Smooth transference of land takes planning

    Ten percent of U.S. farmland is expected to be transferred in the next five years alone, according to Teresa Opheim, executive director of Practical Farmers of Iowa. What can be done to be sure these transferences are well thought out and smooth?

    Ms. Opheim spoke with The Chicago Farmers at the group’s November meeting to offer families strategies that could help in successful land transferences to heirs. Practical Farmers of Iowa is a non-profit organization created to strengthen farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and the sharing of information. Membership in the organization is not limited to Iowa residents.

    “Our group believed it was important to develop strategies that we could recommend to farmers that could be used effectively in land transference,” said Ms. Opheim. “One of the strategies was the play “Map of My Kingdom,” which was a big hit-it has been performed more than 40 times so far.” Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned Mary Swander to write the play, which dramatizes several different instances of families in the midst of attempting to transfer family-held farmland. Chicago Farmers viewed the play during the group’s May 2015 meeting.

    “The play was effective in presenting what can go wrong, but we need more action steps,” said Ms. Opheim. To that end, Practical Farmers began thinking about activities that would help give farm owners a clear focus of what they wanted for their land. One of these activities is the writing of farm legacy letters.

    “You have to start a conversation with your heirs and talk about farm history and goal setting,” related Ms. Opheim. “Don’t try to document strategies in your legacy letter and don’t use it as a vehicle for nostalgia. We saw that by documenting the past, the farmers noted what meant the most to them and what they wanted to see 30 years out.” She pointed out that the farm legacy letters are not a place to air grievances or get into the details of your legacy strategy

    Ms. Opheim went on to say that a goal setting activity also was conducted with the farmers. “Not many had common farmland goals,” she said. The top goals of the farmers focused on keeping the farmland intact, divide the farmland in equal shares, have a farming heir work the farm, and maintain family harmony. Other goals that were shared included:

    • Provide a farm for a family to work
    • Help provide heirs with greater financial stability through the sale or rental of the farm
    • Keep the farm in the family
    • Give back to the community
    • Increase conservation and diversity

    Ms. Opheim stressed the need for good family communication in order to produce a fruitful legacy letter. She suggested engaging a person external to the family to guide the exercise. She recommended scheduling a family meeting, but stressed that it should not occur around a holiday. Additionally, family members should talk about the farm, its history and its future on a regular basis.

     “I did a legacy letter with my mother and I learned a lot,” said Ms. Opheim. “The letter helps you know the past and establish a vision for the future. I encourage others to ponder their farms’ histories.”

    To learn more about Practical Farmers of Iowa visit its web site,