Book Review: The Future of Family Farms: Practical Farmers’ Legacy Letter Project

fffcover Reviewed by Patti Edwardson, WFAN board member

The majority of farmers across the United States are dedicated to their work. Whether they are women or men, young or old, with small farms or large operations, whether they rent or own the land they farm, and whether they grow fresh food or commodity crops, most of them wouldn’t want to do any other job.

Farmers have many things in common. For the most part, they care about their land, watching their crops grow and delighting in the harvest, and they tend to their livestock with compassion and awareness. They know their farm is a place for family and for friends to gather. They wonder, and sometimes worry, about what will become of the land once their time as its stewards is over. The desire to pass to a new generation all that they have learned, have grown to be passionate about, and have put their sweat and tears into is a strong and natural human characteristic. Will their farm, and the work they have done to make it what it is, survive? What will be their legacy?

A new book released in the fall of 2016 by University of Iowa Press brings the idea of a farm legacy to life. The Future of Family Farms: Practical Farmers’ Legacy Letter Project is a collection of letters and essays that takes an intimate look at the scope and complexity of farmland transfer decisions in a way that is personal and very readable. It features members of Practical Farmers of Iowa and is edited by Teresa Opheim, director of PFI's farm transfer program.

The farm legacy letter project was developed to help farmers and farmland owners consider their values and their hopes for the future of their farms. A sampling of the resulting letters are gathered together in this book, giving the reader a peek into the thought processes required to decide how a farmer’s values today can guide the farming practices and concern for the land for the next generation.

Ms. Opheim is careful to let readers know that the legacy letters are focused on the transfer of farmland, not of a farm business. Farmers and landowners are encouraged to set goals for the future of their farmland, and then develop strategies to accomplish those goals.

The distinction between farmland and a farm interestingly gets blurred throughout the legacy letters. Is a farm simply any piece of land on which to grow crops or livestock? While there may not be one definition of a farm that fits each contributor’s situation, there are some commonalities that emerge through these letters. As Neil Hamilton of Drake University’s Agriculture Law Center writes, “A farm is a family, a piece of land, a business, an entity.” Many of the legacy letter writers also include such notions as values, community, sustainability, and stability tied to a farm.

The topic of farmland ownership also becomes a major part of the farm legacy conversation. Neil Hamilton continues with a historical perspective: "[T]his nation’s preference was not for tenancy but to convert tenants into owners. …Ownership was the goal for a lot of reasons. For security. For wealth creation. For stewardship.” While recognizing that the benefits of a farmer owning her land extend beyond those concepts, many participants of the book are willing to look at other arrangements, including renting to a beginning farmer or putting the land into a trust.

There are many forces that push against a person’s vision of farming. The letter writers do acknowledge that plans for a farm, both short-term and long-term, with changes in land use or tillage practices, or the choices of crops and livestock, don’t always go smoothly or as expected. Individual financial situations, family dynamics, the political winds and whims that shape farm policy, and corporate mergers and the agribusiness industry’s influence are just some of the factors that can affect farming decisions.

Perhaps that should be a strong incentive for today’s farmer to plan a legacy now. As new research and technology, along with ancestral knowledge, show farming models and practices that benefit the land and the farmer, and bring food sovereignty to the community, farmers are able to envision their farm as being a part of that future.

The farmers in this book are doing just that. Cindy Madsen, a Women, Food, and Agriculture Network member who farms with her husband Vic near Audubon, Iowa, says about this publication, “The timing is right for this book.” Although she hopes their sons will continue what they are trying to do on their farm, she reminds us, “The legacy letter is just a start in addressing farm transition issues.”

Throughout The Future of Family Farms, readers are encouraged to begin the thought process and the conversation of what they envision for their own farm. Indeed, the future of family farms depends on it.

PFI developed a legacy letter template, available at no charge on their website. Read more about it here.

teresa-opheimAbout the editor: Teresa Opheim has worked for the Iowa Environmental Council, the Environmental Law Institute, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She led the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group before serving as the executive director of Practical Farmers of Iowa from 2006 to 2016. Opheim is coauthor of the book Our National Wetland Heritage. She continues to work on farm transfer issues from her home in the Twin Cities. 

Reviewed by Patti Edwardson

About the reviewer: Patti Edwardson farms with her partner, George Naylor, near Churdan, Iowa. Patti’s activism is focused on transforming the agribusiness model of farming to a more regenerative, agroecological model that includes the leadership and participation of women and minorities to bring healthy, locally-produced food to our citizens. Patti is a member of the board of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network and an active member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.