Is your land a member of your family? Do you commune with it and find comfort in its presence? If someone wanted to buy it, could you sell without remorse? Farmers and ranchers sometimes find these questions hard to answer. For as much as they feel the historical value of the land and are thankful for the means to draw their livelihood, they realize it is an asset that developers or investors view as only a means to diversify wealth or generate revenue. If they submit to the need to transfer ownership of a long revered parcel of land to someone outside the family, there is sadness and vacancy.
Family heritage in farm ownership has been recognized at the Iowa State Fair. Farms are given “Century” designation and are awarded “Heritage” status, as the same family has owned the land for over 150 years. When these determined people step forward to receive their plaques, with three or four generations represented, you can feel the pride and connection to their ancestors. Most never make it this far, as the vagaries of time, weather and fortune remove them from their roles. How many times has each family, with a century farm sign displayed on their front gate, been confronted with a crisis that a farm sale would solve, or an opportunity that would leave them wealthy for the remainder of their lives?
Land owners have different views of the economic and intrinsic values of their property. Some measure their success by their net worth and everything—short of the wife and kids—has a price. Others, at the far end of the spectrum, are like the Native Americans who feel that the land is not theirs, but has been entrusted to them by former generations with the purpose of passing it on to family members who wish to utilize it in the future.
The question of whether the land has a soul is not academic. For a farmer who is caught in a financial squeeze, such as in the 1930s or early 1980s, or for the old rancher who realizes his land is worth a lot more to someone else, there is a requirement to be mentally prepared to face a reality you wished would never come. As we educate our children and as our country offers far more opportunities off the farm, the challenge of succession increases the guilt of the generation that finally sells the land.
What is it about working a farm and making mortgage payments, through good times and bad times, that causes the ownership of that land to become a part of one’s being? I’ve talked with psychologist Val Farmer about this, on many occasions. They usually came after the report of a farmer killing himself because he’d lost a farm or when a land owner shot at the sheriff who came to take it through “condemnation” proceedings under eminent domain. The answer, according to the mild-mannered doctor, is that we become so attached to a particular piece of land that we have to go through a mourning process to let it go, without mental breakdown.
“But it’s just dirt,” says the prospective buyer who evaluates a quarter section on its slope, topsoil depth, corn production index or fences. Yet that same buyer, one generation later, may have become so attached to the land, that in his mind, it has become a member of the family. Still, the value of land is in dollars per acre and set by appraisers according to the surrounding property sales. There is a large amount of land bought and sold each year by only these criteria. Yet, the farm across the road, in the eyes of the owner, has a value that can’t be written with numbers. Its value is defined by sacrifice and sweat. Its yield is measured in the generations who called it home.
Do people feel this way about factories and mines and restaurants? Some do, and some don’t, as they go through the decision making process to evaluate whether to part with it. A business affects far more families than a farm. Its core is not only the owners, but those who toiled on his behalf. The commonality of farm or factory seems to be the generational attachment of either receiving it from an ancestor or passing it forward to a descendant. The worth is measured in terms other than dollars.
Finally, some of us feel bad for those who have no feelings about property that is about to pass from elderly parents to the general public, with the proceeds going to angry or uncaring children. I watched a farm sale where the aging farmer and his wife sat glassyeyed as their possessions were lined up and auctioned off; while the daughter paced and smoked cigarettes, as she tallied the take and made arrangements for the rest home. A farm is an extension of our being. It does not have a soul of its own, but we gladly loan it ours