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Women caring for the land

By Staff | Jun 10, 2011

Carolyn Schwartz, right, explains how a wetland and a windbreak have been incorporated into this field northeast of Jefferson.

By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY/Farm News staff writer

JEFFERSON – Women now own more than 50 percent of the land in Iowa, and as this percentage continues to climb, these women are ushering in a new outlook on farmland management, conservation and leaving a legacy.

“Women need to be empowered to do what they want to do with their land,” said Lynn Heuss with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, who helped coordinate a “Women Caring for the Land” conservation education program last month in Jefferson.

“These women are intelligent, thoughtful and caring, and they want to leave their land better than they found it.”

Still, it’s not uncommon to hear a variety of doubts and concerns when female landowners get together and share their experiences. As the 15 women at the Jefferson program introduced themselves, common sentiments included:

From left are Mildred Skalla, from Scranton; Jean Finch, of Jefferson; and Mary Garst, of Coon Rapids, who were among the participants at the recent “Women Caring for the Land” program in Jefferson, which covered options for improving farmland stewardship.

“I feel ill-informed about farm management and want to get educated.”

“I try to act like I know what people are taking about with the farm, but I want to stop having to fake it so much.”

“I wasn’t prepared for widowhood and was almost overwhelmed by everything I had to think about.”

Many of the women are also interested in crop-sharing agreements, no-till farming, conservation practices for their land, and opportunities for more diverse agricultural production, from fruit and vegetable production to crop rotations that go beyond corn and soybeans to incorporate hay, oats, wheat and barley.

Planning basics

“Women need to be empowered to do what they want to do with their land.” —Lynn Heuss Women, Food Agricultural Network

When considering options for improving land stewardship, it’s worth analyzing the intersection between sustainable agriculture and business succession planning, said John Baker, an attorney with the Beginning Farmer Center through Iowa State University Extension. Start by considering the four components of sustainability:

  • The farm has to sustain family. “You have to be able to make a profit,” Baker said.
  • The farm must sustain the environment.
  • The farm needs to sustain the community.
  • The farm business needs to be transferred to the next generation.

“Find someone who shares your values and develop a farm succession plan to reach this goal,” Baker said.

In business succession planning, there are also some pitfalls to avoid, said Baker, who advises landowners against joint tendencies. “If your child’s name is on your land or your home, for example, a creditor can look to your assets to satisfy debts your child may accrue.”

Fragmentation of land ownership can also create challenges in farm succession planning. A one-twentieth share of ownership in a farm, for example, can be problematic, especially if the heirs didn’t grow up on the farm and have very little connection to rural Iowa.

“We need to try to keep assets together,” said Baker, who commended that a meeting participant who bought out her sisters’ shares of the farm.

What about parents’ common objection that they want to treat the kids fairly by splitting the farm equally between them? “There’s nothing more unfair than to make unequals equal,” said Baker, who encourages landowners to determine whether each child has made an equal contribution to the farm business. It’s relatively simple to place a value on the contributions each child has made to create some of the operation’s wealth or to preserve the wealth of the farm.

Did they help maintain the farmhouse, mow the lawn or help with fieldwork? All those activities have a monetary value, Baker said, and this information should be considered when it’s time to pass the farm to the next generation.

Tax credits help

Iowa landowners who’d like to help a young or beginning farmer get started in agriculture can take advantage of a number of tax credits. Through the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit sProgram, landowners can receive a 5 percent tax credit for a cash rent agreement and a 15 percent tax credit for a crop-share lease.

“That means the landowner gets to take 5 or 15 percent off of his or her tax bill,” said Baker, who noted that the Iowa Agricultural Development Authority can provide more details about the program.

Finally, farm succession planning should include an up-to-date will and estate plan. “Less than half of Iowa farmers have an estate plan,” Baker said. “Even if you have an estate plan or a will, many are outdated and need to reflect current trends and prices in agriculture.”

With any farm business agreement, from estate plans to fencing agreements, get it in writing, Baker stressed. “Written agreements take care of the problem of selective memory.”

You can reach Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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