Land and legacy: transitioning today’s property to tomorrow’s owners

Farm and Food

The Center for Rural Affairs strives to help landowners utilize their property to its best potential—how to care for the land so it is fruitful for generations to come.

Landowners today are faced with the issue of how to handle land transitions or changes in ownership when the time comes, a key conversation Center staff urge landowners to have with their families and loved ones. Recently, the Center partnered with Practical Farmers of Iowa to bring several showings of the play “Map of My Kingdom” to rural communities in Nebraska and Iowa.

The one-woman show explores answers to the questions: “Who’s going to get the farm? And, what are they going to do with it? Will your future plans for your land create harmony or strife for your family? Or, have you even started to think that far ahead?”

Commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa and written by Iowa’s Poet Laureate Mary Swander, “Map of My Kingdom” tackles real-life situations faced by people all over the Midwest.

Randy Lukasiewicz, a native Nebraskan who grew up as part of a family-run business in Farwell, Nebraska, was so moved by the performance that he started a campaign to try to get a showing in his hometown.

“Knowing that the stories are real, and with such a beautiful, powerful, moving, and hopeful ending, I believe this needs to be performed in every rural (and even urban) community,” Randy said.

The play’s message rang true for Randy in more ways than one. He is the fourth generation of a small town Main Street business that recently closed after more than 100 years servicing the community selling harnesses insurance, autos, pianos, furniture, carpeting, appliances, and more, and even serving as the town undertakers. Randy recalls how closely he could relate to certain themes in the play.

“As a non-owner, I remember the gaping hole I felt when dad was killed one October afternoon, my grandfather dying a few weeks later, and my uncle, thousands of miles away, recovering from a near-death accident,” he said. “There was no written succession plan. Given the years I worked there with my dad, grandfather, great-grandfather, and uncle, I feel I have experienced every one of the situations [presented throughout the play].”

Randy is not the only audience member who had a strong reaction to the play. Lin Brummels, another native Nebraskan, grew up in Antelope County and now owns land in Wayne County.

“The play did a great job of presenting the dilemma most of us face regarding how to pass our land and/or homes to our children,” said Lin. “I’ve been thinking about the question of inheritance fairness for a while. My small ranch, in the middle of corn country, doesn’t have enough acreage to cut in half. It would make the land rather useless to both of my children, and probably place them in the position of needing to sell. Likely buyers are local corn farmers, but I’d hate to see 25 years of established grassland plowed to become another corn or bean field.”

During the play, the topics of fairness and the future of property were brought up, and both Lin and Randy resonated with them on different levels.

“The question of fairness to both children is a very personal matter,” said Lin. “The play also brought up the question, ‘Does fairness mean equal?’ This is an important issue for our family to figure out.”

Lin said the play reminded her of the need to take action and make an appointment with a lawyer to begin discussing possible options like trusts or other legal choices. She hopes these options will make it easier for her adult children, should she become incapacitated, or pass away.

“The play clarified for me that one should not leave land transition to chance or to a potential for fighting between my two children,” she said. “I want to involve them in the decision-making process, if possible.”

Though he’s not a farmer, Randy has possessions of value, and feels it’s his responsibility to draw his kids into the conversation topics of what, when, and where, and his estate.

“I need to work today to plan for their and my future,” he said. “What good is it to hang on to things now and create a burden for my family when I am gone? We may not all have land or a farm, but we all have an estate that will need to be settled. Life is too short to not have ‘the conversation.’”

Randy also emphasized that these topics are not only important for families to discuss, but also for entire communities to think about.

“This play about land and transition property is of utmost importance, but the play also relates to every family and business as it’s about an honest dialog between individuals and families,” he said. “It’s about the future. It’s about having the conversation.”

The Center for Rural Affairs presented performances of “Map of My Kingdom” as well as audience discussions that have offered opportunities to facilitate conversations about land transitions, as this is a pressing issue for landowners in rural America.

“People's kids may not be equipped to deal with land transitions if they aren't involved in their parents' wishes or a conversation before they go,” said Sandra Renner, Farm and Community Program director for the Center. “These conversations need to happen with so much land up for grabs in the next 10 to 15 years. We want to help connect landowners to resources, and beginners who are willing if they don't already have a successor.”

The Center continues its work with landowners and land transition through learning circles for women landowners and beginning farmers. The learning circles help connect participants to resources, equip them with additional information they need to make important decisions, and provide a space for deeper conversations among peers.

In the next two years, learning circles will be held where “Map of My Kingdom” was recently performed in Nebraska and Iowa. Watch for these events and more.

“Map of My Kingdom” was originally directed by Matt Foss, acting and theatre history professor the University of Idaho. The play is performed by professional actors Lindsay Bauer, Erika Kuhn, and Maria Vorhis as a one-woman show, presented through the lens of an attorney who is reflecting on clients she worked with in the past as part of her journey sorting through her own family’s land and legacy.

Feature photos, clockwise from top: "Map of My Kingdom" performed in West Point, Nebraska, by actress Lindsay Bauer. | Center staff member Vicky Espinoza (right) greeting attendees in West Point. | An audience discussion followed each performance, discussing land succession and transition. Dave Goeller, retired deputy director of North Central Risk Management Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, led the conversation in West Point.​ | Photos by Kylie Kai