By Teresa Opheim, Editor of The Future of Family Farms: Practical Farmers’ Legacy Letter Project
About five years ago, a farmer stopped during a farm tour and confided that he worried that his son would not be able to continue farming. The farmer’s land-owning mother had just died, and her farmland was being divided among her children. During farm tours since then, farmers without farming children expressed their sadness over not finding the right young people to continue their operations. Many admitted rancor among siblings once their parents passed, even if the family had gotten along well before. One particularly reticent farmer muttered to me: “All the things I could tell you. . . . all the things I could tell you . . .” And he drifted off, shaking his head.
Part of the problem with all of these difficult farm transitions is that families don’t know where to start when discussing the farm’s future. Documenting the farm’s past, present, and future in a farm legacy letter can be a good introduction to these conversations.
Practical Farmers of Iowa has helped more than 50 members write these letters. In the fall 2017, the University of Iowa Press published more than 25 of them in The Future of Family Farms: Practical Farmers’ Legacy Letter Project.
The Future of Family Farms includes stories about farm legacies of impressive longevity. In 1869, Johann Ficke found a beautiful spot a mile west of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, to homestead what is now Del Ficke’s farmland legacy. “To this day, we are farmers and cattlemen – that is the core of our family’s agricultural history. However, at the center of the story is family,” Del writes in his farm legacy letter.
Several of the letter writers want to see new farmers living on and working the land. One such farmer, Neil Hamilton, writes, “Historically, this nation’s preference was not for tenancy, but to convert tenants into owners. In the 1940s, tenancy was almost seen as an evil. There was the ladder you moved up from being a hired employee, to tenant, to being an owner. Ownership was the goal for a lot of reasons. For security. For wealth creation. For stewardship. Not many people would choose to always be a tenant if they could own the land.”
While collaborating with the University of Iowa Press to assemble the book, I was struck by the security provided by farmland ownership. My family is an example of this. In the 1920s, my grandparents were busy working the family’s northwest Iowa farm and raising eight children when their world fell apart. In 1929, the stock market crashed, the local bank failed, and the family lost the farm.
“They lost so much,” my father, Wayne Opheim, writes “and my family became so poor. I always wondered about the psychological effect of losing so much.” Wayne was born later that year, and the family moved into town. “My dad then worked as a janitor at the Lutheran Church. I think the church felt sorry for him having all those kids and no job. In 1939, he applied for a job at the Bode schools. He came home one day and said ‘I got the job!’ We all cheered. And he was a school janitor for the rest of his life.”
Twenty miles away, my mother’s farming family thrived. That farmland has helped provide a comfortable retirement to my parents 80 years later, and it will benefit my siblings and me financially as well when we inherit it.
Farm legacy letters are an important tool for expressing gratitude for what the land has provided, commitment to family and stewardship, grief for all we have lost, and revitalized visions for the land and agriculture.
While these are meant to honor the past, Practical Farmers’ goal is not a nostalgic one. Instead, we hope the legacy letters help farmland owners examine what aspects of American agriculture they want to keep, to change, and to let go of.