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At the Nexus of Access, Transfer, and Viability
BY AMANDA BEAL | PHOTOGRAPHS BY JENNY NELSON
Having a connection to a farm and its land can be a profound experience. As a kid, I loved running amok in the fields and forest and spending rainy days in the hayloft, building forts out of stacks of square bales. Growing up on a farm felt rich and rewarding in so many ways and difficult in others, but never did I consider that one day our farm might not be a farm anymore.
But as my father grew older, it was clear that it was becoming harder for him to continue managing the dairy cow herd and doing all of the heavy chores required to keep the farm running. Several years ago, our family realized that the time had come where something needed to change.
You may be familiar with my family’s story, or just a snapshot of it, as the process of trying to navigate the transfer of my father’s dairy farm to my youngest brother was featured in a film that Maine Farmland Trust produced (before I came to work at Maine Farmland Trust) called Growing Local. This story, filmed over the course of several months in 2013, begins in the middle of what would ultimately be a much longer story, when my father and brother, Adam, were trying to find a way for Adam to purchase the farm so that my father could finally retire.
At that point, Adam had been working full-time off the farm for about five years, making his living as a diesel engine mechanic, as well as helping out on the farm as much as he could. My father had no retirement nest egg as, like many farmers, anything he had left over after the bills were paid went right back into the farm—in fact, the farm was his retirement.
With a young and growing family to support, my brother couldn’t step away from his outside work unless the farm could pay him, too. And yet, for the farm income level to qualify for financing to enable Adam to purchase the farm, the business required more labor—this became a very circular challenge and one they had almost given up on trying to solve.
As I watched them struggling with all of this from the sidelines, I was realizing how deep our connection to this farm was, both as a family and for each of us individually. Vivid images of my father’s many years of working draft horses, clearing land, haying the fields, and dutifully going out to check on the cows one last time every night before bed were deeply ingrained in my mind. Memories of hiking with my siblings across the pasture to round up the cows for milking, spending hours in the barn helping with chores, and putting up bales of hay with the
summer crew to sustain the herd through the long winter made it all the more difficult to face the very real possibility that the farm my father had spent decades building—with the hope that one day one of his children would be able to take it over—might not continue to be in our family or even continue at all. When a place holds so much meaning, it’s difficult to imagine life without the ability to spend time there. It is painful to think that the next generation may not grow up on that treasured land, that they won’t be given the same opportunities to learn to appreciate hard work and what it takes to produce good food.
Facing this potential loss was what motivated me to jump in and try to help, and the Growing Local segment shows the initial stages of my efforts to support them in navigating this transfer process. It shows all of us working together to find a way forward, despite the challenges laid before us. But the reality is that, as the credits rolled, the future of this farm was still quite uncertain.
What followed were more years of planning and reaching out for help when we got stuck or needed support. We drew on experiences of other farmers in our community and also enlisted the expertise of knowledgeable staff from various organizations and programs, such as the Maine Department of Agriculture, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Farm Service Agency, and others. It was a long journey, but just last fall, Adam and his wife, Jamie, became proud second-generation owners of the farm.
This kind of story of generational succession plays out over and over again here in Maine, to varying degrees of success, as families navigate their own unique circumstances. What is clear is that there is a tremendous amount of farmland that will be changing hands, one way or another, in the coming years. A 2016 assessment by American Farmland Trust verified that over 400,000 acres of farmland in Maine will likely move from one generation to the next over the course of this decade.
What I learned from my own family’s experience is that we can’t expect that the success of this point of transfer will be a given. There are many factors that can complicate such a process, regardless of whether a successor has been identified, within or outside the family. This can also be an especially important and vulnerable point in time for a farm and its future, particularly if the amount of time and level of planning detail needed is underestimated. Farms that have extensive and costly infrastructure and a large land base and perhaps even livestock, such as dairy farms, can require a much longer timescale for transfer than a smaller produce operation. In these cases it may even take multiple decades to successfully transfer a whole farm, which illuminates why it is so important to begin the planning and transfer process early.
In my family’s situation, one element that made this transition possible was having an identified successor, and one that our whole family support- ed in taking over the farm. However, according to the American Farmland Trust report, “In Maine, farmers age 65 and older own or manage nearly one-third of the farms, and most are farming without a young farmer alongside them.” In fact, “…92 percent of Maine’s 2,367 senior farmers do not have a young (under 45) farm operator working with them.”
But even having an identified successor does not make farm transfers easy, nor guarantee success. There are often still conversations to be had with siblings and other family members to ensure buy-in for the overall succes- sion plan. And sometimes the best laid plans can undergo change when personal circumstances shift, whether related to health issues, growing families, divorce, or other unforeseen opportunities or hurdles emerging.
Other challenges can encroach, as well. For new farmers, access to capital and carrying student loan and other personal debt can be barriers that take time to overcome. For the retiring farmer, it can be difficult to let go of the business they have spent their life building and the deep and long-lasting relationship they have formed with the land. If the farm business has contracted over the years as the landowner has aged, farm viability may also be a factor and need to be addressed in transferring to the next generation.
Family dynamics, communication styles, and differing visions for the future of the farm can take time to work through. These are also exactly the kinds of challenges that can cause a farmer to delay succession planning, as they are complex issues that can feel overwhelming if trying to navigate them without support. In short, some farm ownership transitions are simple, but most are not.
There are many components to think about when contemplating a farm transfer, but one of the biggest takeaways is that succession planning and implementation can take much longer than one might think. Although not a foolproof strategy, in most cases, more lead time means more options for everyone involved. It is never too early to start the process, and although a transition like this can be challenging, the good news is that there are a number of supportive people and programs to help farmers work their way through this process, once they are ready to begin.
Elevating the importance of succession planning in the life cycle of a farm business is a good way to help ensure a future for that farm and for yet another generation to have the rich experience of growing good food and other agricultural products for themselves and their community and enjoying the meaningful process of working with their hands in the soil—and that is something that benefits us all.
amanda beal was President and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust and is owner of Fieldstone Farm in Warren, Maine
FARM TRANSFER AND SUCCESSION PLANNING RESOURCES
A growing number of resources for farm transfer and succession planning can be accessed through the Farm Transfer Network of New England (farmtransfernewengland.org). Other notable resources include:
Maine Farmland Trust provides a tool to connect farm seekers and farm owners looking to lease or sell their land through the Farmlink program and business planning assistance through the Farm Viability program. In addition, conservation easements purchased through the Farmland Protection program assist in land access for incoming farmers by making farmland more affordable and also ensure that the farmland won’t be developed for non-agricultural use in the future.
American Farmland Trust has produced a resource called “Your Land is Your Legacy: A Guide to Planning for the Future of Your Farm.”
Maine Agricultural Mediation Program of the Volunteers of America Northern New England offers mediation and conflict resolution assistance specifically for the farming community, which can be useful in navigating difficult discussions in the succession planning process.
University of Maine Cooperative Extension also offers support for succession planning and has been doing so for many years. In addition to collaborating with the Farm Transfer Network of New England, Extension offers a daylong estate planning conference for farmers, supporting the development of a farm transfer plan, and holds follow-up meetings with families to support them in their succession goals.
Land for Good is a regional organization that has built a “Toolbox for Farm Transfer Planning” and offers one-on-one support with transfer planning and holds workshops on this topic; Land for Good also serves as the administrator for the broader Farm Transfer Network of New England.