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Renting land: Sometimes it all works out for the best

Sometimes renting, farmland or houses, works just the way we’d like it to

My wife and I rented the upstairs of a brownstone house on Palmerston Avenue in Toronto. It was small. It was expensive. But it was an experience we won’t forget.

Our landlords were Portuguese. They were elderly. They drove a mid-’80s Mercedes diesel car, tan colour. And they were generous. So generous.

When they made pizza, they’d always make two. We’d hear a knock on our door, and through broken English, hand gestures, and much laughter and smiling, it would become clear that they made this for us, and that bottle of homemade port in his hand is also for us.

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They gave us rides. We helped them out with yard work. They were our grandparents and we were their grandchildren.

Our experience with them left a permanent impression, and it positively impacted our perspective of Toronto.

Jump ahead a few years to now. It’s -40 C. We’ve gone from 700 square feet to a house on 10 acres, and I’m still a renter.

My introduction to big city life was molded by good landlords. Similarly, my introduction to growing crops has been a fantastic experience, largely due to helpful, generous landlords.

Full disclosure: I have two sets of landlords. One set is my parents.

The other set, however, is not my parents. It is my experience with these landlords that I will talk about here.

As with most of the advice I pass on through this column, the following is anecdotal.

I could write about contracts, rates and the logistics of a good, stable rental agreement. But that sounds rigid and cold. The business world appears cold and rigid and stoic, but it isn’t really that way.

Finding land to rent

There are classifieds, and they may work for you. In my area, it would take a canon-worthy miracle to acquire additional rental land through these means. There are too many of us looking. I suspect it may be the same for you.

So, what’s the key? Walk around with your eyes open and a smile on your face. You’ll meet someone. You’ll meet someone who has a parcel of land him and his wife have owned for a while and are not 100 per cent sure what to do with. Then, you’ll develop a relationship with this person; not because you see them as a utility, but because they are good people and you share a common interest in agriculture.

I was introduced to this couple through a family member. There’s always a connection; nothing happened in a vacuum.

Initially, the land, which was pasture at the time, was for sale and not for rent. I was still interested. The opportunity to buy land rarely comes up and this seemed like an opportunity I should dip into debt for.

I pulled some numbers together and surfaced with a quote — one that would effectively steer me towards paralyzing debt, but one that would make me a landowner.

With shaky hands and a ton of fear, I drove to the Landmark, Man, area to present my quote to the couple.

We sat in their sunroom. It was chilly outside — fall, I believe. I pulled out my offer.

“We’ve been talking about this, Toban,” he said (I’m paraphrasing). “We’d like to offer you the opportunity to rent the land for a few years, giving you the opportunity to build up capital.”

They did not need to do this. They could have sold the land, no problem. But, this is farming, and to a large degree, business. If I think my experience with these lovely landlords is unique to how transactions typically happen in this world, then I’m failing to learn the lessons right in front of me.

The kindness of others is often a factor in such transactions. And it is often through the generosity of landowners that land is available for rent instead of sold.

The world is less Machiavellian than you think. Talk to people as if they are not self-interested. And explore opportunities outside of the classifieds.

The agreement

We went back and forth. They were honest about the income they needed; I was candid about the costs required to get that pastureland ready for a crop, and the risk of growing crops on land with no recent history of production.

From this, an agreement took shape. It’s about three pages long, and it includes everything from roles and responsibilities while I’m managing the property to payment rates and schedules. Landowners want to know you’ll care about the ditches, the neighbouring fields and the overall health of the soil. This is often reflected in rental agreements.

We agreed upon a lower rate to start to offset the increased costs involved in prepping the land. And we also agreed upon a rental duration.

In my neck of the woods, $100 per acre is not as expensive as it gets. I pay in this range. It’s a good, fair rate. It pencils out. So far, at least.

Is it better to own or rent? I’ve heard good arguments on both sides. But right now, in the Pembina Valley, it looks a heck of a lot better on paper for me to rent. It’s comfortable and it’s allowed me the opportunity to get to know two good people I didn’t know before.

They are not Portuguese and they have yet to make us pizza and port, but the relationship has been valuable all the same.

Cheers to renting!

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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