Relationships key to being a successful landlord

By Trista Crossley

kids playing in snow

In an industry where keeping the family farm in the family is often paramount, Jan Abrams’ father, George M. Miller, gave her a gift.

“My father made it clear that the farm is a business. He said, ‘I don’t want you, out of some sense of sentimentality, to hang onto the farm if it needs to be sold. If you need to, you sell it,’” she said. “I’ve tried to pass along that same philosophy to my children, both of whom worked for their grandparents on the farm when they were in school. They feel a more romantic attachment (to the farm) because they weren’t there all the time. It was their big summer adventure.”

Abrams owns approximately 465 acres in Whitman County that was part of the farm purchased by her grandparents, John E. and Maud Miller, around 1918. John Miller was working as a banker in Albion, Wash., when he decided he’d rather be a farmer. He purchased land between Garfield and Palouse, Wash., and moved his family there to become dryland wheat farmers. Like other farms at the time, the family depended on horses to work the land and raise crops.

“When father was in the fourth grade, the family had a discussion that included him and his twin sister. They were trying to decide if they should buy a tractor or stick with horses. My grandfather was a progressive kind of fellow and thought the tractor was a good idea and was going to be the coming thing. Father loved the horses, so he argued most vociferously for them, but lost out,” Abrams said.

Over the years, the Millers expanded the farm by purchasing neighboring properties. George went to college, married Gertrude Haight in 1940 and moved away to work, first in Wenatchee and then with Boeing on the west side of the state. Abrams said after a few years in the Renton area, the family wanted to move back to the farm, but because of the war, they couldn’t.

“The moment the war was over, he quit (Boeing). They loaded up the car and came over to the farm,” she said. “Grandfather and father farmed together. It wasn’t always harmonious, but they made it work.”

When John and Maud retired and moved to Spokane, Abrams’ father took over the farm. Abrams’ husband, also named George, spent a summer there working as a hired man, and her family would often spend vacations and holidays on the farm with her parents.

As the elder George neared retirement, he began co-farming with his neighbors, Rich and Judy Olson. When George and Gertrude retired and moved to Colfax, Wash., they sold the family’s home and much of their farming equipment to the Olsons and became landlords under a crop share agreement. The Olsons also farmed George’s sister’s portion of the farm.

“My father was still fairly involved in the farm. When he died in 1997, I was the only heir, so now, I’m a landlord. I continued on with Rich and Judy,” Abrams said. “I had learned a fair amount of marketing from my father. I went to a lot of ag expos and other things. I felt like I’ve been able to make informed decisions (as a landlord).”

These days, the Olson’s son, Jon, leases Abrams’ land. While their lease agreement gives Jon final management decisions, Abrams says he’ll often share his plans with her, especially when he wants to try something new.

“It’s more him advising me than me being involved in the decision making. He keeps me informed,” she explained. “I still like to market my own wheat, lentils, whatever.”

Abrams feels a crop share agreement is better than a cash rent one because it’s a more equitable way of running the farm and makes the landlord part of the success (or not) of the enterprise.

One of the issues she’s run into as a landlord is staying current on alternative crops, such as barley, that aren’t a regular part of her operator’s crop rotations. She believes her children will choose to continue as landlords and said, as a landlord, it is important to have family support and to be able to discuss farm issues and decisions with those who may ultimately inherit the land.

“It’s really important to develop a trusting relationship with your farmer, and it goes both ways,” she said. “It may be that you have to do most of the reaching out for communicating. Don’t depend on the farmer to do that, because he’s busy doing other things.”