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Selling the farm not as easy as it sounds

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Robert Beaver, of Kasson, and his wife, Joy, attend "Map of My Kingdom," a play about farm ownership, Saturday at the Mantorville Opera House.
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MANTORVILLE — Most farmers have an emotional connection to their land, which is why, when the time comes, transferring farm property is unlike simply selling a house.

That was one of the messages coming from experts during a play and discussion about farmland transfer Sunday at the Mantorville Opera House.

"About five years ago, farmers started telling me stories about farm transfers," said Teresa Opheim, of Practical Farmers of Iowa , one of the sponsors of the event. "A lot of them were not good stories."

And now, with the average age of the majority of farmland owners in the Midwest at or near 60, the issue is about to reach the crisis stage.

That's why Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned the play, "Map of My Kingdom," to look at farmland transfer. "A lot of the issues were family dynamic issues that we thought a play would be a good way to get at," Opheim told the audience of about 40 people.

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In the play, a one-woman performance by Chicago-based actor Maria Vorhis, various aspects of farmland transfer — historic, family, legal and otherwise — were explored. The title of the play comes from Shakespeare's "King Lear," in which Lear intends to divide his land, his kingdom, among his three daughters.

As Lear found out, and as farm families today are discovering, land transfer does not happen easily.

"It's not simple," a woman in the audience shouted out. "I have eight children. I know how hard it is. It's very emotional."

That emotion comes from the commitment to the land itself, and to life on the land. In many cases, the land has been in a family for more than a century.

"It's not just the family home, but it is the family home, and it's not just the family business, but it is the family business," said Terrance Moore, an Edina attorney specializing in farmland transfer. "And then there's, 'I don't want to be the one to lose this farm that's been in my family for seven generations.'"

Moore's firm, Hellmuth & Johnson, has established a farmland transition team of attorneys who are experts in the field, including Susan Stokes, who is leaving the firm next week to become Minnesota's assistant commissioner of agriculture.

Stokes said that while tradition says farmland will be passed on to male members of the family, it is important not to exclude women from those decisions.

The hardest thing is getting the conversation started, because it often deals with unpleasant and uncomfortable circumstances, Stokes said. "Women tend to be the conversation starters," she said. "So it's important to keep them involved."

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It's important for another reason: "A lot of young women want to farm," Opheim said.

But when it comes to conversation about transferring farmland, the most important thing a family can do it simply to begin it. "Start a conversation, that's the idea," Opheim told the gathering.

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Maria Vorhis, of Chicago, performs "Map of My Kingdom," a one-woman play about farm ownership Sunday afternoon at the Mantorville Opera House. The event was sponsored by Renewing the Countryside, a non-profit organization "that works to creat a more just, vibrant and sustainable rural America," according to their literature.

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