The Planted Row: Losing a farm, keeping a family

Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

When my grandfather died, he put the farm and his other assets in a life estate for my grandmother. When she dies, the assets will be divided between their six children in chunks of roughly equal monetary value.

At that point, the farm will officially be split up. There will be no trust. No combined rental payments divided among the siblings. No votes about what to do with the farm property.

There will also be no problems or hurt feelings when we all sit down to Thanksgiving dinner together.

Every farmer has to decide how he or she wants to pass on to the next generation that for which he or she worked so hard over the course of a lifetime. Every family has their own unique situation that has to be dealt with in a particular manner.

Still, I’m glad my grandfather chose the method he did. Yes, he retired a successful farmer who remained very interested and involved in agriculture until his declining health dictated otherwise. However, the farm mattered less to him than his family. The last Thanksgiving that the entire family spent together before he died, he spoke to us with tears in his eyes about the importance of family and our love for one another.

So, it is no surprise that he prioritized family over the farm in the arrangement of the estate. He didn’t try to lump all the farm assets in the hands of his two sons who still had an interest in farming. He didn’t force his children to argue over the disposition of his estate as members of a trust. Instead, he split his estate equally between them. None of them will feel cheated. Each of them can do as he or she wishes with the inheritance. The brothers and sisters will all still get along, and their children and grandchildren will all know what it’s like to grow up as a member of a large and loving family.

Of course, my grandfather’s decision means the end of something. The farm my great-grandfather purchased nearly a century ago will no longer be whole. When my father and uncle decide to stop farming, they will likely be the last generation of Wises farming the land.

Some of you might wonder why I don’t go back home and start farming. After all, my aunts and uncles would probably rent me their land — maybe even sell it to me. While our farm was once considered large for our county, it’s too small to support my wife and kids as a row crop farm, given current trends in agriculture.

We can’t save seed anymore, and seed costs have tripled in the last 20 years. Land rents have climbed. Equipment and input costs have skyrocketed. Commodity markets are dismal as global production and ending stocks increase. That’s not a future on which I can gamble my family’s security.

It’s time to face the facts. Before too many more years, the Wise family will no longer be a farm family. Our story will play out in other families over the coming years, and while it is sad, it doesn’t have to be a tragedy. Because of the method my grandfather chose to pass on his estate, our family will remain close as it grows and finds a new path forward.

If you are planning your estate, it’s important to consider the emotional health of your family. The farm exists to support a family, so it shouldn’t be the thing that tears a family apart.