MOUND CITY Mo. — It was 1969 when Morris Heitman farmed his first land purchase, a relationship with the land that would span 50 years.
“The last crop I raised was in 2018, and in 2019 we had a farm sale,” Heitman says of liquidating the machinery he and his brother had acquired over their farming careers.
“My brother is two years older than me – he is 77 and I’m 75. He has four girls and I have two, and no one to take over,” he says.
Over the span of their 50-year partnership, the Heitman brothers bought 13 farms, survived the farm financial crisis of the 1980s and withstood not one but two 100-year floods. And as a farmer at-heart, Heitman shares of his life’s work, “It has been good, we’ve been blessed in our operation.”
Today, the Heitman brothers still own the farmland, cash renting it to younger farmers in the area.
“There is always a vigorous interest in acquiring more farmland — anyone in the business wants more land to farm,” he says. “We went with young guys that were close. We know their families and their parents. We cash rent everything except for one tract of land that I rent on a crop share.”
Heitman says that of the things he misses about farming, the perfect days during harvest are the hardest.
“I miss the nice fall days: those days that are warm during the middle of the day and cool at night, I miss those. But I sure don’t miss it when the snow is blowing or it’s 95 degrees,” he laughs.
South of Mound City in Savannah, Greg Wall will be 70 on his next birthday, and is making preparations to retire from farming.
In his final semester of graduate school at the University of Missouri, Wall’s father offered the opportunity to return home and join the family farming operation. Wall says it was an easy decision.
“Coming home to farm was an easy decision, and when my uncles and father retired about 20 years ago, I kept farming. We were up to about 1,500 acres,” he says of his operation prior to beginning to cut back over the last few years. “I am still farming 400 acres, but everything else I have rented to younger guys in the area who are interested in growing their operations.”
While retaining ownership of his farmland, Wall says that much like Heitman, he didn’t have anyone to hand the reins over to and his age, along with the opportunity to spend more time with his family and travel, were all factors in his decision to retire.
“No one is interested in farming. My grandson will be doing something else, there just isn’t any interest. And it isn’t safe for me to be out there by myself anymore,” Wall says of his decision to retire after the 2020 growing season.
He shares that market volatility and finances were not drivers, but watching COVID-19 unfold has changed the way he is viewing his future.
“I have a lot of things that I still want to do, and I’m realizing that I better get them done. I need to spend more time with my wife and my family,” he says.
Lynn Hennigan serves both northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri as a farm succession planner, and says that the decision to retire is typically one that requires thought and planning.
“I like to start the retirement conversation about five years out, prior to the transition or dispersal,” she says. “Most of the time, we need those five years for income tax planning — to work their income back in and even it out so that they aren’t hit with a huge tax burden in the first year of retirement.”
Some of the strategies Hennigan employs are CCC loans, charitable remainder trusts and, if self-employment tax is a concern, working with a farmer’s chosen successor to transition machinery on a lease-to-own agreement.
Hennigan says that aside from monetary considerations, creating safe opportunities for those who wish to stay involved at some level is important to both a retiring farmer’s physical and mental health.
“There are a lot of farmers who don’t want to cut back, but they need to for their well-being, and those conversations can be hard. It’s important that they know that no one wants them to stop. They need to stay active and involved if they want to be,” she says, sharing that one of the best strategies she has seen to keep retiring farmers involved is the reallocation of specific farm duties.
“The best thing I have seen, and I see it a lot, is operations who upgrade the dozer or excavator for the retiring person to maintain tiles, ponds and waterways. I’ve also seen this strategy used for irrigation.”
As for both Heitman and Wall, their retirement is certainly not an indication of either slowing down. Both are using the opportunity to invest more time in their communities and families, confirming that retirement from farming isn’t really retirement, at all, but rather a redirection of passion and service.