GASTON, Ore. — It was the most telling sentiment Nellie McAdams heard as she toured the state, putting on workshops to help farmers and ranchers with the gut wrenching question of what will happen to their land when they retire.
It was beautiful and tragic in the same breath. “We’re so blessed to have this land,” someone would say. “It’s such a burden.”
It summed up an aspect of Oregon agriculture, maybe the emotional ledger, that may not be seen in other businesses. After all, McAdams said, not many other business owners live where they work.
“It’s more than just land,” she said. “It’s heirloom, legacy, your family heritage. Being a farmer isn’t just an occupation, it’s an identity.
“You can’t retire from being yourself,” McAdams said. “You’re passing over what makes you, you.”
But eventually, farmland must be passed on to someone, somehow. A son or daughter may be interested in taking over, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes parents aren’t willing to let go. And sometimes, dealing with the situation is like pulling the bandage off family wounds.
Sale to a stranger has its own pitfalls. Oregon has many earnest agricultural neophytes, but how many can afford land and equipment? If another farm is the buyer, will it operate with the same care as generations of family members?
To McAdams, Farm Preservation Program director for Rogue Farm Corps, the succession question has emerged as one of the most critical issues facing Oregon agriculture. Among other work, Rogue Farm Corps trains beginning farmers, placing them in internships with commercial farms.
McAdams specializes in farm succession, and has put on workshops statewide to get farm families thinking about how they want to handle the transition.
It’s an issue McAdams is familiar with; she’s taking over the family farm from her parents. The family has about 400 acres, including about 100 acres in hazelnut trees, 150 in second-growth timber and about 150 acres leased for clover seed, grass seed and winter wheat.
In her workshops, McAdams urges farmers to consult with an estate attorney, and maybe even a family counselor.
McAdams would like to see a program, perhaps through OSU Extension, that makes more farm succession experts available to help families work through the financial and personal issues.
She urges people to start planning. “A lot of farmers don’t know what the next step is,” she said.
Again, she’s working from experience. Her father, David McAdams, is an estate attorney who worked the farm on weekends, and the family had its own work to do when it came time for succession planning.
They agreed to set it up in a way that Nellie McAdams will be able to take over the farm and buy out her younger brother, who loves the farm but wasn’t interested in farming.
But every Christmas, just to be sure, the family takes out the will and talks it over.
Occupation: Farm Preservation Program director, Rogue Farm Corps.
Personal: 37, grew up in Southwest Portland but spent weekends at the family’s hazelnut farm in Gaston, Ore. Her father, David, is a retired attorney; her mother, Nita, is a retired teacher.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College, law degree from Lewis & Clark College.
Career path: Consultant with Ecotrust, staff attorney for Friends of Family Farmers, now with Rogue Farm Corps, http://www.roguefarmcorps.org/, which provides training for beginning farmers. Also on the board of directors for East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District in the Portland area.
Her specialty: Farm succession research and planning.
Notable: From December to May did 38 presentations, traveling 7,260 miles and speaking to 1,396 people.
Common thread: Even as they reach or surpass retirement age, farmers and ranchers have intense physical and emotional ties to the land, and it is difficult for them to let go.
Groundbreaking work: Co-wrote “The Future of Oregon Agricultural Land” with cohorts from Oregon State University and Portland State University. Report showed average age of Oregon farmers is near 60, and that 64 percent of state ag land could change hands over the next two decades as they retire or die. “How that land changes hands, who acquires it, and what they do with the land will impact Oregon for generations,” the report said.
Seeking solutions: She’s among the backers of House Bill 3249 in the Oregon Legislature. The bill includes funding for working land easements, covenants and conservation management plans, as well as succession training and a tax study.