restore wetlands.

•The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wild-life Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) offer up to 50 to 100 percent cost-share incentives for the establishment of a variety of land-management practices.

•The U.S. Forest Service Land Enhancement Program (FLEP) provides technical and financial assistance (including 50 to 70 percent cost sharing) to owners of 1,000 acres or less who implement sound forestry practices. --P.B.

BUYER'S CHECKLIST

1 Get a clear title description. This is key especially if it's riverbottom property where channels can shift over time. Boundary disputes can be costly and time consuming.

2 Call the game warden. Is it the right habitat for the species you like to hunt? During deer season is the land overrun with trespassers? The warden will know.

3 Meet the neighbors. Approach all sides. Are they poachers, bunny huggers, survivalists, or heirs bent on selling out to developers? If you're buying a place with the idea of implementing a deer management plan, you'll need the cooperation of the surrounding landowners.

4 Talk to hunters. Find people who have hunted the land (they might not be totally forthcoming in an effort to save their hotspot, but it's worth a try). They'll know how good--or bad--the hunting has been.

5 Check into conservation programs. Contact the NRCS and other agencies to determine which programs the land might be eligible for and whether improvements (building ponds, reconstructing wetlands, planting trees) might qualify the property for government cost-sharing funds. --P.B.

LAND FOR SALE

Start with an Internet search and then check out the local real estate agencies. Cabela's (800-535-6007; www.cabelas.com) and Mossy Oak (866-667-2289; www. mossyoakproperties.com) also offer such services. Here's sampling of listings from around the country:

WEST

CALIFORNIA

477 acres, Solano County, California: A duck club since 1927, the property sits in the famous Suisun Marsh. Ducks, fishing, good pheasant hunting, too. With house, cabins and blinds. $920,000.

COLORADO

ATTENTION ELK HUNTERS!

320 acres near Maybell, Colorado, surrounded by BLM land in the path of the elk migration route. Includes creek and reservoir with water rights. $180,000. Dale Haskins: 970-272-9914; www.ranchbrokers.com

IDAHO

202 acres near Grace, Idaho: Scenic valley property bordering Caribou National Forest. Creek and natural spring on the property. $326,000. Marie Robbins or Tom Palmer: 208-766-4891

MONTANA

WHERE THE ANTELOPE ROAM

278 acres near Bridger, Montana: Mile-high property in the Pryor mountains. Bear, deer and antelope hunting. 105 acres in CRP. $140,000. Dorothea Lowe: 888-514-5683; ww.montanahereicome.com

WYOMING

320 acres in Sweetwater County, Wyoming: Unimproved wild land in Wyoming's Red Desert. Hunt antelope on this property and adjacent BLM land. $160,000.

MIDWEST

ILLINOIS

51 acres near Ziegler, Illinois: 21 tillable acres, goose pit on the property, deer and some duck hunting as well. $98,000. Brenda Koon: 618-201-3947; www.buyafarm.com

MINNESOTA

NORTH WOODS PARADISE

80 acres, Morcom Township, Minnesota: Remote, unimproved northern Minnesota timbered land with deer, bear, moose, and grouse. Surrounded by public land. 4WD or ATV access. $72,000. T. Anderson: P.O. Box 106, Bemidji, MN 56619

NORTH DAKOTA

160 acres near New Rockford, North Dakota: Located south of Devil's Lake in good waterfowl hunting country. 68.7 wet acres offer excellent potential for wetland restoration projects. $80,000. Dean Vorland: 701-947-5626; www.vorlandlandcompany.com

WISCONSIN

120 acres, Rusk County, Wisconsin: Oaks, new pine plantings, pond, and some cropland. Deer, grouse, and turkeys. $156,000.

SOUTH

ALABAMA

58 acres, Tailadega County, Alabama: Mix of young and mature timber. Ready to hunt with two shooting houses overlooking food plots. $101,500.

GEORGIA

87 acres in Telfair County, Georgia: Hardwoods and pine surrounded by timber and adjacent hunting clubs. $125,000.

MISSISSIPPI

247 acres in Monroe County, Mississippi: Timbered hills and crop fields located ¼ mile from the TN-Tom waterway. Surrounded by Corps of Engineers and WMA land. Good deer and turkey, with waterfowl and dove field potential. $234,650. 888-777-LAND; www.msland.com

EAST

NEW YORK

82 acres, Chautauqua County, New York: Hardwood timber with spruce plantations. Surrounded by New York State Forest lands. Comes with cabin and royalties from three gas wells on the property. $95,000.

MAINE

320 acres near Chapman, Maine: mixed timber with year-round stream. Deer, moose, bear, and grouse. Property includes deeded right of way over Old Town Road. $64,000.

PENNSYLVANIA

609 acres in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania: Wooded, mountainous land bordering Susquehanna River. Deer, bears, turkeys, small game and trout. Property includes 8 gas wells, coal, and marketable timber for income potential. $913,000 with mineral rights; $454,500 without.

VERMONT

163 acres near Lyndonville, Vermont: 150 acres timber, 8 tillable. Includes 1,000 feet of creek footage and beaver ponds. Two-bedroom cabin. $195,000. Fay A. Young: 802-626-3688