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Farmland sales brisk because of tax law changes

Nov. 29, 2012 | 0 comments

Farmers worried about tax increases that would take effect Jan. 1 if Congress can't compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff have helped lead to a frenzy of farmland sales this fall.

The worries about possible increases in capital gains and estate taxes are adding to the normally busy time for farmland sales after harvest in Iowa and Nebraska.

"If there is a chance that you may want to sell your farm, then you should think hard about getting it done before the end of 2012," Des Moines lawyer Bill Hannigan of the Davis Brown firm said to the Des Moines Register.

If Congress fails to resolve the "fiscal cliff" before the end of the year, a number of automatic tax increases and spending cuts will be triggered on Jan. 1.

That includes capital gains taxes increasing from 15 percent to 23.8 percent, and the allowable deduction on estate taxes would drop from roughly $5 million to $1 million.

"The tax changes are on everybody's minds," regional sales manager Sam Kain of Farmers National Co. said. "I've been in this business for 30 years and I've never seen it this busy."

Jim Hain, vice president of agricultural sales for the Omaha-based Lund Co., agreed that the possible tax law changes have prompted some people to sell. He said the tax worries, combined with the current high prices, have helped double farmland sales at Lund in the past two years.

"We're the busiest we've ever been historically," Hain said.

At a recent Iowa farmland auction, the bidders didn't need much encouragement to go after the 169 acres of Bremer County farmland that carried a solid corn suitability rating of 87.

The winning bid of $15,700 per acre for the land Alvin and Maxine Walther's family was selling came from neighboring farmer Ken Eggena just 30 minutes after the auction started.

Duane Walter was one of six children who watched their parents' farmland sell.

"Dad bought the first parcel of land for $100 per acre in 1946," Walther said. "Mom died earlier this year, and we are settling the estate. I just think of Dad up there, and he must be amazed at the price of the land."

The tax worries and the current high prices are likely adding to the land sales, University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural economist Bruce Johnson said, but anyone selling land should realize they may not be able to make as much money by investing the windfall as they were making with the farmland.

"So you do sell and avoid that capital gains tax, what are you going to do with the proceeds of that sale to generate similar returns?" Johnson said.

The brisk pace of sales hasn't seemed to diminish farmland prices, especially for irrigated land in Iowa and Nebraska.

In October, the sale of a Sioux County, Iowa, farm set a new state record of $21,900 per acre.

Johnson said a recent sale in York County, NE, where farmland drew $16,900 per acre was likely a new record for Nebraska. That sale of 161 acres drew $2.72 million total.

Hain said it appears that the trend of increasing farmland prices will continue, but a market correction could happen suddenly.

Auctioneer Troy Louwagie of the Hertz Farm Management Co. said land prices stayed high this year despite the drought because many farmers ended up with better yields than expected.

"When the drought hit last summer, who would have believed that land prices would stay this high?" Louwagie said.

The demand for Iowa farmland is so strong that even less attractive, sandy land is commanding relatively high prices.

One family recently sold a sandy 136-acre parcel near Madrid for $6,200 an acre. That price may not set records, but it's still better than the 2010 Iowa average price of $5,064 per acre.

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