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Family Business Matters       10/20 11:46

   Land as a Liability

   Some family members associate hardship with farming -- a view that can 
derail farm estate transfers and shared ownership in later generations.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   In a recent article, I suggested that land was a special part of a farm or 
ranch family's legacy. Land provides multiple benefits to families, communities 
and societies, it connects people to one another, and it offers a sense of 
history through stories and experiences anchored in a particular place. In so 
many ways, land can be a blessing.

   However, I want to also acknowledge a different, perhaps darker side of the 
relationship to land. For some members, the family property is associated with 
negative experiences that cause land ownership to be seen as less of a blessing 
and more of a curse. Consider how the following examples may cause a family 
member to see their ownership in a different light.


   In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy points out that "Happy families are all alike; 
every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In short, there are many 
factors that can contribute to a difficult family life. One of those is a 
history of physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse. For the abused, such 
acts are often associated with a place, and for those who grew up on farms, the 
land is often a poignant and continual reminder of the difficulties of family 


   Depending on one's entry into the cyclical business of farming and ranching, 
the macroeconomic climate, political factors and weather patterns, a farmer or 
rancher's financial trajectory might be influenced for a decade or more. Plenty 
of people struggled in the Farm Crisis of the 1980s due to factors outside of 
their control. Others struggled in the 1930s with the Depression and Dust Bowl. 
For some people, ownership of the land is associated primarily with a struggle 
for economic survival. The land is seen not as an asset, but as a liability, a 
chain or binding preventing the pursuit of a happier, less-stressful life.


   Reading about the pioneers, one is often reminded of the sheer isolation 
found in rural America in the country's early days. Mental illness and 
depression were familiar themes. And while most rural areas today seem less 
physically isolated due to modern transportation and communication technology, 
the proximity to neighbors, the severity of natural elements, the (at times) 
negative rural community dynamics and the shortage of mental health care 
workers have an impact on the mental health of rural residents. 

   My observations are anecdotal, but just in the rural communities and family 
businesses I know, the number of family members suffering from a mental health 
disorder is significant. The land, then, can become a symbol of individual or 
community dysfunction, an icon of anguish -- often internalized -- for those 
who remain or who are called back to deal with the land.


   For families who own land for generations, perhaps the most damaging aspect 
is the role land plays in conflicts between family members. We all know 
families torn apart by distributions of land that were perceived as unequal. Or 
that a particular family member received the home place to the exclusion of her 
siblings, or how a family member who received land but was neglectful in his 
care of it -- these are the issues that destroy relationships. Whether the 
conflict is actually rooted in the land (versus, for example, sibling rivalry 
or parental favor) the conflict manifests in and around land, its ownership and 
stewardship. I often find those who want nothing to do with the family conflict 
incited by land are often the first to sell at whatever price most quickly 
accomplishes the divestiture.

   In today's era of high (albeit decreasing) land values, and in light of 
land's vaunted status as an asset of which "they aren't making any more," it's 
easy to get caught up in the many virtues of land ownership. But for a 
substantial number of people, it's not just about the economics. The land 
represents something dark or destructive in their past. It's a hindrance to a 
better future. For some, it prevents the healing of a family relationship. To 
appreciate the full spectrum of a legacy rooted in land, then, one must also 
confront the ways in which land has been both a blessing and a curse.

   EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Woodbury writes family business columns for both DTN 
and our sister magazine, "The Progressive Farmer." He is a Garden City, Kansas, 
author, consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years' 
experience specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Email 
questions for this column to Lance@agprogress.com. See Lance's related comments 
on this topic at our recent Minding Ag's Business blog 


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