Learning Circles and Farm Succession Workshops Target Women Landowners

July 6, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

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When it's time to pass farm and ranch land on to the next generation, a growing trend across Nebraska shows more women are being put in a position of managing a family succession plan agreeable to all siblings near and far.

Terri Liermann and her three siblings grew up on a picturesque cattle ranch west of Swan Lake in Holt County. She remembers riding horses across the rolling green hills, splashing through the creeks and streams, and seeing cattle grazing across its meadows and pastures.

When she left the ranch for Colorado to study and work in business and finance 30 years ago, keeping the 2,900 acres in the family was expected.

Then life’s inevitable events happened:

Her dad died; her mother remarried; her stepfather died; and then her mother developed Alzheimer’s.

Terri Liermann (right) poses with her sister and her mother. (Courtesy photo)

"And I thought, well maybe now is a good time to move back home and help mom and help out on the family ranch," Liermann said. "I thought something’s telling me I need to move back home."

So, Liermann moved back to help her mom pay the bills and make decisions. But Liermann, a sister who lives in Pennsylvania, and two brothers, don’t always agree on issues involving land management.

This type of fractured family dynamic is quite common, said Allan Vyhnalek, a farm succession educator at the University of Nebraska.

Vyhnalek said he’s seen a lot of elderly landowners pass the farm to their offspring who may have grown up on the farm 40 to 50 years before, but wouldn’t know the first thing about managing the operation. He said the family’s end of life documents -- will and trust – often fall short.

"Mom and dad made two key assumptions that could go wrong as they’re making this transition or succession plan," Vyhnalek said. "The kids will always get along. The second is the kids will always -- all of them -- want to keep the farm in the family."

Allan Vyhnalek discusses farm succession and the need for educating people about agricultural economics in his east campus office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)

Vyhnalek said he realized there was a need for a workshop to help people in this situation. Last year, 550 attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's workshop entitled “You’ve Inherited a farm, now what?” Of that, nearly 40 percent of the workshop attendees were women.

"True story: A lady calls me up and says, mom is 92, she’s in a nursing home, and she can no longer speak for herself and I’m her power of attorney," Vyhnalek said. "I have to take care of her affairs. I’ve got this farm to manage: what do I do?"

Jon Schmaderer with Tri-County Bank in Stuart says the more family members can be knowledgeable about land transition and openly discuss various options, the smoother the process is likely to be.

"As a bank, one thing we’ve done a good job doing is getting out in front of families and saying, these are important things you need to talk about amongst yourselves, with your attorneys, with your accountants, with your financial partners, and with your bankers," Schmaderer said.

Schamaderer says there is a massive transfer of wealth between generations happening across Nebraska right now mainly because owners are living longer and holding onto the land until death, much like Liermann’s mother.

"So what we’re seeing now, right in the middle of that transfer, there’s certainly a growing trend of women landowners," Schmaderer said. "Nebraska’s going to be a big part of that wealth, and with that the next generation of landowner, we’re certainly seeing more women involved with that piece of it."

A brilliant north central Nebraska sunset on Terri Liermann's family ranch. (Courtesy photo)

Additionally, many of the women inheriting these farms are looking for ways to enhance their agricultural economic education. One effort that addresses risk management directly is women-only “learning circles” organized by the Center for Rural Affairs. The Center’s Kirstin Bailey said the circles allow participants to share ideas and learn from each other.

"The benefit is that these women come together and it’s a safe space for conversations to develop," Bailey said. "Sometimes, women will hesitate when there’s men or even one man in the group. So they can really ask the things they need help with."

One of the most popular learning circles covers risk management for women landowners. A recent workshop held in Ashland attracted 25 women from eastern Nebraska counties. Many women landowners shared the same concerns as they went around the table introducing themselves.

Judy Battan is a retired nurse who inherited 55 acres in Douglas County. She was attending the learning circle to learn about her options.

"I had very little involvement in the farming operation until my husband passed away about a year ago and I inherited all this," Battan said. "What to do?"

Cattle grazing on the 2,900-acre ranch owned by Terri Liermann's family in Holt County. (Courtesy photo)

Bailey, who lives on a farm outside Brainard, Nebraska with four generations of her family, said Battan’s issues are familiar to many women. She said the workshops offer strategies for managing the land.

"A lot of women are just more open to ideas, and they want all the information they can get," Bailey said. "So they want to see and know what every option is."

Community banker Schmaderer says the best case scenario happens when a property is sold and the money stays local and supports the community.

"The worst case for our community is when after the funeral everybody comes down to cash in CDs and bank accounts and they run back to California or somewhere that’s not in north-central Nebraska anyway," Schmaderer said.

Schmaderer says the property will likely be sold when the landowner loses the emotional connection to the land.

"Those families that don’t communicate anything, they do find out at that time whether or not they were involved," he said. "At that point in time everybody’s getting their own attorney to represent themselves in the matter, then we’re almost guaranteed that land is going to sell and there’s a real chance the ownership’s not going to stay local like we need it to."

Even if they don’t agree all the time, at least Terri Liermann’s siblings are talking about the future of their family property. At least for now, when she proposed dividing the land, they all seemed to agree.

"I think when it does come time to settle mom’s estate I’m sure there’s going to be more hard feelings," Liermann said. "People probably thinking they should get more."

One sentiment her siblings all seem to agree upon, she says, is an attachment to the land that has been in their family since the early 1900s.