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Leave a Legacy: A Chance at Family Land

04:54AM Aug 25, 2012

Question: My maternal grandparents own farmland in Iowa, and my uncle and cousin farm their land. My father and I worked on the farm until my parents divorced several years ago. Now, my father and I are farming together and I’ve discovered my own passion for farming. Recently,
I approached my grandfather about renting some of his land. He didn’t think that was a good idea, adding that my mother and presumably myself are not entitled to the property because of the divorce.

My grandparents are in their 80s. I want to rent their land to provide them with retirement income while growing my operation. Right now, my uncle and cousin are reaping all the rewards of the family farm. My grandparents said my interest took them by surprise. I don’t want to be a burden, but I do feel my points need to be addressed. How do I get my grandparents to act fairly so my uncle and cousin can continue to farm and I can farm also?

Answer: Though you didn’t say how long your uncle and cousin have been renting your grandparents’ farm, I assume it’s been for a while. If so, you might have to wait until an opportunity is available. Keep in mind that "fair" might mean your grandparents honoring the tenant-landlord relationship with your uncle and cousin.

If so, I suggest you seek other land-lease opportunities. Don’t get so hung up on family issues that you miss other chances to grow your business.

When the land becomes available, approach your grandparents again. Request a meeting to discuss renting the family farm. The following guidelines might help: A family meeting should be scheduled with start and end times and follow a written agenda. At the first meeting, establish ground rules—family meetings can strain relationships, but ground rules allow participants to agree on acceptable behaviors. Specific actions might be assigned to respective parties before subsequent meetings. Each meeting should conclude with an agreement on the next steps.

You will do more harm than good in dredging up the past regarding your parents’ divorce and looking for evidence of unfairness. Act in a mature fashion, like a business owner, and treat your grandparents with the respect you’d give to an unrelated landlord. Share your business plan, showing how a rental agreement will mutually benefit you and them.

If you don’t have a business plan, now is a good time to write one. Include:

  • Vision—A description of your operation when it’s complete.
  • Specific goals—Short- and long-range goals defining the results the business plan is designed to achieve.
  • Action plan—A strategy to achieve each one of your goals.
  • Business systems—An explanation of how you will manage the farm, make decisions and involve others.
  • Budgets—Financial projections are the basis for making decisions. Budgets should be conservative and reflect the aptitudes of the owner and farm.

In the meeting with your grandparents, focus on your objective: to rent land to grow your operation. I recommend you invite your dad, uncle and cousin to participate in the discussion. When included, most active/interested family members will help to devise workable solutions.

The reverse might also be true: When not included, active family members might not be inclined to help. I recommend you record the meeting—transcripts allow for easy review and agreement about what was said by whom and when.

If the initial answer is not positive, wait a few weeks and then approach the subject again. "No" could just mean "not yet." Be patient, and continue to hone your skills in the meantime.