Farm Transitions

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in February 2014, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

A recent issue of The Land Stewardship Newsletter (No. 4, 2013) featured articles highlighting a new initiative of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the well-established, Minnesota-based “rural revival” effort to keep “land and people together.” The initiative is “farm transitions.” It is designed to counter “current land consolidation trends,” and provides tools to assist farm owners and would-be farmers transition land to the next generation.

LSP and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) have developed a Farm Transitions Toolkit for this purpose which

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can be accessed by calling 800-909-6472 or at www.landstewardshipproject.org/farmtranstionstoolkit. The Toolkit “contains resources, links to services and practical calculation tables to help landowners establish a commonsense plan for farm transitions.” MISA executive director Helene Murray says, “The target audience for the Toolkit is those people who want to pass their farm on in a way that supports healthy rural communities, strong local economies and sustainable land stewardship. Too often retiring farmers or people who find themselves in possession of family land feel pressured to make decisions that go against their own values. The Toolkit can help people align those values with the decisions they make as far as their land’s future is concerned.” (12)

“FarmLASTS Project is a national research, education and extension project funded by the USDA National Research Initiative. In 2010, FarmLASTS produced a special report on farmland success, succession, tenure, and stewardship.” (3) Here are some of the findings.

    • Over the next two decades, 70 percent of the nation’s farms will change hands.
    • Two-thirds of retiring farmers have not identified successors.
  • Ninety percent of farm owners neither had an exit strategy nor knew how to develop one.
  • Only three percent of farmland buyers are new farmers.
  • Four percent of farmland owners own nearly half the land.
  • In 2002, 34 percent of farmland owners in Iowa were investors, double the proportion in 1989.
  • Over 40 percent of U.S. farmland is rented. (3)

These statistics confirm that there is indeed a “big land grab” going on in the United States. The same trends are occurring locally. A study I did in 2009 on the sixteen square miles surrounding the Salem Mennonite Church in Childstown Township showed that the land was owned by 84 property owners. Seventy-six of these parcels were farmland properties, with 55.3 percent being farmed by local farmland owner/operators, though not all of these farmers resided on these properties. This means that 44.7 percent of the parcels were rental properties. Half of these farmland owners were non-resident landlords, usually heirs of the family farms on which they had grown up.

In this study I did not correlate the ages of the farmland owners and operators who owned and worked this land. Anecdotal evidence would indicate that many of these farmland owners were near or over retirement age. Quite apart from questions about the types of agricultural enterprises involved, the future of this rural community depends in large measure on whether these farmland owners will choose to transition their land to a new generation of local farmers, or whether the trend toward corporate ownership of land fostered by investors and misguided government policies will continue.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

February 18, 2014