Ag Policy Blog

Capturing the Drama of Farmland Transfers

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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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

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Mark Peterson
2/4/2015 | 4:16 PM CST
I was not aware until today that Chris had taken the time to review our play. I read with some amusement his struggle with staying to watch it as I was one of the folks pleading with him to do so. Thank YOU Chris for writing your blog on this. Farmland transfer is a big topic and you have nailed it with your comments. Fortunately there are folks out there willing to talk about ways to transfer ground for other than the highest dollar to the highest bidder if they are aware that there alternatives. Hopefully there will be many more performances of this play in Iowa. You can go to to see where it is now scheduled. It is worth the watch and I think you will find it hard to get through it without a laugh and also eyes. Mark Peterson VP PFI
Raymond Simpkins
1/27/2015 | 12:25 PM CST
Larry Don't get discouraged just yet.I see this period of low prices as an opportunity to buy. Land prices are going to get better or become available through forclosers.I am not a young farmer but a smaller one for our area.We have sit back and saved for that perfect piece of ground and now have money to buy with.The big guys that have bought high priced ground with borrowed money are in trouble and will fall a lot harder than the small producer.I to have nieghbers who are hearst chasers.When my dad died Iwas 27 and they called the day after his funeral to see what was going to happen with the farm.That was 30 years ago.They went hog wild and are now in bad shape. I don't think America will ever be all mega farms, because who in their right mind wants to inherit that.There are several large farms in our area that when the current operator is done, the land will be all split up.Land owners here in Michigan are getting old too.
Larry Nordstrom
1/27/2015 | 7:29 AM CST
This is the elephant in the room to young farmers like me. I have lost ground over the years due to this and it will only get worse since land prices make it prohibitive to purchase land while still starting my farming career. I cannot compete with the large guys when it comes to cash rent or land prices. Do I quit now and let the WalMartization of farming happen sooner? This needs to be discussed. Since only larger farms or people with backing of large $ will be farming in 30 years? If not sooner.