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Published September 13, 2013, 11:24 AM

Rosmann: Farmland ownership can bring out best and worst

United States Department of Agriculture and Extension reports from various state universities indicate about 70 percent of farmland changes ownership every generation. A familial generation is usually defined as 25 years.

By: Mike Rosmann, INFORUM

United States Department of Agriculture and Extension reports from various state universities indicate about 70 percent of farmland changes ownership every generation. A familial generation is usually defined as 25 years.

About a million acres goes into housing or other development each year.

The U.S. has 2.3 billion acres of land. The 2007 Census of Agriculture, the latest year for which a USDA census report is available (the 2012 census report is coming soon), says the major land uses were the following: forest (29 percent); grassland pasture and rangeland (27 percent); cropland (18 percent); parks, wildlife areas and other special uses (14 percent); tundra, swamps and uncategorized uses (9 percent); and urban land (3 percent).

Agriculture, chiefly farming and ranching and privately-owned forest production, is conducted on just over half of all U.S. land. The 2012 USDA Economic Research Service report “Land Use, Land Value & Tenure” states that agricultural real estate was worth $1.85 trillion (land and agricultural structures), which was 85 percent of the total value of U.S. farming assets in 2010.

Is there enough agricultural land? Several years ago a wealthy Colorado rancher said to me, “God made only so much land. I buy as much of it as I can and wait for the price to go up, because it always does [go up].”

Interest in purchasing farmland has increased in recent years as values of cropland have increased, especially in areas with land well-suited for agriculture such as the Midwest. According to Iowa State University economist Dr. Michael Duffy, Iowa farmers purchased 82 percent of farmland for sale in 2012.

Investors purchased 18 percent of available farmland in Iowa in 2012, down from 39 percent in 2005. Low interest rates as well as high crop prices have fueled purchases of farmland by owner/operators.

Ownership of farmland brings out the best – and sometimes the worst – in agricultural people. I have witnessed intense competition among neighbors and even among siblings at farm land auctions.

Some of the most intense disputes I have attempted to help resolve have been among siblings in family farm transitions. In these cases, the parents experience emotional heartaches. Instead of being close and assisting each other, the siblings and their families have difficulty interacting without anger and competition.

Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive an email or telephone call from someone indicating resentment about a family member or neighbor who “stole” land in a purported “sneaky” transaction or when outbid at a land auction.

A July 29, 2013, report by Dr. Duffy, released through the Iowa State University Extension indicates that 30 percent of Iowa farmland is owned by people who are over 75 years old, and 56 percent is owned by people over 65 years old. This means the stage is set for possible additional strife, chiefly among family members and neighbors, as the land owned by aging owners becomes available for sale over the next few years.

How do farmers and ranchers temper their competition for land? Dutch anthropologist Dr. Lizzy van Leeuwen says farmers’ identities are tied closely to the land. “Land represents who farmers are and what they are.”

Lizzy stayed at our home for 10 days in June this year. In our discussions we wondered whether it’s ‘worth it’ to build long-term resentments among neighbors and family members over ownership of land.

We couldn’t arrive at an answer, but we pondered starting an international study group that looks at the deep emotional ties to agricultural land and associated repercussions, such as family dissolution and suicide among farmers whose possession of land is threatened.

As a provider of behavioral health care to farm and ranch people, I see many negatives from winning unnecessarily ambitious battles for possession of land for agricultural uses, but I could be wrong. On the negative side, I see too much hurt among farm families and neighbors wrangling over land ownership.

They often take their pain with them into their golden years and face death feeling important matters are unresolved. Their physical and emotional well-being suffers from the anger they harbor.

On the other hand, having land to farm assures ownership of the most essential component for producing necessities for life: food, fiber and renewable biofuels. It is possible to own considerable land and still be happy as individuals and well-liked by family members, neighbors and the surrounding community.

Landowners, regardless of the size of their operations, who improve its productivity over time are models whom other farmers emulate. These successful farmers usually also look out for the welfare of their neighbors, helping them in times of need. They regularly protect the air, water and any other resources needed to farm.

Successful landowners who share their good fortune as contributors to worthy causes in their communities, such as buildings, events and projects, are appreciated by everyone. They portray what all society needs to thrive: a willingness to share more because they have more to share.


Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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