How land owners can act as good stewards of farmland
By Jon C. Wiebe
Come with me on a road trip. Travel our constituency from North Carolina to California, Montana to Texas. See the land God created. Marvel at the evidence of his goodness and grace. Hear the stories of how God has blessed ingenuity and hard work, often symbolized through the ownership of real estate. Observe the struggle and responsibility as each person decides how best to honor God with their wealth.
What are the tales you hear from the road? You hear of one couple who puts all of their farmland in a dynasty trust and chooses not to make a charitable gift at death. You hear from another couple who is donating their last acreage into a charitable remainder trust, consciously making a decision to limit what the children receive through inheritance in favor of reorganizing resources to maximize funds for ministry. You have the privilege of hearing from a set of siblings who encouraged their father to place his family farm into a charitable remainder trust, receiving income for life and then establishing an endowment in honor of him and their mother at his death.
Next stop might be the couple who once said they just can’t bring themselves to part with any of the land, but when they die, their children can do whatever they want. Since making that statement, things have changed, and they’ve liquidated some property to benefit family and ministry while living.
Is farmland a blessing or curse?
As we travel around our constituency, we hear a common theme from farmland owners. There is a deep-rooted, heart-felt desire to not sell farmland and to do everything possible to hand the acreage down to the next generation. We even hear a sense of duty and obligation to do so. We also detect a sense of pride and security placed in the land. Comments include:
- “They aren’t making more farmland.”
- “There is a limited supply, you know.”
- “We have to keep the farm in tact or the next generation won’t be able to make it.”
- “We’ll give it to the kids, and then they can do with it what they want.”
I wonder, is this is a biblical perspective? Do we trust in riches rather than God? How much is enough to leave to children and grandchildren? What values are being communicated; what story is being told?
Holding on to land has been a tension throughout history. When the Israelites were directed to release their land in the year of Jubilee, they were reluctant and resisted. Somehow the connection with their land went deep into their souls and provided a sense of security and identity that all of us cry out for.
Certainly there is something unique about farmland. While it could be compared to any small business or family-owned business, the emotions expressed and the attitudes encountered suggest to us that something fairly unique is going on.
A tool to transfer stewardship
An estate plan is the primary tool parents use to transfer their stewardship responsibilities to others. How should the presence of farm land as a major asset impact this stewardship transfer?
Many of us have children that are not fully embracing a biblical stewardship perspective. If that is the case, how might that reality impact the decisions we document in our estate plan? Since God has entrusted resources to us, shouldn’t we give careful consideration to how we transfer those stewardship responsibilities to the next generation?
Many parents want to keep the family farm intact and don’t want to come to grips with the growing reality that most children have moved away from home, are not actively engaged in the farming operation and will sell the property after they’re gone. If that is the case, why not face that reality now and formulate a God-honoring plan for these resources while living rather than leave this decision up to the children?
A related issue is the parent’s desire to keep the farm together for the benefit of the one child who has chosen to stay on the farm. In this case, parents need to carefully pray through the fairness of this decision as it relates to the other children. We urge parents to create an estate plan that leaves children still hugging each other long after the parents are gone.
Leaving a legacy
Proverbs 13:22a says, “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children.” Author Larry Burkett says, “The primary inheritance we are to leave is spiritual; the secondary inheritance is financial.”
If we seriously believe that the primary inheritance we can leave our children is a testimony of our faith and values, then the design of our estate plan should reflect our faith and values. Prayerfully creating a plan to transition assets to children and to the Lord’s work will create a lasting testimony and will be the final expression of your values.
- Clinching real estate so tightly that the charitable component in your estate plan is minimized may contradict a lifetime of stewardship teaching and modeling.
- Some folks we visit with want to make their charitable gift as a percentage of their non-real estate assets. However, the significant increase in farmland values coupled with the tendency of farmers to have the vast majority of their assets in farm land often results in a very small charitable gift relative to the size of the entire estate.
Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all solution and no right answer when it comes to this issue. My intention in writing this article is to lift up some of these issues and encourage a thoughtful and prayerful view regarding farm land. I encourage well-thought out and God-honoring estate planning rather than decisions based on fear, expectations or duty.
As the Apostle Paul so clearly instructs (and I paraphrase) in I Timothy 6:17-19, may we not put our hope in the wealth of farm land but in God. May we use our resources to do good for family and for the work of the Lord. In this way, we will have the extreme joy and privilege of taking hold of life that is truly life.
Jon C. Wiebe is president and CEO of MB Foundation, the U.S. Mennonite Brethren stewardship ministry. MB Foundation assists individuals and families in reaching their charitable objectives and leaving a legacy.