Rural Lands At Risk As Ranchers Prepare For Retirement

Apr 25, 2018
Originally published on April 25, 2018 7:21 pm

Outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming is an 8,900-acre former ranch where cattle and horses once roamed. Now it's just open land with nothing but grass. When the owner passed away he didn't have a succession plan. With no obvious heirs, a family member sold it. It eventually became subdivided and a realty company now advertises it for redevelopment primarily as retirement or vacation properties.

Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, doesn't want to see more huge ranches like this one broken up into pieces, each with houses and utilities.

"Then that landscape then is fragmented and is really not available to support agriculture or wildlife and the other values we care about in these landscapes," she says.

That's why her organization and the University of Wyoming Extension offer estate planning workshops just for ranchers.

Passing on a ranch isn't as easy as simply writing it into a will. Poor planning mean losing your property entirely, leaving huge tracts of rural land to development or corporate agriculture.

"All the projections call for a massive transfer of land in the next decade," says Allison. "We're going to see many, many millions of acres of land change hands as these farmers and ranchers age."

In 2012, the average age of farmers and ranchers hit 58 years old, higher than the past two centuries — it's also up about eight years from three decades ago. According to a National Young Farmers Coalition report, 63 percent of farmland will need a new farmer in the next 25 years as older farmers retire.

In a recent online class at the University of Wyoming, farm and ranch specialist John Hewlett coached ranchers with the same kind of advice a lot of estate planners would give: Sit down with your family and talk about it. Do it now, step by step, so you don't have to worry about it later. Make sure everyone gets input. The goal in this case is to pass down the ranch to people who want it, so a tax burden doesn't force a sale and literally change the landscape.

Hewlett's webinar also touched on the importance of selecting the right successors — a challenge when fewer young people are interested. In 2012, only 6 percent of farmers were under 35.

Rancher Les Dunmire has been planning for retirement for 26 years, since his kids were teenagers. He manages the Dunmire Ranch, a 106,000-acre ranch in southeast Wyoming with 1,800 head of cattle.He's 66 and ready to retire.

For him, that's meant dividing the property into six legal entities plus hiring accountants and lawyers to ensure his kids won't be forced to sell. He's done the best he can to keep ranching land open for ranching.

"That's my goal, is to be able to pass these ranches on in the best possible way I can to not only my kids, but my grandkids," Dunmire says.

Once he does retire, he plans to trade in managing cattle for more time with friends and family, and going to his grandkids' ball games.

Copyright 2018 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ranchers across the West on average are nearing the age of retirement. For them, the ability to pass a ranch or farm to the next generation is not as easy as simply writing it into a will. Poor planning can mean losing a property entirely, leaving huge tracts of rural land to development or corporate agriculture. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim reports.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: I'm standing on an 8,900-acre former ranch north of Cheyenne, where cattle and horses once roamed. But the owner passed away. He didn't have a succession plan. With no obvious heirs, a family member sold it for the money. It eventually became subdivided, managed by a realty company and is now advertised for retirement or vacation properties.

More and more families are having to make similar decisions as retirement age nears for many. In 2012, the average age of farmers and ranchers hit a record high of 58 years old. According to a National Young Farmers Coalition report, 63 percent of farms are on the verge of transitioning.

LESLI ALLISON: All the projections call for a massive transfer of land in the next decade.

MCKIM: That's Lesli Allison, the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance.

ALLISON: So we're going to see many, many millions of acres of land change hands as these farmers and ranchers age.

MCKIM: She says the best way for that change of hands to happen is for a family to be prepared and to pass it down from one generation to the next with the least possible tax burden to their sons and daughters. If that planning hasn't happened...

ALLISON: The family may have difficulty paying the estate tax and then is forced into a sale on the property.

MCKIM: She doesn't want to see more huge ranches like the one near Cheyenne broken up into pieces, each with houses and utilities.

ALLISON: That landscape then is fragmented and is really not available to support agriculture or wildlife and the other values we care about in these landscapes.

MCKIM: Her organization is one of many that are instrumental in easing this transition. Several months ago, the Western Landowners Alliance held a transition workshop in New Mexico. Many other organizations did the same thing through conferences and seminars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EDUCATOR #1: Welcome everyone to the Ag Legacy webinar. Today's webinar will be covering developing a management succession plan.

MCKIM: This seminar was led by two University of Wyoming extension educators last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED EDUCATOR #2: Financial plan is really important. Everybody needs to be on the same page with financial resources.

MCKIM: Their main advice to ranchers - sit down with your family, and talk about it. Do it now step by step so you don't have to worry about it later, and make sure everyone gets input. They also touch on the importance of selecting the right successors, a challenge when fewer young people are interested. In 2012, only 6 percent of farmers were under 35.

Les Dunmire has been planning for retirement for 26 years, since his kids were teenagers.

LES DUNMIRE: I'm Les.

MCKIM: He's 66 now, and he's ready to retire from the Dunmire ranch and its 1,800 cattle. For him, that's meant dividing his 106,000-acre property into six legal entities, plus hiring accountants and lawyers to ensure his kids won't be forced to sell. He's done the best he can to keep ranching land ranching.

DUNMIRE: That's my goal - is to be able to pass these ranches on in the best possible way I can to not only my kids but my grandkids.

MCKIM: For now Dunmire, plans to spend more time with friends, family and going to his two grandkids' events. For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.