Loving the land enough to let it go

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While recording a recent LSP podcast interview with southwest Minnesota farmer Carmen Fernholz, I was reminded of how important it is that farmers identify closely with the land they’re producing a livelihood from. As Fernholz put it: “If you’re a good farmer you can’t help but become attached to the land. And when you become attached to the land, you really want to take care of it. I think that’s the legacy many of us want to convey to the next generation.”

When I was in the farm magazine business back in the late 80s-early 90s, everyone from ag editors and extension educators to input suppliers and policy makers sweated bullets trying to figure out how to make farmers less emotionally attached to the land. Why not just cash-rent those acres and treat them like just one more expendable input?

Such a relationship would make it easier to treat farming like a factory, where inputs, labor and yes, people, are plugged in like so many components. But farmers have consistently confounded the advice of “experts” over the years. They aren’t just attached to the acre or two the farmstead sits on—they’re connected to the entire spread they toil on day-in and day-out. And when you’re attached to something, you’re less likely to make decisions that damage its long-term sustainability.

Fernholz (pictured, right) should know. He is 68 and he and his wife Sally began farming in the Madison, Minn., area in 1972. They started out with about 80 acres and over the next 15 years built up their operation to its current size of 450 owned and rented acres.

We talked about the future of the Fernholz farm while sitting in a former Lutheran church in Madison that’s been made into a community theater. On that particular Sunday afternoon, the former church had just played host to a performance of Look Who’s Knockin’, an LSP play that portrays a retiring farm couple grappling with the future of a farm they’ve built up over the decades into something quite special: it’s produced an income, raised a family and been a showcase for good conservation practices.

The parallels with the Fernholz family operation are striking. Carmen and Sally are true pioneers in the field of organic farming. Over the years, they’ve spearheaded and hosted numerous research projects, helped develop innovative marketing initiatives, and been an inspiration for Farm Beginnings participants who see profitable possibilities in a type of agriculture that treats the land well.

Like many pioneers, the efforts of Carmen and Sally long went unnoticed—or worse, were dismissed—in their own community, even as they gained a reputation nationally for their innovations. But about a decade ago, an increasing number of farmers in the Fernholz neighborhood started adopting organic and other ag practices that pay close attention to things like life in the soil.

It turns out this wasn’t just a phase for many of these farmers — some limited strategy to take advantage of the premiums organic grain markets can offer. These landowners like how their land has responded to sustainable practices, and want to see such stewardship continue after they are too old to drive tractors and combines.

“In the last two or three years, I’ve had several people come up to me and ask me, very pleadingly, if I would rent their land so they could keep it organic,” Carmen told me.

But Fernholz is starting to consider his own retirement, and would rather see a younger generation of farmers come into the picture, both on his neighbors’ places as well as his own. A few years ago he and Sally began discussions with their four adult children about the future of the farm. None of the Fernholz kids are interested in farming, so what the family wants to do is create a situation that is flexible enough to allow Carmen and Sally to live a comfortable retirement while making it possible for someone else to continue the farm’s long stewardship legacy.

“Our family was carrying on a discussion very similar to the dialogue in this Look Who’s Knockin’ play, and over that time we did talk to planners, we did talk to lawyers, we read a lot of things,” Carmen said. “How we can bridge the mindset of land ownership and access to land today? How we can bridge that to the next generation  to allow that generation to have more readily accessible opportunities to the land? That’s what we really thought about.”

What the Fernholz family struck upon was creating a limited partnership and gifting the land to the children over a period of several years. This helps reduce the tax burden and also provides time to perhaps find a farmer who would like to continue the operation’s stewardship legacy.

“If my health stays I’d like to farm another four or five years,” Carmen told me. “And then maybe let’s say two or three years from now I have an opportunity to try and mentor someone other than my direct family to operate that land, with the understanding that should my grandchildren want to come back to the land, it would be there.”

The limited partnership strategy is just one of many tools I’ve heard about in recent months during interviews with numerous farmers who are looking to transition their operations to the next generation. There are a bunch of ways to skin the farm transition cat, as any good lawyer will tell you. But the thing all these farm families have in common is that they are planning for the time when their physical, day-in and day-out connection to the land doesn’t match their emotional one.

It’s exciting how many farmers I’ve talked to recently, who, while still in their 50s and 60s, are already planning the next phase of their farm — as well as their own lives. But I’ve heard even more stories from farmers and their kids—as well as beginning farmers who are seeking a farm to rent or buy—that indicate a distressing lack of transition planning is going on out there.

The good news is that farmers who are planning ahead have found lots of excellent resources in recent years. Lawyers, estate planners and extension educators are all getting into the act. It’s great to see that the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota annual conference next weekend will feature a session on farm transitions. LSP members and staff have been meeting this winter to discuss the issue, and will be taking some concrete steps in the near future to help people on both sides of the farm transition fence — retiring farmers as well as beginners — begin navigating this important phase in family farming.

It’s become clear that navigating that next step requires an acceptance of the fact that while having a close connection to the soil is good, there can be a fine line between attachment to something you’ve built up and nurtured over the years, and hanging on to the bitter end. Too many farmers simply do the latter — their noses so close to the grindstone that they don’t take time to look up and consider what will happen to their farm, and their community, after they’re gone.

A connection to the farm is good for that land as well as its people. But when that connection becomes a death grip, it threatens both.

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