Any inheritance can be complicated, but when it comes to inheriting the family farm, it can be even more challenging to decide what to do with this valuable asset.
Remember: These are just a starting point to start thinking about your goals so that you can figure out how to reach them.
Whichever path seems best to you will depend somewhat on how your farmland ownership is structured, and whatever situation you find yourself in, know that you’re not alone. While over half of farmers purchase their farmland from a non-relative, over half of non-operator landlords inherit their farmland.
The takeaway? It’s common to hold onto your family’s farm, even if you don’t have the know-how or desire to work the land yourself.
where should you begin?
If you want to keep the land in active use,
here’s a list of things you should do to get started:
To find an appraiser, you can always ask around town, but there’s also a great search tool on the American Society of Farm Manager & Rural Appraisers (ASFMA) website. The government also maintains public listings of certified farmland appraisers by state.
If reaching out to an independent contractor is unappealing, Tillable offers a Free Farmland Checkup to help you get a sense of the comparative productivity of your farmland and what competitive pricing looks like within your county.
A farm estate planning attorney will be able to provide you and your family with professional advice in this area, but there are a few ways the land can be transferred, and each one has its benefits and challenges.
The goal of this section is to explain a few of the most common ways that farms change hands within a family:
While it’s fairly common for non-operator landlords to sell farmland to folks outside their families, putting farmland in a trust is a popular mechanism to transfer this asset between generations of operator and non-operator landlords.
If you have any questions about your farmland inheritance or your interest in shared farmland ownership, reach out to an experienced attorney for assistance.
The structure of farmland ownership is typically either fee simple or it may be held by multiple owners. Fee simple means that one person—or an organization, such as an LLC or a trust—controls the land.
If there are multiple owners, they may share joint tenancy or hold tenancy in common. In spite of sounding similar, these structures are quite different when it comes to succession:
How you own your farmland or portion thereof impacts your freedom to choose what you do with it (or your part of it). You’ll need to have a firm understanding of your control and interest in the property as the structure of your inheritance will help determine how you move forward.
We also recommend speaking with a qualified attorney to make sure you have a thorough understanding of the answers to two questions:
If you’re looking for background information on how capital gains tax on land sales may impact your inheritance, the Farm Bureau’s website provides excellent resources to help folks learn about (and avoid) estate and capital gains tax on land sales.
If you or your family plan to lease your tillable acres, it’s important to make sure you choose the right type of lease to meet your goals.
There are three main types of cropland leases: crop share, cash rent and flex.
Crop share leases require a high level of expertise and relationship management. Unless you’re a retired farmer, a crop share agreement could be difficult for you to manage successfully.
Think of it this way: Being an investor doesn’t mean you should have any say in how the farm is run day-to-day, including buying inputs and deciding how to maintain the soil’s health. A 50/50 crop share requires a farmer to delegate half of these decisions to someone who’s unlikely to have any experience on that piece of land.
Crop share leases are fairly uncommon, especially in competitive states. A 2018 survey of Iowan farmers found that 53 percent of Iowa farmland is rented, with 83 percent of those agreements for cash rent.
Many farmers prefer a cash rent lease because if they have a great year farming, all of the upside of their initial cash investment is theirs. With cash rent leases, farmers assume all of the risk and all of the reward by paying up front for their annual contract.
For landowners, cash rental agreements mean greater certainty: you know what amount you’re due to be paid and when.
For those who don’t feel comfortable taking on all the risk of a cash lease, a flex lease may be a more appealing option. Under a flex lease, tenant farmers make a base rental payment and pay a bonus based on a pre-calculated variable. This format has the simplicity of a cash rent lease while still sharing some risk when it comes to annual yields.
While every farmer and family’s situation is different, it’s worth noting that the USDA’s data shows that cash rent (or “fixed cash”) leases are by far the most popular lease type across all combinations of ownership arrangement.
Whatever type of lease you choose, make sure you have a strong farmland rental agreement in writing that meets the goals of all parties involved.
Your family's guide to navigating a shared farmland inheritance
If you’ve inherited farmland as part of a family group, it’s likely you find yourselves at an emotional juncture. It’s important to remember that your family’s farmland has value far greater than any monetary consideration. Inheriting land with siblings or other close relatives can be as challenging as inheriting farmland with strangers: deciding how to divide inherited land just isn’t easy, whether your plan is to keep farming the land or sell it.
The best advice for new farmland owners who’ve inherited their acres comes from other farmland owners who’ve been there, and we spoke to several about their experiences.
These folks not only acquired their farmland, they now work in university agricultural extension offices or as legal counsel for folks who are currently navigating this transition. Here’s what they have to say about how to set your farmland (and your farmer) up for success when there is fractured or shared land ownership.
Choose a time and space when you can meet with your family members to discuss your individual and group goals.
If you’ve received farmland following the death of a family member, do not try to start this conversation at the wake or even the next day. Give yourselves time and space to gather information. Consider what you want your engagement with the land to be going forward and what you’d like to get from the land as an asset.
While your family’s farmland may not feel like any other property or investment, it’s wise to approach your farmland as a valuable asset whose stewardship you care about. From there, you may find it easier to begin talking about what comes next.
Think about what you want from your farmland ownership and set concrete goals that you’re willing to share with the other owners.
Aaron Olson of Dakota Coast Capital, LLC advises new farmland owners to think through the strategic direction they want to take. Olson said, “There are three important practical considerations for a new landowner to start thinking through regarding managing farmland: time, desire and skill.”
He recommends you ask yourself three questions:
1. Do you have the time to manage the farmland?
2. Do you have the desire to spend (at least some of) your time managing the farmland?
3. Do you have the skill to select a farmer to partner with and manage the land to its best potential?
If you or one of the owners wants to manage the farmland on their own, the answer to all three of these questions should be yes.
Olson knows what it’s like to face these questions from personal experience. “My family farm in South Dakota has been around for generations as the land has been passed down. But, starting with me, our family no longer operates the day-to-day of the farm, though I am still involved at a strategic level.”
Knowing the level at which Olson wanted to be involved in maintaining his family’s farmland helped him enter this conversation with his siblings and figure out where he could add value to the managing partnership.
If there’s one family member who’s closer to the farm and its operations, one of the most important questions to ask is whether the on-farm sibling is being treated fairly. It’s critical that everyone keeps in mind that each party’s perception of their input may be different from how the other owners see everyone’s contributions.
According to Greg Sampson, a Board Certified Estate Planning at Gray Reed’s Dallas office, “The first step is to identify the share of each owner, then assess their interest in the property and what they plan to invest (financially and physically) in its success, as well as what they expect to receive from it.”
When it comes to shared farmland ownership, when one family member is closer to the farming operation than the others, an arrangement that’s fair to everyone is not necessarily going to be equal.
After consulting with your family, it’s important to get the help of trusted advisors and legal professionals. These folks will be able to discuss the procedural aspects of your options, and they may include:
If you’re unable to reach an agreement about how to move forward with your shared inheritance with the help of an advisor, questions about ownership or succession may fall to a mediation or arbitration professional. In the event that someone files a lawsuit, a court may be the entity to decide how the farmland will be controlled.
As Karen Masullo from i3, LLC told us, “Trusted advisors are critically important to the process, whether attorney, CPA or family CFO. This is the time to think toward the future.”
These folks aren’t just there to provide legal or financial advice. It’s normal for feelings to run high in these moments of transition, and this doesn’t just apply to farmland transfers. A recent Bank of America study of family businesses found that family involvement is hard for the majority of business owners. Seven in 10 surveyed said it’s difficult to manage family dynamics and to separate the needs of their family from those of the business.
Bringing in outside advisors is a smart approach, and you shouldn’t hesitate to look to trusted family members or friends for recommendations.
One of the best resources available to new farmland owners is counseling from experienced farmland owners, especially those who are familiar with your family’s land.
Cleve Clinton of Gray Reed advocates for this approach. Clinton inherited farmland along with his siblings in the form of a limited liability company (LLC). He and his siblings maintain the land in an arrangement their late father established and continue to rent to a cousin. The monthly lease payments they receive pay for maintenance, repairs and taxes, and having someone on the land who’s known it for years made for an easier transition for everyone.
Clinton said, “As an attorney who has advised clients on this matter and from personal experience, I would encourage anyone to weigh all of the options and to seek insight from key people, preferably someone you know and trust who might be: neighboring farmers, a current farmer working the land (if there is one), or the accountant who maintained the previous owner’s financial records.”
If local experts who are familiar with your family’s farm aren’t available to you, your state’s university agricultural extension programs typically staff at least one expert whose job is to counsel families faced with a transition in their farmland’s ownership. And there are so many other people available to help you through this time.
As Greg Sampson from Gray Reed said, “Shared family ownership of a farm is a challenge even in the most collegial families.” You don’t have to go through this process alone.
For all the tech tools and expert advisors you can try, one of the biggest issues in farmland transitions is poor communication—and the solution to the problem is making an effort. To this end, ag extensions have in-house experts available in each state to help support families navigating farmland succession planning and these times of transition.
David Baker, a farm transition specialist at Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach Beginning Farmer Center, estimates that he works with about two families per week annually, adding up to about 100 face-to-face meetings each year. Via phone, he counsels 50-75 family members. His office is small, but he’s there to help and his wisdom comes from experience. You might say that most of his job is communication, and he has plenty of insight drawn from his own history.
Baker was the first person in his family to get into farming. After returning from military service, he became interested in farming and found folks who were willing to take him on as a tenant farmer. When the family whose land he was working reached a moment of transition, he bought the land from the owner’s heirs.
Now retired, it’s his full-time job to help folks navigate these kinds of family farm transitions. While he’s not a financial counselor, he is very familiar with the resources available to local farmers and what farmland transition challenges look like from both sides of his desk. Whatever state you live in, chances are, there’s a counselor like David Baker who’s available to help you.
Having a mediator—formal or informal—to facilitate communication can make a world of difference in your family’s well-being and financial health in the long-term.
It’s normal to encounter a few bumps in the farm transition process, and you have the resources and the skills to navigate these to reach your goals. Given that farmland transfer often happens at an emotional juncture in a family’s life, be kind to yourself when you’re faced with this question and use your goals to guide your decision-making.
Take it from someone who knows: landowner Belinda Hoyt now has a small family farm in Shelby County, Illinois, but six years ago, she hadn’t yet considered what she’d do when the time came for her to manage her parents’ wealth. When her mother passed away a week before her grandfather, she was faced with a question she hadn’t considered before: should she keep the land or take the money?
The answer seemed obvious to her: “I knew the foundation to building wealth is owning land.”
Hoyt said, “My family expected me to take a cash payout and sell the land because I’m a disabled, young, single mother,” but that wasn’t what she wanted for her future. When she told her family that she wanted to continue to own the land, Hoyt said, “All hell broke loose.”
But that didn’t mean she didn’t have an ally in her decision. Her cousin, who she’d known and trusted all her life, was game to farm the land and has helped her navigate her first years of farmland ownership.
This family member acted as a link that carried generational knowledge into the next era of the farm’s ownership. And it inspired Hoyt to start thinking about how she wants to set up her own farm succession plan. Her advice for ensuring the future of your farmland? “Create a farm succession plan before you need it.”
Whether you’re the sole inheritor or one of ten siblings, articulate what you want to gain from this inheritance and make sure you create a plan for the next generation that protects the legacy you wish to leave.
How farmland inheritance has changed
Inheriting farmland with siblings or a large group still poses many of the same challenges it did ten years ago (or fifty years ago) because those issues are, at their core, social and emotional puzzles that require strong communication skills.
But that doesn’t mean the options for those who’re inheriting farmland today are limited to what was available a century ago. If you or your family don’t have the know-how to operate the small family farm you’ve inherited, you should know that there are more (and more creative) ways to open this property up for investment than before—especially if you want to ensure that the land continues to be farmed for generations to come.
Crowdfunding is one part of the advent of new suite of financial products that are equity based, according to FarmTogether’s David Chan. Chan’s company helps people who normally wouldn’t have the capital to invest in farmland enter the market, typically by purchasing a fractional share of a farmland investment property.
If this sounds overly technical, think of it as a way for families that own farmland to create shared ownership structures and bring in other investors without necessarily managing the farmland themselves.
This is a way of building shared equity, and it’s part of a larger trend. “Brokerages can now offer new equity products to inherit products where they’d only previously been offered debt products,” Chan said.
So why the shift to equity?
While this kind of innovation in farmland investing isn’t reinventing the wheel or creating a new currency, it is bringing innovative investing options to small farmland owners (and now, small farmland investors).
The Boomers are proving themselves to be a more proactive generation than their parents when it comes to showing interest in the farmland investment options available to them. On the side of the inheritors, as the average age of farmers in the U.S. is near 60, more folks are having conversations about farmland succession with their families sooner.
This is remarkable because farmland doesn’t change hands all that often. According to the USDA, 10 percent of all land in farms was expected to be transferred during 2015-2019, about 6 percent of which was expected to change hands through gifts, trusts, or wills.
Of all land expected to be transferred, only about a quarter would be sold between nonrelatives, while another 14 percent was expected to be sold between relatives.
There’s simply not a lot of turnover in farmland ownership, and this has resulted in limited awareness of what investment options that exist for farmland owners. But all the news on this front is good.
As Chan said, “It’s always nice to learn you have more options than you thought you did. It’s a confusing and emotional decision to make. A lot of times, growing up on that land is all your family’s ever known.”
Chan recommends considering the emotional value of your farmland as you weigh your options for investment and asset management. Even investors will tell you that the emotional value of keeping your land may outweigh the potential financial gains you’d see through a liquidity event.
Like many events, there’s a textbook version of the story of farmland inheritance. It’s common to see siblings—for whatever reason, it’s often a group of three—in which one of them is more attached to the land and the others are usually looking to sell or transfer their ownership.
Historically, this group of three has had a binary choice: either the group sells outright or those who want to continue to own the land find a way to do so. As a result, farmland investors are seeing a new structure gain popularity.
It’s increasingly common for sibling groups to create a trust that allows them to preserve the majority of their individual ownership and sell back a small percent to cover their fiscal obligations. This way, one sibling can buy the others out while maintaining some level of ownership. Especially if they keep operating the full parcel, this can be an advantageous formula.
Before, you’d see folks holding out until someone experienced a rapid decline in health or worse. At that point, the inheritors would be emotionally overwhelmed and understandably, they wouldn’t know what to do.
As older generations are beginning to tackle this process while they’re still in good health, industry experts are seeing two things:
This approach is savvy, if less nostalgic than past generations. In the Boomer generation and among retiring farmers, there’s a common and accepted understanding that the younger generations may be less interested in the day-to-day operation of the farm.
These folks get that their kids and grandkids may have less of an emotional attachment to the family farm, and they’re open to making sure the land gets into the hands of someone who has operational knowledge and values sustainable farming practices.
As Wendong Zhang, an ISU economics professor, told the Des Moines Register, “About 55 percent of all land in Iowa has been owned by the same owner for over 20 years.” For this group of people who don’t see change come around the corner all that often, this approach is a way to ensure that their farmland continues to be tillable for generations to come.
If you’re in the position of inheriting farmland, there are many great resources out there to support you as you make decisions about what comes next, and we’ve only included a few in this article. If you’re looking for further reading right away, we recommend:
While we hope these resources help you answer your questions, if you take one thing away from this guide, please let it be the importance of strong communication. Whether you inherit farmland as the sole owner or you’re one of ten kids sharing a joint-tenancy, take the time to be clear and intentional with your words and actions.
Articulate what you want, what you hope to gain from this tremendous asset and don’t lose sight of your family’s well-being. With inherited farmland, you’re receiving ownership of a limited commodity and how you choose to be its steward matters.
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