I was somewhat caught off-guard Friday when a few members of Practical Farmers of Iowa asked that I stick around their conference for a one-woman play performance. I was already facing an evening drive home and dinner from a drive-thru.
I did stay, though, for a different approach to get farmers to think about farm transfers and estate planning. Practical Farmers of Iowa had commissioned the play, "Map My Kingdom," as a way to address the high volume of farm transfers that Iowa is going to face over the next two to three decades.
The numbers can probably apply to most farm states, but an oft-cited 2012 Iowa State University study showed 56% of Iowa farm ground is owned by someone over age 65. At least 30% of farm ground is owned by someone over age 75.
With that as the centerpiece issue, playwright Mary Swander wrote "Map My Kingdom" as a narration of some of the confusion and conflicts that families face as the patriarch or matriarch of the family either sells the ground without discussing it with anyone else or begins to lose some of their mental clarity and turns the land over to one sole heir who may not have deserved it.
"Who is going to get the farm and what are you going to do with it?"
Practical Farmers of Iowa sees the risk of farmers losing their rental ground in this massive transition of land as they are either outbid or the land is turned over to other purposes.
Swandler has pointed out in interviews on the play that there is "inherent conflict and tension" in farm transfers. Many families simply choose not to discuss it, which is probably the worst decision. Swandler also noted that her own family farm was sold after she and her brothers inherited it.
The play highlights violence as people fight over who should get the right to buy an elderly neighbor's property. It also notes to an issue brought out in the 2012 Dennis Quaid movie, "At Any Price," in the scene in which Quaid's character goes to another farmer's funeral just to see about leasing the ground. I actually remember a Nebraska farm women's conference several years ago in which widows described this as being one of the most unexpected and shocking consequences following their husband's death. Everybody called wanting to know who was going to take over farming the land.
"Map My Kingdom" draws back on Shakepeare's "King Lear" who is faced with dividing his kingdom between his three daughters. Actress Madeleine Russell essentially plays a family mediator trying to sort through not only her grandmother's land sale, but also the stories of families whose decisions, or lack thereof, ended in tragedy or a permanent rift in the family.
"It's a tough conversation on how we end our little bit of time on the land and someone else's little bit of time starts," Russell said during the performance.
"Map My Kingdom" has several performances lined up in the coming months across Iowa. Practical Farmers of Iowa is encouraging potential bookings for other communities in or out of Iowa. For more information, go to www.maryswander.com.
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