Organic Broadcaster

Couple crafts farm transfer plan that lets them live out their lives on farm

By Teresa Opheim, Iroquois Valley Farms

Jerry Ford and Mariénne Kreitlow have crafted a ‘transfer on death’ legal structure to allow a younger couple to take over their farm. Photo submitted

Mariénne Kreitlow and her husband, Jerry Ford, have set up a plan that lets them live out their lives on the farm that has been in the Kreitlow family since 1898, transferring ownership upon their deaths to a young couple, Seth and Kiri Bravinder, who are family friends but not blood relations. This farm transfer plan protects their land and keeps it in farming. It’s also a generational transfer scenario that is increasingly common: at least three generations were involved in the planning.

Mariénne’s 95-year-old father, Willard, lives with her and Jerry. He transferred title to the land to Mariénne (113 acres, including house and buildings) and her brother (167 acres) a few years ago, reserving a life estate. Rent checks still go to Willard; he is in charge of taxes, and helps on the farm when he can. He also is the inspiration for their philosophy that the land is “really on loan to us to care for and leave it better.”

Mariénne and Jerry rotationally graze cattle on Living Song Farm. They steward a wetland and forest. They grow organic garlic and potatoes for market, and manage conservation practices such as wildlife enhancements, native plant propagation, and soil and water conservation practices on the cropland.

“As Willard was taking over in the 1940s, he started to become aware he was losing topsoil,” Jerry explained. “One spring, he had plowed and was ready to seed when it rained hard. He watched the topsoil wash down the hills. Most of the land here is highly erodible. He met with leading conservationists of the day and started implementing soil and water conservation practices. By the 1950s, he had all the steeper hills terraced and everything planted on the contour. He was an early adopter of no-till and grassed waterways. His farm always incorporated small grains and livestock, including dairy cattle and pastured pigs.”

According to Mariénne, Willard’s focus on his “personal judgment rather than pressure from government and the neighbors” also meant that the farm survived debt-free through the 1980s, when so many other farms went out of business. “My dad never bought into the idea that you have to get bigger and get all this equipment. He didn’t take out the fencerows and the windbreaks. He wanted to provide a home for wildlife. He valued the beauty, the aesthetics of farm. And my mother was always involved in the process.”

From Texas to Minnesota
In 1989, Jerry Ford had never been to Minnesota and couldn’t foresee that his days in hazy, humid Houston were soon coming to an end. He met Mariénne, who was working the music scene in Texas. Soon the two were taking regular treks to the 280-acre farm near Howard Lake. Jerry fell in love with Minnesota, and Mariénne wanted to return home, so they made long-term plans to return to the farm in 2011 when Jerry retired from his teaching gig.

“We kept getting signs that our plan to move to the farm in 2011 was not quite right,” Jerry said. “Mariénne’s mother’s health was declining, and the farm was suffering because Willard needed to spend his time caring for her. He wasn’t getting any rest. We were feeling more of a tug, and spending more and more of our time up here. “

In 2001, massive tropical storm Allison hit Houston. “We had 36 inches of rain in a week,” Jerry explained. “We lost vehicles and were close to losing our house that was 19 feet above sea level! We were living like refugees. Then the attack on the World Trade Center happened, and that caused us to evaluate what we wanted to do.”

Mariénne and Jerry decided to move to the farm as soon as possible, figuring they had just nine years before Jerry’s teaching pension would kick in—and they could earn their living farming until then.

They moved in 2002, the year Wright County had terrible flooding. “Our start here was trial by water,” Jerry added.

The two settled into farming, but kept up with their careers in music and theater. Mariénne’s mom died in 2004, the year Jerry began working with Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota (SFA). Jerry now is SFA’s event coordinator and director of the Minnesota Garlic Fest. Mariénne continues to write and perform.

Even though Willard’s life estate means they are not full owners for now, Mariénne and Jerry decided that, because they were in their 60s, it was time to address their own legacy plans. They started by adding Jerry to the title of the land. Jerry’s son is not interested in farming, so they decided to give him cash regularly over time instead of him inheriting the farm.

“Because we don’t have farming heirs of our own, we set about answering: How do we continue to protect this land and live here until our dying days?” Jerry said. “We looked first at putting a conservation easement on the land to protect its grassed waterways, contoured farming, wetland and woods and more. After a couple years, we weren’t having a good experience, and decided we weren’t supposed to do that. We also realized we don’t want to make decisions that will be in place 100 years from now; that might not be the best thing for the land.”

By 2008, they began actively looking for young people with the same conservation values. “We never advertised, but we started putting out the word so that we could see what happened. We have had several interns, people who lived here and worked with us. We loved them dearly, but they moved on. One even has a farm now. Those experiences helped us think about the process of succession.”

After years of searching, Seth Bravinder, son of dear family friends in the community, and his wife, Kiri, came to them and said they might be interested. The two couples had many conversations, soul searching and prayer before both were ready to proceed.

Kiri and Seth Bravinder (and baby Amos) plan to start a grass-fed beef operation on rented land on their future farm. Photo submitted

“We wanted to figure out how to transition this land to them without strapping them financially. We didn’t want to sell them the farm because we want to live here. We considered a life estate as a possibility, but Willard already has a life estate on the property,” Jerry explained.

They settled on a “transfer on death” legal structure. If Mariénne and Jerry happened to pass before Willard, Willard’s life estate would continue until his death, and then the land would go to Seth and Kiri.

The two couples are working out the financial and living arrangements independent of the land transfer. Seth and Kiri and their baby will be moving from St. Paul to the farm into temporary housing. Mariénne and Jerry are considering possibly selling them a piece of property so they can build a house. Seth and Kiri will pay rent on land they use to build a grass-fed beef operation.

”It’s not necessary that they continue to grow garlic,” Jerry added. “They could put the whole land in pasture, and it would achieve our conservation goals.”

Jerry gives credit to high quality advisors for their succession plan. “I used to bristle when people would tell me you have to get a lawyer for this. Now I am the one to say you have to get a lawyer who is well versed in property issues and estate planning. And, there are costs involved! To put all the paperwork in order cost us around $3,000. We’ll do tune-ups every couple of years, but the basic plan is in place.”

Jerry added that other people’s situations may be different. “But if things can be learned from our case, that is great,” he added.


Teresa Opheim was a Senior Fellow with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture focused on farm transfers. She now works for Iroquois Valley Farms, a company making impact investments in organic and local agriculture using triple bottom line principles.



From the September | October 2018 Issue

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