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.
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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.
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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.
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