Carolyn Van Meter Navigates Land Transition, Financial and Familial Relationships

by Ash Bruxvoort

“I came of age right around the 1980’s in Iowa, during the farm crisis,” Carolyn Van Meter told me over the phone. “There was no way anyone was going to stay in Iowa. Even if we had planned for careers that weren’t related to agriculture, there just weren’t many job openings. We all left.”

Carolyn grew up on a farm in west central Iowa, deeply aware from the beginning how a farmer’s livelihood is dependent on weather, the market, your health, and relationships with your neighbors and family. Now, at age 61, she has owned Iowa farmland for five years and is starting to see her classmates and friends begin to inherit and buy into family farms, too.

Carolyn lives in Jupiter, Florida, where she runs a tax preparation, estate, and financial planning business. Because of her work, Carolyn says she often has an intimate look into land and asset transfers. “The thing with farmland is that sometimes you’re land rich and cash poor,” she says. “And, borrowing against the land is part of what got farmers into such a mess in the ‘80s.”

Finding Resources for Women Landowners

Many of Carolyn’s clients are women. She says women, especially women from the Midwest and from the farm were taught not to talk about money or politics. But people really need to have someone to talk to about money. They need someone to talk to about the technical aspect of finances, but there’s also the relationship and familial aspect. The farm isn’t only money, it’s a home, a livelihood, a way of life. People don’t want to have those discussions in their families or communities. Carolyn’s situation was a bit of an exception as she discussed these matters with her parents over the years in a fairly open manner; however, there were still many gaps in her knowledge.

But, having someone to talk to is key to success, which is why when Carolyn knew she would inherit land from her family she looked for resources--but resources were difficult to find. She started with the traditional farm magazines and from there she was directed to Annie’s Project. Annie’s Project is designed to be attended over a period of several weeks in your own community but there wasn’t enough demand for the program in Florida so she attended a weekend version in South Carolina. Still searching, she came across Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation (CALT) where she could get continuing education credits for her tax license. That gave her an opportunity to attend seminars in various parts of Iowa, meet local attorneys and accountants, and also hear more about the concerns of the Iowa agriculture community. It was through CALT that she learned about the International Farm Transition Network (IFTN). The goal of this program is to provide professional services to assist farmers in the process of transitioning in and out of farming. In December, Carolyn became a certified IFTN coordinator.

Carolyn credits the introduction to WFAN with giving her the most support, encouragement, and access to information. Carolyn attended the 2016 WFAN Annual Conference in Nebraska City, Nebraska. She came back to Iowa for the Beginning and Aspiring Women Farmer Learning Circle held in Hancock, Iowa, and most recently she attended the 2017 WFAN Annual Conference in Madison, WI, bringing along her daughter and sponsoring another beginning farmer from North Carolina. Overwhelmingly, she says, it was the opportunity to hear other women’s stories, see their farms and listen to the new ideas of speakers that has given her the most encouragement.

Navigating the System

The Learning Circle in Hancock connected Carolyn to FSA, NRCS, and Practical Farmers of Iowa. As a landowner, she said one frustration has been that while the NRCS office was able to tell her what programs her land is currently, and could be, enrolled in, it wasn’t able to tell her the payments for those currently enrolled programs. This is just one example of a disconnect between government agencies and landowner, as well as the disconnect between landowner and tenant. The tenant often is the one to make decisions at FSA but, unless requested, FSA doesn’t pass this info along to the owner. Landlord/tenant relationships are complicated and it’s difficult to know how to communicate with the tenant without seeming to pry into their business. She said women landowners often fall into a peacekeeper role as they navigate financial and familial relationships.

But familial relationships can bring new perspectives and views to food and agriculture. In Carolyn’s case, her understanding of the food and agriculture system is enriched by her children. Her daughter started the campus farm at Duke University in North Carolina and managed the farm after graduating from college. Now she’s in graduate school focusing on urban design and agriculture. Her son-in-law is an attorney whose current focus is on food policy and the next Farm Bill.

“North Carolina’s food and agriculture scene is different. There is a better understanding of growing food that people eat, while also caring about the environment and the local community,” she said. “I struggle to mix the two worlds together, but it helps for me to be exposed to the kinds of changes that could ideally happen in Iowa. Through their influence I’ve come to see how important our food is to our overall health and well-being. It really concerns me that it is so difficult to purchase locally grown food in Iowa or to find it in restaurants.” Carolyn recognizes that many people farming conventionally in Iowa, are resistant to introducing different crops, or farming in a more environmentally conscious manner. “This is a big and diverse country and while I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from practices in other parts of the country, the future of farming in Iowa must be appropriate to that place and culture.”

Going Forward

As an absentee landowner, Carolyn doesn’t want to be viewed just as someone who takes her cash rent payment back to Florida. Most absentee landowners she knows have connections to the area where they own land and they feel compelled to reinvest their resources in the land and in the local community, aside from just paying taxes. She hopes to have more of a presence in Iowa through her work and also by being involved in groups such as WFAN. “This isn’t just a business investment or a continuation of my parents’ dream. I see it as my opportunity, in a very small way, to make a difference in our health, the environment, and the economy.”

Read more stories about women landowners at our Women Landowners homepage.