Published May 30, 2014

The farmland transfer dilemma: Keep the farm — and family — intact

By Teresa Opheim


“My grandparents worked like dogs to hold onto [the farm] during the Depression…. Then my parents both took off-farm jobs and went into contract farming during the Farm Crisis…. How do I best plan for my kids’ inheritance?  I have my whole family—from generations back– looking over my shoulder.”

“I do want all my children to have a decent inheritance, to get ahead in the world. And I do want the farm to remain intact. I don’t want them to start fighting each other as soon as I’m in my grave. How do we start talking to each other about this? I don’t want their inheritance to mean lawyers and courts and ill will….”

We are very excited to be collaborating with playwright Mary Swander to address issues of farmland transfer! We announced to the media this week the premiere of the play, Map of My Kingdom; the above quotes are taken from the play. Please join us Saturday, July 12th, at Scattergood Friends School for the premiere.

A tremendous transition in ownership of Iowa farmland soon will take place.

Fifty-six percent of Iowa farmland is owned by people over the age of 65, according to a report by retired Iowa State University economist Mike Duffy, “Farmland Ownership and Tenure Report in Iowa 2012”. Thirty percent of Iowa farmland is owned by those more than 75 years old.

Many farmers will lose farmland — their source of livelihood — during this transition unless farmland owners act now. Owner-operated Iowa farmland has decreased from 55 percent in 1982 to 40 percent in 2012, according to Mike Duffy. Farmers who rent land are in a precarious position: When their landlords pass on, much of that land will pass to the landlords’ heirs collectively or in separate parcels. Some of those heirs will want to cash out quickly, leaving the farmer struggling or unable to find the financing to purchase the land.

Playwright and Iowa State University professor Mary Swander

Playwright and Iowa State University professor Mary Swander

The situation is equally severe for farming offspring of farmers who own their farmland. Many farmers plan to leave their land equally among offspring. Many farming offspring will not be able to buy out the other heirs who want to sell the farmland to “cash” in on their inheritance.

“For most farmers I know … owning land means everything,” according to the play character Angela Martin, a lawyer and mediator in land transition disputes. “Owning land means triumph over generation after generation of poverty, struggle, servitude, even slavery…. “

Martin says that many farmers “don’t talk much about money or anything else…. And land transition takes talk–a lot of talk.”

We at Practical Farmers hope Map of My Kingdom helps get some of that talk started.

Thank you to the following generous sponsors who helped make this play possible: the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Lucas County Arts, Council, New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids, Principal Financial Group, Sustainable Farm Partners, LLC–and all of the supporters of Practical Farmers.