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The Difficult Business Of Handing Down The Family Farm

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

Driving out of the western Iowa town of Panora, the winding roads offer broad vistas of rolling hills. Many of the mailboxes along Redwood Road show the name Arganbright. Jim Arganbright grew up in this area, one of 10 children. He and his wife, Beverly, have eight kids.

Though Jim Arganbright farmed here his whole life, three years ago at the age of 80 he started renting his cropland to his son Tom, the only one of his children who farms full-time. Now, all Jim Arganbright has to worry about is the livestock — and he doesn’t have too much of that.

“I only have 12 cows and a bull and eight calves,” he says.

Tom Arganbright farms his parents 160 acres, several other rented fields and his own farm – in all, about 1,500 acres. He bought some of his acres from one of his uncles and one of his five children currently farms with him.

“It’s not just any ground you're purchasing, it's part of the original Arganbright land and it's up to you to keep a hold of it through good times and bad and be able to pass it along to the next generation,” Arganbright says.

The Arganbrights are firm in their connection to the land, but exactly how land gets passed from one generation to the next can vary widely. And not all farmers plan ahead for the change.

Though Jim Arganbright is no longer farming, he said he has not yet established a formal plan for how ownership of his land will transfer to the next generation, something he knows he ought to do. He expects his children to keep it in the family.

Randy Hertz, a financial planner with Hertz Farm Management in Nevada, Iowa, says even as the average age of farmers creeps ever upward, few families make all the plans they could for smooth transitions.

“It's pretty ominous the number of farmers that plan to retire in the next five to 10 years,” Hertz says. “Some of them have no plan and the default succession plan is, well, I guess we’ll just rent it to somebody in the neighborhood.”

The 2008 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll found that 42 percent of farmers surveyed said they planned to retire in the next five years. But Paul Lasley, an Iowa State University sociologist who conducted the poll, said it’s tough to define retirement with farmers.

“The retirement process for many farmers may take years – even a decade or so,” Lasley says. “They slowly phase out of farming and allow their adult children, who are often middle age, to take over, but they remain somewhat involved to ‘make sure the kids do it right.’”

Sometimes even a careful succession plan can turn up uncomfortable obstacles that strain family relationships.

Devan Green is a 27-year-old farmer in Conrad, Iowa. His buildings are old — he says many haven’t been updated since the 1970s. Broken or abandoned equipment rusts on the edges of the pasture where cows, pigs, sheep and ducks graze.

Credit Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Family farm succession plans can strain family relationships. Devan Green rents his family’s farmland and has to answer to family shareholders.

Green worked alongside his dad throughout high school and college. After graduating, he came home to farm full-time and that’s when his family reorganized things a bit. Charles Green, Devan’s father, had been both a shareholder and an employee of the family corporation that owned the farm. But the corporation couldn’t support two employees, so Devan and Charles both rented family land. They converted the acres to organic production and direct-marketed the meat they raised.

Then, last September, Charles Green died suddenly, leaving Devan on his own. And the remaining shareholders — Devan’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, and mother — started looking more critically at the business structure.

“When my dad was farming [the land], they just said, `He’s farming it, that’s great,’” Green says. But now some family members, he said, want a greater return on their land and Green said his priorities of sustainability and diversified livestock do not sit well with everyone.

“Being certified organic, I probably deviated from that vision of ‘we want to be a large grain production farm,’” Green says.

Without his father, Green couldn’t farm as much this year as the two of them had in the past. He let go of some of his rented acres, but he’s still paying rent for, and farming, the family land. He’s also looking around to see whether he could buy his own farm.

“My real dream is to be able to own the farm and my family has already stated that there’s no way that’s going to happen here,” Green says.

This is the second installment in a 5-part series on aging farmers from Harvest Public Media. You can read more about the series and accompanying television documentary at the Harvest Public Media website.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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