Published Jul 7, 2015

Why is land so special–and hard to transfer?

By Teresa Opheim

A guest editorial by PFI Member John Gilbert:

“Map of My Kingdom” is designed to get people talking about inter-generational land transfers.

It’s a good starting point. There are many issues involved in farm transitions. Everyone has different concerns, objectives and complications. But the great thing is our laws allow immense flexibility. More and more professionals are versed in the issues and options. In short, there are numerous good reasons for every land owner to develop protection for their property…and no good reasons not to.

John Gilbert: It smacks farmers as being wrong when absentee owners see land as just a financial "investment"

John Gilbert: It smacks farmers as being wrong when absentee owners see land as just a financial “investment”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say my brothers and I — no sisters — now recognize just how fortunate we are. Our late parents took great pains and the time to insure the survival of both our farm and our family bonds. It was not easy for them. Dad was fanatical about how he wanted things, but when it came right down to signing the necessary legal papers, he and mother needed encouragement. Was it an admission of their mortality, or feeling like they were relinquishing control that made them hesitate? I don’t know. What I do know is the process takes time, both to create and for it to work. We were very fortunate that Dad lived till 96. We know how lucky we are because his passing barely created a ripple in the farm’s operation. His plan not only worked, but provided the framework for us to continue the transition process to the next generation.

There is one little recognized aspect of farm transition that may explain why it’s difficult for many families, and that is our (personal and collective) relationship with “the land”. Why is farm land so much more problematic than other real estate? You hear about troubles transferring businesses among family members and generations, but it’s generally not tied to real estate. So what is there about “family land”? Suicides happened during the Farm Crisis when a farmer lost the “family farm”. Loss of a farm was invariably referred to as like the loss of a family member.

Is it just that “our land” has been in “our family” for “generations”? Or is it that everyone in the family knows the sacrifices made to pay for it during tough times? Is it the familiarity that comes from years of working the same land, knowing intimately its foibles and eccentricities? Is it that we really understand on some primal level that we really are only caretakers….keepers of The Holy Grail? Is it all of these and more? I suspect so.

One aspect that I fear has been lost as more and more acres are rented is the connection of “belonging”. Properties often are known by the families that own them, or that owned them generations back, even after all signs of a farmstead are bulldozed and buried. As tenants, there is no “sense of ownership”, but more importantly, there is no sense of “belonging” to the rented farm.

The issue of belonging is due more attention, because it probably is what separates farmland from other real estate. And it is probably what smacks farmers as being wrong with absentee owners seeing land as an “investment” (whether purchased or inherited). So, just what does “belonging” mean? Is it like belonging to a particular church, or being fan of a certain sports team? Is it like being a member of a certain class or other group tied by proximity? Or is it on a philosophical — if not spiritual — level? I don’t know. By reading Aldo Leopold or Wendell Berry or any of those who’ve touched on this, we get a feel for what our connection involves. And it may be enough to just understand we have the connection.

The take away of being a land owner is we have responsibilities to care for it, use it wisely, and pass it along to someone who will continue the stewardship. Finding a good plan is complicated, but that is not the issue. Being fair to everyone is not the issue. What matters is taking the needed steps soon, having the conversations sooner than later, deciding to get started now. This is our opportunity to ensure our land is cared for in the manner we feel is best, even from the grave. This is definitely a case where the proverbial first step is the hardest and most important. If we haven’t yet, we need to take it now.