Whether you plan to call your farm small, family, hobby or homestead, this guide will go over everything you need to know to start your property search for undeveloped land in the country.
Where you look for land to buy starts with a fundamental question. What is most important to you? Are you hoping to maintain proximity to family, a job, or simply a metro area for customers and convenience? Are you looking at a specific community or region you always dreamed of? Are there certain plants or animals you hope to raise that do best in a particular climate or region? These things should give you a good way to eliminate a lot of potential places. Whatever is left, sort in to a list of places you can imagine taking this journey, then pick one and just start searching only there. You may find other factors, such as price or availability, make you rethink your initial decision, and that's ok. At that point you can expand the search area, or just move on to the next one on your list.
Stay flexible, but do start with a small area, it will make doing research and comparison easier. For instance, my own search started with the primary criteria that we continue to be near family and my wife's current employer in Chicago. Her family lives north of the city, and her job will require her to drive or take the train downtown. For both of these reasons I began looking for farmland that was north or northwest of the city on a Metra line and/or near the highway. The secondary criteria was knowing that we would not be happy somewhere completely rural with no community. So I began simply by Googling for small, cute towns with Metra (our train system) stops. Things like "best country towns in Illinois". That gave me a list of places to start with.
I went on to a property search site, put in the towns I had found, starting with Galena. I narrowed the search to undeveloped land, 5 acres or more. I had been reading books on homesteading, and watching YouTube channels, and 5-10 acres seemed right. Plenty of people were doing more suburban, one acre kinds of projects, while others had hundreds of acres with herds of cows. It just felt to me like something 5-10 acres would be in that sweet spot of large enough to have a few animals, a manageable vegetable and grain production. My goal is aimed primarily at feeding my family, what I think of as homesteading. Had I been looking to start a family farm as a business, or a permaculture garden in the same neighborhood as my inlaws, I would have chosen very different criteria.
I should also make it clear, if it is not already, I was looking specifically for raw land. Land with farm houses and buildings were substantially more expensive, but more importantly in my view, limiting. I am hoping to build both a timber frame home as well as barn, while avoiding many aspects of conventional construction. For my family this was also going to be a transition time. We would stay in our current home while we built, so that we might continue to utilize the ammenities of the city, pushing the move until our son was school age. If your criteria is different that is great, most of this guide will still apply to you, and the parts that do not will be obvious.
Most of the properties that came up in my intial searches were lots in subdivisions! As a city/suburb dweller for most of my life I wasn't expecting this. Country 'estates' are large parcels of land split off an old farm. They often fall in the 5-10 acre range, but are surrounded by subdivisions. I didn't want to live amid a bunch of enormous houses with well manicured lawns, and have neighbors hate me when my future rooster crowed or I ran a chainsaw. So I expanded the region outside of town and eventually results that looked somewhat promising began to arise. But I did encounter some new issues. Distance to town and the Metra stop were getting quite large, and the commute time for my wife from this very distant town was going to be unmanageable. Finally, the school districts that were coming up as my search became more and more remote had very low scores. I'm not overly picky, but I do want my son to have a decent public education that will prepare him for college if that is something he decides to do.
I moved on from Galena to Woodstock. Woodstock was substantially closer, and though a bit smaller it had all of the cute downtown charm of Galena and then some. It happens to be the town where the movie Groundhogs Day was filmed. The Metra ride or drive in to town was much smaller, and it was still surrounded by farm land. In fact, I had to eliminate several other towns as contenders because despite being even closer to the city, there was very little agriculture. The sprawl of Chicago was clearly spreading. And while land in these nearby rural suburnan areas was still being split off of old farms, the writing was on the wall, farming was on its way out. Even if I found a piece of land in this nearby zone, it was going to be surrounded by suburban neighbors sooner rather than later. So I pushed further out, until Woodstock became the Goldilocks contender. Close enough to be accessible, far enough that farming was still a real part of the community.
This was an important phenomenon that had happened. The more I looked at property search sites, googled commutes and schools, the more I just got a general sense of the region and my options. I don't think you can underestimate the importance of this step. By this point I had spent at least 2-3 evenings a week online for the better part of a month, and it was time well spent. Even if I were to move on to an entirely new region, I would be able to narrow in on my primary and secondary criteria very quickly knowing what I had learned.
Google searches along the lines of "land for sale near X" or "farm for sale in Y" will typically lead to Land Watch, Land and Farm, etc.. I initially assumed that this was the way to go because there was no way typical real estate search sites like Trulia would have properties like I was looking for. This turned out to be incorrect. Not only do the typical home search sites have these properites, the land and farm type sites actually are not very good about removing sold listings. I don't know if it is intentional, or as a result of less sophisticated technology, but I ended up not using these sites for very long. The home search sites had much better tools, particularly for narrowing regions or say searching by school district.
I personally ended up using redfin.com, because I had used to for my first home purchase and was very familiar and comfortable with it. That said it has an enormous weakness, which is it doesn't show areas they don't have agents for. Luckily for me in the end it did have both Galena and Woodstock, however it had nothing for the communities just south of there. Really anything you are comfortable with from Trulia to Realtor.com should work well enough. You can try multiple ones to make sure you aren't missing anything, and more importantly to find the ones that have the tools that let you search most closely to the criteria that are important to you.