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Maine farmers ready to retire wrestle with succession planning

Since the mid-1970s, Leslie Cummins and her husband, Tim Seabrook, have been settling, clearing and cultivating their saltwater orchard and nursery in Brooklin. Cummins inherited the 17.5-acre unimproved parcel with 200 feet of deep-water frontage on Blue Hill Bay from a great-aunt.

“She bought it when it was considered wasteland. It says it right on the deed,” Cummins said on a recent sunny October morning, taking a break from pressing cider. That bit of “wasteland” is now Five Star Nursery and Orchard, 17.5 organic acres lushly planted with apples, peaches and plums, raspberries, asparagus and a small market garden. There’s a charming two-story home and a big, hydraulic cider press housed in its own tidy outbuilding.

It’s evident that Cummins and Seabrook have poured their hearts and souls into this venture, a source of deep pride and connection to their community on the Blue Hill Peninsula. But at 70 and 69, respectively, they’re ready to step back from the hard work of their daily routines and explore the possibilities of retirement.

“We are really ready to do the next part of our lives,” Cummins said. Already, they’ve bought a small house in town, close to friends, services and amenities. Now, they’re trying to find an appropriate buyer for the farm. And it’s not easy.

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“Who do we want to sell it to, some rich dude from New York?” Seabrook asked. “We’d probably lose everything we’ve built here.”

In fact, they had early interest from a real estate agent who envisioned leveling the orchards to build a trophy house and clearing the shoreline growth to open up the view across the bay to Mount Desert Island. Seabrook and Cummins were not interested. Although they need the proceeds from selling the place to fund their retirement, it’s important to them that the farm stay in productive operation. And although they have adult children who love the place, Cummins said they’re not really interested in a farming lifestyle and don’t have the money to buy it.

So after some false starts and frustrations, the couple connected with Land for Good, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization with a mission of “putting more farmers more securely on more land,” according to executive director Jim Haffner.

“Increasingly, people who are exiting farming don’t have an identified successor in the family,” Haffner said. And while a new generation of younger farmers may be eager to purchase or lease farmland, they often do not have the ability to buy a going operation such as Five Star Nursery and Orchard, especially if it’s made even more valuable by a high-market location.

Land for Good helps New England farmers develop workable succession plans, with a goal of enabling a secure retirement while preserving land for agricultural use. This may mean connecting them with conservation organizations such as the Maine Farmland Trust to restrict certain kinds of development, as well as coordinating the more traditional services of an accountant, a tax specialist, a knowledgeable real estate broker and other professionals.

Importantly, the organization also helps families work through the sometimes thorny dynamics of succession planning, including a detailed analysis of personal values and priorities.

Lest that sound “too airy-fairy,” said Jo Barrett, Land for Good’s field agent for Maine, those hard-to-define but deeply ingrained values often have the power to make or break an acceptable deal for transitioning the family farm into new hands.

“There are as many different scenarios as there are human personalities,” she said, and when it comes to negotiating a transfer of ownership, occupation or access, there are endless options.

For Leslie Cummins and Tim Seabrook, working with Barrett — who happens to live in Blue Hill but has worked with farmers all over Maine — has made the prospect and the process of selling their farm more manageable. She helped them back out of a complicated owner-financing agreement they were trying to draft and start over with a new plan that provides more legal protection for both sides. She worked with them to establish a realistic asking price for the property that takes into account the value of its good name and its role in the community as well as their intention that it not ever be developed for non-farming purposes.

“There were so many moving parts, it was hard to know where to start,” Seabrook said. Now, he said, they are in talks with a potential buyer who has the energy, vision, business savvy and financial resources to take over their beloved farm and allow them to retire.

Land for Good will host a three-day Farm Succession School in Augusta, meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 1; Tuesday, Dec. 6; and Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. The fee is $300 per farmer or farm couple, including lunch and materials. Participants will receive a $200 credit toward hiring succession-related technical assistance such as legal advice, tax services or business planning.


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