From the Farm Transitions Network: Don’t Have a Farming Heir?

By Teresa Opheim • Executive Director, Climate Land Leaders

There is no better way to keep rural communities vibrant than to provide land for a family to farm. At the same time, there is a surge of those wanting to farm, in the Sustainable Farming Association and elsewhere. If you don’t have a farming heir but want to find a family to work your land, here are some tips and strategies for you:

  • Start with your local contacts then use land matching sites
  • Decide how flexible you are to working with the tenant or buyer on price
  • Consider a long-term rental arrangement, option for purchase or contract for deed

Jim French, who farms in Kansas, says that “if a family member wants to continue to farm and meet our conservation goals, then that should happen.” But his two children are lawyers and that may not happen, so he’d like to use his land to help another family farm. “I am not as concerned if my children don’t want to come back to farm,” Jim says. “I’m reinforcing those values in the community I live in. I hope I can have a community where kids can ride their bikes, enjoy nature, have clean water. That’s our vision for rural America.”

How do you find a successor if you don’t have anyone in mind? There may be someone closer than you think. Call old contacts in town, as Northeast Iowa resident Dale Nimrod did when he first decided on a strategy to pay back his community by finding a family to sell his farmland to. Being part of a network, like the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, will introduce you to new farmers more informally. There also are a variety of land linking sites, including Minnesota Farm Link and Cropland Grazing Exchange.

According to the organization Land for Good, transferring a farm to a non-family successor is often different in many ways. For example, with a family transfer situation, both parties have likely known each other most of their lives. That isn’t as likely with a non-family successor. Whether you are leasing or selling, Land for Good recommends solid interviewing of the potential new farmers, to get answers on specific questions like work habits, work ethic, integrity, management skills and growing skills. Also, an introductory period to see if the farm “marriage” works out would be helpful. Perhaps even more than with family farmland transfers, formal arrangements, written out in detail, are critical.

If your land is coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program, consider the Transition Incentives Program, whereby a retiring farmer with expiring CRP land may provide a long-term lease or sell to a beginning farmer who commits to conservation improvements. The program gives the retiring farmer two additional years of CRP payments.

Once you find someone for your land, consider a longer-term rental contract. Lack of secure farmland access is a serious problem for today’s beginning farmers. If you want to encourage your family to continue the relationship with the beginning farmer after you are gone, consider a buy-sell agreement, whereby your chosen farmer has the first option to buy. Or consider a contract for sale with the beginning farmer while you are still living.

Neil Hamilton is an Adams County, Iowa, farmland owner who is using the contract for sale approach. He grew up on and then inherited farmland in southwest Iowa and chose to sell to a beginning farmer on a 15-year land contract.” He believes “Adams County needs young farmers owning a piece of land” more than it needs owners who don’t live in the area. “Historically this nation’s preference was not for tenancy but to convert tenants into owners…. Ownership was the goal for a lot of reasons: For security, for wealth creation and for stewardship. Not many people would choose to always be a tenant if they could own the land.”

There are a variety of partners out there wanting to assist you in helping beginning farmers to succeed, including local banks and the Farm Credit system. The Farm Services Agency offers highly competitive rates for those farming 10 years or less.

An increasing number of outside investors are also working to help those beginners succeed and might be potential partners for you to get a beginning farmer on the land. Iroquois Valley Farms is one of those companies. Scott Friedman has partnered with Iroquois Valley Farms to get access to Illinois farmland.

“Finding farmland is tough,” Scott says. “In 2001, we lost 150 acres that we had been farming when the acres were sold at auction. That was hard.” Then, in 2006, a nonprofit purchased land for Scott, and then sold it to Iroquois Valley Farms. “Right after that, my second opportunity to work with Iroquois Valley Farms came up on land just two miles from the first farm,” Scott says. “My mom grew up on this farm, and my grandpa, dad and now I have farmed this land for about 75 years. The landowner we knew died, and her three children inherited it. One of them met with my mom, dad and me and said ‘we’re going to sell the farm.’ I thought, ‘shoot, I don’t want to lose those 230 acres.’ But I didn’t have the wherewithal to buy it.” Iroquois Valley Farms stepped in, and purchased the land and once again gave Scott a long-term lease.

Editor’s Note: THANK YOU to Practical Farmers of Iowa, for permission to include this material.