Field Lessons from: Leelanau Conservancy

Our agricultural landscape is in a time of transition. The average age of established farmers in the United States is 58, and in the next 20 years, 70 percent of privately held agricultural land is going to change hands. The vast majority of farmers, though, don’t have an exit strategy or knowledge of how to develop one as they work towards transitioning out of ownership of their farm property and business. What’s more, land is vulnerable when it changes hands. Property absent an estate or succession plan is liable to be subdivided and developed or sold to a non-farmer. An estate plan determines what will happen to property following a landowner’s death, while a succession plan determines the fate of property during the lifetime of a landowner as they transition out of ownership. We’re left to ask, then, given this impending transition and dearth of long term plans, ‘What’ll happen to all of this land?’

I work as the Farm Programs Manager for the Leelanau Conservancy in Leland, Michigan. The Leelanau Conservancy is a land trust that serves Leelanau County, a small peninsula in the northwestern quarter of Michigan’s lower peninsula. We’re a county of kettle holes and drumlins towards the tip of Michigan’s fruit belt. Cherries are the predominant fruit cultivated here alongside applies, grapes, and a variety of other stone fruits. The county is also a prime example of a landscape in transition, and as someone who interacts with farmers across the county on a regular basis, I’ve found that generational land transfer is a topic at the forefront of the minds of many farmers in our service area.

The focus of my work at the Conservancy is to permanently protect the county’s agricultural land with conservation easements. We’ve come to recognize, though, that conservation easements are not the only tool that we can, or should, rely on to protect our county’s working lands during this time of transition. It’s for this reason that we’re exploring what we can do to encourage and support farmers as they look to prepare succession and estate plans. Educating myself was the first step. I knew next to nothing about long term planning several months ago, but I’m making progress, though still in the nascent stages of my own learning. I’ve spoken with farmers across the county, Michigan State University Extension Agents, and professionals including attorneys, Certified Public Accountants, and financial planners. I’ve read countless articles, brochures, and conference pamphlets about succession and estate planning. What I’ve learned is that these plans take myriad shapes, are unique to each family, and certainly don’t adhere to a timeline. Plans are expensive to make – due to the high cost of services – and many families are hesitant to even start planning because “What’s gonna happen to the farm?” is a fraught question. Moreover, once a family starts the planning process, it is not uncommon for things to move forward in fits and starts, and take many years to complete. Finally, I found that many families simply don’t even know where to begin.

The Conservancy wants to encourage farmers in our service area to take steps towards making long term plans. As a conservation organization, we see a need to not only protect the land, but to also protect the viability of our agricultural community. In the immediate future, I’ll continue to educate myself while working to create opportunities for members of my community to educate themselves on the planning process. In the coming year at the Conservancy, we hope to introduce a pilot program that will provide conditional cost-sharing to cover fees incurred during the planning process to participating farmers with the hopes that a financial subsidy will catalyze some families to take action on their succession and estate plans. We want to do our part to help keep working farmers and their families on the land. As the lionized American Farmland Trust bumper sticker reads, “It’s not farmland without farmers.”

Sam Plotkin- Farm Programs Manager, SAEA Student Representative on Steering Council