Retired Farmers: Cash No Substitute for Land

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Jack Brubaker Lancaster Newspapers

LANCASTER, Pa. — Ken and Evelyn Probst own a 125-acre farm in Drumore Township, Lancaster County. They’ve been offered more than $15,000 an acre for it.

They’re in their late 70s, and they’re not actively farming anymore.

But they’re not interested in selling their land, either.

“After you sell, you have a pile of money,” Ken Probst said while sitting at his kitchen table, talking somewhat guardedly about his farm and future.

“After you get the taxes paid, you have to build another house,” he said. “What would you do with the (rest of the) money? Would you go to Hawaii? There’s just no advantage to selling.”

“Plus,” added Evelyn Probst, “we really don’t want to sell.”

The Probsts are among an increasing number of older farmers, in Lancaster County and elsewhere, who are holding onto their land longer than previous generations.

Agricultural bankers and real estate brokers who work with farmers every day say older farmers have become more reluctant to leave their land.

There are a number of reasons for that:

Farm commodities have risen in value. If older farmers remain active, they can make good money raising livestock or growing grains. The recession barely affected the agricultural community.

Older owners who have stopped farming themselves can rent their land for as much as $400 to $500 an acre — up to two or three times the going rental just a few years ago.

If older farmers sell, they face huge capital gains and other taxes because farms, unlike many homes, have appreciated steadily, even in recent years.

At their age, older farmers don’t necessarily want to invest land profits in a risky stock market. With rock-bottom interest rates, they won’t get much of anything by banking their money, either.

If they sell the farm, they have to purchase another house and move — prospects that are expensive and disruptive.

The older farmers get, the more attached to the land they become. They don’t want to face the emotional upheaval of saying goodbye.

For all these reasons, farmers are aging as a group, in Lancaster County and elsewhere, just as the general population is aging.

Farmers are hanging on to their land longer largely because economic and other conditions have allowed them to continue earning a good living.

Milk and corn prices have been high for years. They really shot upward in late 2011 and last year. Prices for other agricultural products generally have been on the upswing.

If older farmers have the physical ability to maintain dairy or crop farms, they’ve done well right through the recession.

But experts say that situation won’t last forever.

“I don’t think the spike can hold,” said Lowell Fry, vice president with Fulton Bank’s agricultural financial services group. “Part of me says some of these guys who are renting land maybe should sell because the price of corn is going to go down.”

The Probsts rent their land for an unusually low $150 an acre to a farmer who grows corn, alfalfa and soybeans. They are satisfied with a relatively low rent payment per acre because the renter is a good land steward. He also is willing to plow them out after a snowstorm without charge.

The $150 an acre is a sufficient amount, along with savings, to support the Probsts’ lifestyle.

But some farmers are earning as much as $500 an acre in rent — well above the $100 to $150 an acre rent that was standard three or four years ago, according to John Mattilio, owner of Farm and Land Realty Inc., of Willow Street, Pa.

At $500 an acre for 100 acres, $50,000 in rental payments will cover living expenses, taxes and insurance, Mattilio said. With that kind of money coming in, older farmers have an incentive to stay on the land.

“If I’m getting this kind of rent, my emotions are I want to stay on the farm,” Fry said. “If I’m only getting half the rent, then there’s pressure to sell. There’s no pressure now.”

Also, land prices in Lancaster County keep rising. Farm values have been appreciating for years. Ken Probst doesn’t want to say what he paid for his farm in 1958, but it was a tiny fraction of what it’s worth now.

That means huge capital gains taxes if he sells.

Capital gains taxes to the federal government, plus state taxes, could total more than 20 percent on a typical farm, according to Fry. That’s enough to make some farmers think twice about selling land that is still profitable.

Ken and Evelyn Probst have some investments. But they lost money in the stock market during the 2008 crash.

If they sold their farm, they would not invest again in stocks that have recovered robustly but could collapse again.

“A lot of people are unfamiliar with the stock market and hear the horror stories some people went through,” said Ken Rutt, a farmer and agricultural real estate specialist in Quarryville.

“And with low interest rates, they’re not going to make any money investing in banks,” he said. “It’s easier just not to sell.”

“If CDs were selling at 10 percent,” Mattilio said, “a lot of farmers would be selling their ground.”

If the Probsts sold their farm, they not only would pay high taxes and get a low return on CDs, but they would have to purchase a new house. After living in one place for 55 years, the prospects of buying a new place and moving do not excite them.

Older farmers, like other senior citizens, are thinking smarter about aging at home these days, Mattillo said.

“They’re living on the first floor of their house,” he said. “They’re moving the washer and dryer up from the basement. There has been a huge push to make these farmhouses friendlier to older people, with the anticipation of making these houses livable longer.”

And then there’s the emotional component. Selling farmland is not like selling gold jewelry or a coin collection. If the Probsts sold their home and farm, they would be selling their way of life.

“There has always been that emotional attachment,” said Scott Hauseman, Susquehanna Bank’s senior vice president for agriculture. “That plus the economic factors have convinced more older farmers not to sell.”

John Blanchfield, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Banking, said the typical farmer has a “tremendous” emotional attachment to the land.

“The independence they enjoyed their whole careers is very strong, and, I think, selling the land to them is surrendering that independence,” he said. “A lot of older farmers do not want to do that.”

Ken and Evelyn Probsts’ two daughters don’t want to farm, but the couple would like to pass along the land to them some day anyway. The kids grew up there. It’s the family place.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to sell, but we don’t know what’s ahead,” Ken Probst said. “We always have the farm to fall back on.”


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