This is the third part in a series dedicated to Terra Cultura’s quest for farmland. I guess this is the Return of the Jedi post. (Or technically Revenge of the Sith, but I like to pretend those three don’t exist.) So you heard from Jessica about financial and logistical hurdles, and about Travis’ epic pilgrimage to see 75 properties in 5 days. And now we find ourselves in what we hope is the homestretch towards finding a home. We’ve seen 100 + properties in the past year. With so many moments of high-hopes and disappointments, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster.
But where did we leave off? Jessica and I joined up with Travis to visit the sites that made the shortlist. We had been prioritizing northwest San Benito County, due to its proximity to Bay Area and Central Coast markets, farmland and climate, relative affordability (compared to Napa or Sonoma), and hospitable zoning and permitting. Accessibility to the ocean and redwoods felt important too. But we ventured out of our comfort zone to explore inland counties, where land tends to be cheaper. That meant having an open mind to Sacramento, Yolo, Placer, and Nevada Counties. We saw some irritatingly beautiful properties, with flat meadows dappled in forest, with more acreage and infrastructure than what we could afford nearer the beach. Still, we couldn’t bring ourselves to consider these above the Plan B list. For the sort of public space we want to create, and the diverse populations we want to serve, our market research, and instincts, kept bringing us back to where we started: a tiny town called Aromas, Ca.
Which is where you would have found us on a sunny afternoon in January, at the only cafe in town, meeting with our real estate agent. We had just scoped out several properties for sale nearby, and thought they were pretty sloped for farmland. They were also only about 5 acres. But they were the only properties on the market in the area, and we wondered if we should consider them. Jessica did some quick research on terrace farming. Then Jessica and I had something of a joint realization, as sisters tend to do. If we are considering sloped, 5 acre-parcels (we psychically transmitted to one another), should we put Cole Rd. back on the table? Jessica was the one to pose the question out loud, and I was glad she did. I was biased.
Everyone knew how much I loved the Cole Rd. property when our agent had shown it to us last June. The Cole Rd. parcel is the “pocket listing” we wrote about 8 months ago. Of all the properties we’ve visited, this was the only one whose views made me choke up with joy. It seemed like an inspiring place, capable of drawing the creative crowd we were hoping to attract. It felt right. Despite my intuitions, we weren’t ready to commit. We decided to hold out for more acreage, and flatter terrain. The biggest hurdle 8 months ago was financing. At that point we still naively thought we could get a loan from California FarmLink, if not a more traditional lender, as Jessica writes about in an earlier post. It took us nearly those 8 months to explore and exhaust many financing options, and ultimately secure a loan from a generous family member.
So there we were at Aromas Grill, picking at beer-battered fried local mushrooms, and listening to our real estate agent (we’ll call her *Sylvia) break the news that there just wasn’t anything much on the market in the area where we wanted to be. The last property she had taken us to see was only accessible by a shared driveway that the neighbors were very determined not to share. A truck was parked in the middle of the driveway to block visitors and a sign depicting a pointed gun read: No Trespassing. We Don’t Dial 911, We Call The Coroner. There were other signs too, that used language not repeatable here, to tell guests they were not welcome. Sylvia said the neighbors were growing cannabis, and speculated that this was the reason they wanted their privacy. It didn’t seem like the best environment for a public teaching farm. So Sylvia had nothing to show for her property research but the gnarly case of poison oak she’d gotten while scoping out sites for us.
That’s when we asked her if the Cole Rd. pocket listing from 8 months ago was still available. That’s also when we asked her to remind us of the infrastructure and amenities of the Cole Rd. property, which included two city water connections, electricity dropped down in two places, and a half interest in a shared well. Sylvia called the selling agent, who confirmed that the property had not been sold, though the price had gone up a little. We left the cafe and went to go visit Cole Rd. right away.
It looked much as it had at the last visit, with a welcoming driveway lined with rosemary and lavender, and two abandoned rabbit huts in the cleared front acre. On the door of one of the huts a child-like hand had scrawled in paint: No Bad People Allowed. We thought that was more welcoming than the last signs we’d seen. We walked more of the property than we had last time, following a trail up the slope, wooded with eucalyptus, oak, and pine. At the top we inspected the well and water storage tank. The parcel slopes down the back of the hill and ends at the tree line near a dry riverbed. Once again, the views out to Big Sur almost made me cry. Once again the hair stood up on my arm to tell me this just might be right. Sylvia encouraged us to put an offer in right away, but we needed to assemble the board of directors for an urgent all-call.
A board quorum virtually assembled. The Board Treasurer Alex even called in from the airport on his way back from his honeymoon. Before the call, the Board President Tom went to personally visit the site, and ran into the owners, who gave him tips on what to grow in the various microclimates on site. There was unanimous enthusiasm, and valid concerns as well. We fielded questions like: Is 5.65 acres big enough? How will you farm and build on the slope? How much will it cost to clear some trees? We answered that: if we outgrow the site, that’s a sign of success that means we could afford to expand to additional sites. Also, if we have learned anything in our experience in small-scale regenerative farming, it’s that bigger isn’t necessarily better. We’ve met many farmers who are actually making a healthy living off one acre or less. As for the slope, since we are opting for less-traditional farming and building methods, we have more room for creativity. When it comes to clearing trees, especially the highly-flammable eucalyptus, my sweetheart Spencer happens to be very handy with a chainsaw and charges a very reasonable rate. The board decided that location is the most important factor in deciding on a home for Terra Cultura, and in that respect, Cole Rd. is smack dab in the middle of the bullseye. So we decided to make an offer.
Kinda silly-superstitious, but I’m always keeping an eye out for four leaf clovers. Lotsa looking—decades—never found one. Was beginning to suspect the ones I’d seen were fakes. Then! We find THREE in two days. Picked & pressed the first two, but this one gets to keep growing, and maybe pass on its “lucky” mutant genetics. 🍀🍀🍀
This whole process has made me realize how irrationally superstitious I have become about the land quest. So many times over the past year we have had incredible offers dangled before our noses, that for one reason or another did not pan out. I was afraid to talk about the property until we heard whether our offer had been accepted. I knocked on so much wood, and went to some trouble to seek out wood to knock on when no wood was present. I found some sea glass on the beach and took it as a good sign. I found a four-leaf clover and danced with glee. I tried to interpret a strange dream involving a genie. I saw a dead hummingbird and cringed at the bad omen. What had gotten into me? I guess the stakes are high when you’re laying the foundation for a homeplace you hope will outlive you. Every time we get close, the process of mapping a new land plan, calculating a new budget, and getting buy-in from our board and supporters is hard to do without a significant emotional investment on our part.
The sellers stalled on accepting our offer, which kept us anxiously awake for several nights. But accept it they finally did! We high-fived and popped open some champagne. Little did we know, this was only the beginning of another emotional roller coaster called the due diligence phase. Escrow began, and Jessica and Travis became their own private investigation firm. I stayed with our mom, who was having eye surgery and needed a driver while she recovered. So I did homebase research while Jessica and Travis went out into the field. They spent many full days collecting all relevant information from the San Benito County Recorder’s Office, Planning Department and Assessor’s Office, the Aromas and San Benito County Water Districts, Pacific Gas & Electric, water and well drilling experts, soil experts, environmental experts specializing in mineral, oil and hydrocarbon rights, as well as the neighbors on Cole Rd., and other members of the local community. We reviewed all the disclosure documents and reports from the seller and title company. We uncovered some interesting things.
The most important revelation was that there is no well. It turns out that the well we saw on the Cole Rd. parcel actually belongs to the neighbor, who used to own the Cole Rd. parcel in addition to her adjacent one. When she decided to sell the parcel in question, she put in an easement to access the well. This was somewhat devastating news, as having a well was a top priority for us. And, the price we offered took into account that there was a well, as we had indeed been told there was. We’re not sure where the miscommunication about the well first took root. Sylvia blames the selling agent, the selling agent denies ever having mentioned a well. I’s a bad game of telephone and it’s hard to know who to trust. But we’ve delved deep into our own research and we intend to get to the bottom of it (which, in well terms, probably means about 500 or 600 feet down). Oh well? We also learned that there is only one water connection and one electricity hook-up, though we had originally been told there were two of each.
Where it stands now: we are planning to make a new offer today, subtracting the cost of digging a well from our original offer. We don’t know if the seller will accept it or not. We still feel good about the site, and the town. Digging a well, and having the exclusive rights to it, might not be such a bad thing if we can stay within our limited budget. I guess we’ll see how the next chapter unfolds—hopefully, with inviting you all over for a barnraiser celebration at Terra Cultura’s new home, that we hope you will also consider home. Send good thoughts our way!
*Name changed for the sake of privacy