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Harmony or strife?

Poet laureate tackles seeds of dissent in farm succession in play commissioned by the Practical Farmers of Iowa

April 8, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

By Amy H. Peterson

Staff Writer

Mary Swander's play, Map of My Kingdom, will be presented at the Pearson Lakes Art Center Thursday, April 11 at 7 p.m. with a panel talkback afterward. Friday, Lakeside Lab is hosting a letter-writing session in which farm owners can put to paper the emotional and sensory experience of their farm. Also, Friday, a workshop on farm succession is scheduled.

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Swander, Iowa's poet laureate, said Practical Farmers of Iowa commissioned her to write the play in hopes the stories would help launch a discussion of the critical issue of land transition.

In a phone interview from her eastern Iowa home in an old Amish schoolhouse, Swander said, "It's a one-woman show. The character is a land mediator, because so many times the succession of land ownership is contentious. It comes down to heirs' expectations not meeting reality."

People have killed each other over the issue. Others have come to blows and dissolved relationships. Others do find peaceful solutions that nurture the viability of the family members and the land.

"These issues can bring out the very worst versions of good people," Swander said.

The latest Land Ownership Survey from Iowa State University indicates sixty percent of farmland is owned by people 65 years of age or older, with 35 percent owned by people aged 75 or older. Forty-seven percent of farmland is owned by women, and 13 owned by female landowners over the age of 80. Over half of that farmland is leased, usually by cash rent, meaning there are often long-term tenants who also have a stake in the succession of the land.

Twenty-nine percent of Iowa farmland is primarily owned for family or sentimental reasons, the survey said. Families find they are defined by the farm, and the act of letting it go or even changing its ownership and management within the family can signal a change in a way of life.

"It's an age-old problem, spanning from the Bible to King Lear to the works of Willa Cather and [now-retired Iowa State University professor turned Pulitzer Prize winning novelist] Jane Smiley," Swander said.

One Iowa farmer said after seeing the show, "It's easier to talk to your children about sex than farmland transition."

Practical Farmers of Iowa offers this advice: Farmers who rent land are in a precarious position: When their landlords die, many heirs will want to cash out quickly, leaving farmers struggling or unable to find the financing to purchase land. The situation is equally severe for those who farm with their families. Many farmer landowners plan to divide their land equally among offspring. Their farming offspring may not be able to buy out the other heirs, who may want to sell the farmland to cash in on their inheritance. And these challenges pertain only to the farmland itself. Transferring the farm business can also involve a difficult dance of giving responsibility to the younger generation while the older generation learns to let go. Practical Farmers is here to share stories and resources about the great farm transition that is currently underway.

Mary Swander is the Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa. She has published over thirteen books of poetry and non-fiction, in addition to plays, radio and television scripts and magazine articles. She has appeared in such places as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, National Public Radio, and Poetry Magazine. Swander's plays Driving the Body Back and Farmscape have toured the U.S. and 2013 Farmscape was performed for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and his staff at the U.S.D.A.



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