Passing the farm along to the next generation continues to be a difficult problem, judging from the growing number of published articles and workshops that address this issue and ever more “beginning farmer” programs that work with retiring and new farmers in agricultural states to satisfy both parties’ needs.

Most farmers want to keep the land and its operation in the family, but often that doesn’t work satisfactorily.  In this article I offer important considerations in the land transfer process.

I defer legal and business matters to other succession planners who have more expertise than me in those specific areas.   

Much emotion is tied up in the transfer process.  Transferring the farm involves what one generation has worked for much of their lives to build and what another generation plans their hopes on.  

People involved in production agriculture have strong attachments to the land and resources needed to produce food and fiber because of an inherited drive, the “agrarian imperative,” that is part of everyone’s genetic make-up to some degree, but is exhibited most clearly by people who work the land as their chosen way of life.   

Often the following generation wants to do things differently.  The current land-holders and the upstarts both cling tenaciously to well-intended points of view about what is the best way to produce the fruits of their labors.  

Map of My Kingdom is a recently developed play, commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and authored by Iowa’s Poet Laureate, Mary Swander, which aptly deals with the emotion-packed challenges to land transitions.  

The play addresses particularly the land holders’ pangs involved in transferring their land.  To learn where the play is being performed or to schedule community events, contact PFI at 515 232-5661.  

Steps that facilitate the succession process often seem straight-forward and reasonable, but they are seldom achieved without outside help, which is why many land succession-planning programs have arrived on the scene.  An October 2013 article in the Journal of Extension explains useful steps in succession planning and common barriers identified by both generations in the Oregon State University project.  

Project staff developed a curriculum called “Ties to the Land,” that mirrors many of the activities I undertake with families in farm transitions.  Succession planning activities I try to help farm families implement include the following:

  • Ask the persons who initiate the request for help in selecting family members who have a stake in the transfer, including both the “givers” and “receivers;” then convene the group and add any additional key participants to discussions
  • Restrict meeting participation initially to the family members or others who are or will become actively involved in the exchange; these days some transfers entail cousins, friends and employees, as a report from the newly completed 2012 Census of Agriculture indicates
  • Carry out open discussions that involve sharing aspirations and goals concerning the operation of the land and keep written minutes of the discussions; the Oregon State University staff call this an heirloom exercise
  • Follow guidelines for decorum when conducting the farm transition meetings; guidelines are available from a column released for publication around February 25, 2013, as well as from farm succession programs, the Extension and state Farm Bureau offices
  • Explore options for setting up a legal structure for the land transfer; these might involve an estate plan, selling the land at an agreed-upon price; creating a trust to hold the land until the owners pass, placing the land in a non-profit entity with farming privileges extended to immediate and successive heirs, enrolling the land in a state, federal or private conservation program that specifies activities allowed by the successors, or other options that are usually specific to the state where the land resides
  • Develop a succession plan that best fits with the goals of the participants in the discussion; this is the most difficult part because it usually involves varying degrees of compromise by several of the stakeholders to achieve resolution; sometimes it takes years to complete a satisfactory plan
  • Settle on advisors who effect the plan, such as one or more attorneys, financial planners or other agreed-upon persons to put the plan into motion; make sure everyone in the discussion is appraised of the steps being taken and gives approval
  • Hold a ceremony, such as a “signing” or family-get-together with a dinner to explain the agreement and hopeful outcomes; this is the “good” part”

Barriers.  The Oregon State University investigators found many barriers to easy completion of a succession plan.  The land owners identified the following as the most important barriers: lack of time, disinterest from one or more of the heirs, fairness issues, and lack of perceived cooperation of the heirs.  

The potential heirs identified the following major barriers: reluctance of the owners to give up control, communication issues with the owner and other heirs, and conflict or change in the heirs.

In the end, overcoming the hurdles to achieve a satisfactory plan brings much emotional peace to everyone.

Dr. Rosmann is a clinical psychologist, adjunct professor and farmer who lives at Harlan, Iowa.  To contact him, see the website: www.agbehavioralhealth.com