Mike Irvin, director of Kansas Farm Bureau’s Legal Foundation and KFB’s Legislative Counsel, talked about the changing demographics of family farms and presented a variety of information about contracts and leases as part of a Thursday workshop presented by K-State Research and Extension and hosted by Finney County Extension.
A Goodland native, Irvin provided a comprehensive and practical understanding of agricultural leasing issues.
Irvin grew up on a farm and practiced law for more than 12 years before beginning work with KFB. He talked about changing demographics and how they affect the survival of farming.
“This one is very important to me because it hits my family, as it does many of your families,” he said.
According to Irvin, by 2028, it’s estimated that 70 percent of U.S. farmland will change hands. Of that, 70 percent won’t be passed on to a second generation farm family, and 90 percent of land that reaches the second generation won’t be passed to a third generation of the same family. Ninety-six percent of the land won’t reach a fourth generation.
“Look at these odds. The statistics tell us the average farmer’s age is 57 years old,” Irvin said. “The truth is we’re getting older as an industry.”
Irvin said those statistics show why it’s important for farm families to plan ahead for succession.
When a farm is split between descendants there may be one who continues farming while the other siblings do not. The non-farming siblings could then decide to sell off their interests, or the farming sibling or siblings may have to buy out the others, if a plan doesn’t spell things out in advance.
“I encourage you to start putting that plan together. I don’t care if you’re a young guy or older like me, we’ve gotta plan for the future, so we can get that stuff to the next generation without trouble. Because you know what we love as attorneys? Chaos. You know who’s going to win in chaos? Me,” he said.
Irvin also discussed the importance of written contracts on land leases, rather than relying on oral agreements. Some of the problems with oral agreements are that one party could die, terms could be forgotten over time and there could be a he said/she said dispute.
“A written agreement has to have certain elements. I can make an agreement on a napkin and it’s enforceable as long as I have the date, the time, what we’re doing and both parties sign it,” Irvin said.
Written agreements should also include a hold harmless clause, a layer of protection for a landowner who leases to a tenant to farm the land when unforeseen situations arise, such as the recent listing of the lesser prairie chicken listing as a threatened species.
“What if that prairie chicken happens to come on your property and you have a lease with a farm tenant that says he can farm that for the next 10 years?” Irvin asked. “That chicken is going to throw him out, and he can’t produce anything. Where’s that farm tenant going to go? Can I sue you because of it? Think about that.”
Irvin also talked about some of the ongoing issues the Farm Bureau’s legal foundation has worked on including rural bridges and cities implementing three-mile zoning surrounding city limits.
Many counties are struggling to pay for replacement of deteriorating rural bridges. Some counties may decide to take the bridges out, vacate the road and do minimum maintenance. But Irvin said they can’t just do that without due process. He urged people to be aware of the growing problem.
“Most rural communities can’t afford to rebuild rural bridges. So that may mean that one-mile trip becomes six miles every time you haul a load of corn or cattle. See the dilemma?” he said.
Regarding land conflicts around towns and cities, Irvin noted that Beloit as part of its comprehensive planning process is seeking to extend a three-mile boundary around the city to prepare for an estimated growth of just 200 people during the next 10 years.
That illustrates the need to be aware of how those issues could affect agriculture interests.
“If you’re a farmer in that 3-mile area, things could change for you. Because now the city’s coming out, your taxes could change, the whole gamut,” he said. “The point is you can’t just sit on your hands. We have to be advocates.”
Other sessions during the day included presentations about land values, farm income, spreadsheet tools, and machinery leasing.