Do you want to know an interesting fact? It’s often easier to do the farm succession planning when you know one of the kids will sell their land someday. At least it’s known. But then there are times when parents say, “I don’t know if he will sell or not. He’s rather sentimental about the farm, but you never know.” So, what do you do with that? Do you hold off on creating a solid plan for the farming heir because another child has emotional ties? What if that feeling fades? Could today’s sentimentality, cost your farm heir their future?
You know, I LOVE this time of year! It’s the crispness of the air, seeing combines roll in the field, kids laughing as their boots sink in grain filled wagons, and the memories of catching corn on the fly as my whole family worked to get the crop in. That is good stuff! I love the nostalgic memories this season draws up within me. It’s hard NOT to be sentimental about the farm during harvest season!
Sentimentality is good. It honors the way we were brought up. However, I fear that it can lead to complacency in farm estate planning. I’ve seen this play out many times. The kids tell the parents they all love the farm and want to own land. So, Mom and Dad simply split things out equally in their estate. But then, the kids have a mental shift when the parents pass away. They may have intended to be a team player, but every day the off-farm heirs must go home to their spouse, their family, their dreams and their obligations. For the farming heir, the farm decisions are much tougher to work through with siblings and in-laws than they ever were with Mom and Dad. Sentimentality ultimately shifts to reality.
At some point, someone wants/needs out, so the farm heir borrows the money to write the check. It’s a struggle, but it works…barely. Interestingly, another heir sees their sibling get a check and they think, “Hey, I kind of like big checks. I think I want one too!” Of course, now the farm can’t support it. Soon both the operation and the relationships fall apart. I’ve seen this cycle play out over the course of several years after an estate is settled. I’ve also seen it take a matter of weeks.
So, what happened to sentimentality? Was it for sale? Maybe. But Mom and Dad forfeited their opportunity to set the price by neglecting their planning.
Sentiment is static. Farms are dynamic. When kids tell their parents that they won’t sell because they are sentimentally attached to the farm, they are drawing from their past. It’s a fixed period in one’s life. The farm on the other hand, is completely dynamic in nature. It’s always changing. It must grow to survive. Think of it this way, the highest horsepower tractor I remember as a teenager, is now basically just the PTO source for the grain auger. Things change! Can you afford to hold your planning hostage while others sort out their emotional ties to the farm? Let’s think through this…
Must sentimentality be tied to land ownership? I once asked an off-farm heir what she thought of most when it came to her memories of the farm. She said it was the farmstead where she grew up. I asked her farming brother what meant most to him. He said it was the tillable acres around the homestead. The solution? She got an option to buy the farmstead. He got an option to buy the land around it. Done! Both had a path to get what they wanted while keeping the farm intact. This simple solution allowed the parents to move forward when they were previously stuck in their planning.
Do all your farms hold the same sentimental value? The natural default for parents is to split the land equally if an off-farm heir says they want land. Maybe it would help to ask them what it was about the farm that they loved most. You might be surprised. For some it’s the timber they used to hunt, or the creek line they walked, or maybe its Grandpa’s barn site where they want to build a house someday. If it’s truly the sentimental value that they’re holding on to, how much equity must they receive to keep their memories alive?
Don’t confuse what they say, with what they mean. It’s important to understand the difference. The kids may say they want to own land. Perhaps what they mean is, ‘I just really don’t like the idea of being forced out. Let me choose.’ Or, ‘I don’t really understand any other option yet, so of course I’m going to say I want land!’ It could even be something like ‘Mom and dad, I respect you and the farm I grew up on. I would probably prefer cash, but I if I said that out loud, it’s like I’m dishonoring you. But once you’re gone, I may feel differently.’
Maybe they honestly do want to own land. That is great! Then create a path where co-ownership can make sense. Set the terms of the operation for management, rent, purchase options, and funding if an exit is needed. The kids can always choose a different solution when the time comes, IF agreed upon. But if they don’t agree, then you’ve proactively established the terms that will keep the farm viable.
Please don’t misunderstand where I am coming from here. Technically, I am the off-farm heir in my family, and I was blessed to grow up on the farm. Every spring and fall I am flooded with great, great memories of being raised on the farm. (And yes… I remember the challenges and frustrations too!) I am as sappy of a sentimentalist as anyone out there! But I also understand that my experience on our farm is, and was, for one single snapshot across five different farming generations. I cannot let my sentimentality get in the way of growing the farm for the sixth generation. Rather, I want to help it grow through good planning. I encourage you to do the same!