Thursday, February 22, 2018
Leasing is of primary importance to agriculture. Leasing permits farmers and ranchers to operate larger farm businesses with the same amount of capital, and it can assist beginning farmers and ranchers in establishing a farming or ranching business.
Today’s post takes a brief look at some of the issues surrounding farmland leases – economic; estate planning; and federal farm program payment limitation planning.
Common Types of Leases
Different types of agricultural land leasing arrangements exist. The differences are generally best understood from a risk/return standpoint. Cash leases involve the periodic payment of a rental amount that is either a fixed number of dollars per acre, or a fixed amount for the entire farm. Typically, such amounts are payable in installments or in a lump sum. A flexible cash lease specifies that the amount of cash rent fluctuates with production conditions and/or crop or livestock prices. A hybrid cash lease contains elements similar to those found in crop-share leases. For example, a hybrid cash lease usually specifies that the rental amount is to be determined by multiplying a set number of bushels by a price determined according to terms of the lease, but at a later date. The tenant will market the entire crop. The landlord benefits from price increases, while requiring no management or selling decisions or capital outlay. However, the rental amount is adversely affected by a decline in price. The tenant, conversely, will not bear the entire risk of low commodity prices, as would be the case if a straight-cash lease were used, but does bear all of the production risk and must pay all of the production costs.
Under a hybrid-cash lease, known as the guaranteed bushel lease, the tenant delivers a set amount of a certain type of grain to a buyer by a specified date. The landlord determines when to sell the grain, and is given an opportunity to take advantage of price rises and to make his or her own marketing decisions. However, the landlord must make marketing decisions, and also is subject to price decreases and the risk of crop failure. For tenants, the required capital outlay will likely be less, and the tenant should have greater flexibility as to cropping patterns. While the rental amount may be less than under a straight-cash lease, the tenant will continue to bear the risk of crop failure.
Another form of the hybrid-cash lease, referred to as the minimum cash or crop share lease, involves a guaranteed cash minimum. However, the landlord has the opportunity to share in crop production from a good year (high price or high yield) without incurring out-of-pocket costs. For a tenant, the minimum cash payment likely will be less than under a straight-cash lease because the landlord will receive a share of production in good years. The tenant, however, still retains much of the production risk. In addition, the tenant typically does not know until harvest whether the tenant will receive all or only part of the crop. This may make forward cash contracting more difficult.
Under a crop-share leasing arrangement, the rent is paid on the basis of a specified proportion of the crops. The landlord may or may not agree to pay part of certain expenses. There are several variations to the traditional crop-share arrangement. For example, with a crop share/cash lease, rent is paid with a certain proportion of the crops, but a fixed sum is charged for selected acreage such as pasture or buildings, or both. Under a livestock-share leasing arrangement, specified shares of livestock, livestock products and crops are paid as rent, with the landlord normally sharing in the expenses. For irrigation crop-share leases, rent is a certain proportion of the crops produced, but the landlord shares part of the irrigation expenses. Under labor-share leases, family members are typically involved and the family member owning the assets has most of the managerial responsibility and bears most of the expenses and receives most of the crops. The other family members receive a share of yield proportionate to their respective labor and management inputs.
Estate Planning Implications
Leasing is also important in terms of its relation to a particular farm or ranch family's estate plan. For example, with respect to Social Security benefits for retired farm-landlords, pre-death material participation under a lease can cause problems. A retired farm-landlord who has not reached full retirement age (66 in 2018) may be unable to receive full Social Security benefits if the landlord and tenant have an agreement that the landlord shall have “material participation” in the production of, or the managing of, agricultural products.
While material participation can cause problems with respect to Social Security benefits, material participation is required for five of the last eight years before the earlier of retirement, disability or death if a special use valuation election is going to be made for the agricultural real estate included in the decedent-to-be's estate. I.R.C. §2032A. A special use valuation election permits the agricultural real estate contained in a decedent's estate to be valued for federal estate tax purposes at its value for agricultural purposes rather than at fair market value. The solution, if a family member is present, may be to have a nonretired landlord not materially participate, but rent the elected land to a materially participating family member or to hire a family member as a farm manager. Cash leasing of elected land to family members is permitted before death, but generally not after death. The solution, if a family member is not present, is to have the landlord retire at age 65 or older, materially participate during five of the eight years immediately preceding retirement, and then during retirement rent out the farm on a nonmaterial participation crop-share or livestock-share lease.
Farm Program Payments
Leases can also have an impact on a producer's eligibility for farm program payments. In general, to qualify for farm program payments, an individual must be “actively engaged in farming.” For example, each “person” who is actively engaged in farming is eligible for up to $125,000 in federal farm program payments each crop year. A tenant qualifies as actively engaged in farming through the contribution of capital, equipment, active personal labor, or active personal management. Likewise, a landlord qualifies as actively engaged in farming by the contribution of the owned land if the rent or income for the operation's use of the land is based on the land's production or the operation's operating results (not cash rent or rent based on a guaranteed share of the crop). In addition, the landlord's contribution must be “significant,” must be “at risk,” and must be commensurate with the landlord's share of the profits and losses from the farming operation.
A landowner who cash leases land is considered a landlord under the payment limitation rules and may not be considered actively engaged in farming. In this situation, only the tenant is considered eligible. Under the payment limitation rules, there are technical requirements that restrict the cash-rent tenant's eligibility to receive payments to situations in which the tenant makes a “significant contribution” of (1) active personal labor and capital, land or equipment; or (2) active personal management and equipment. Leases in which the rental amount fluctuates with price and/or production (so-called “flex” leases) can raise a question as to whether or not the lease is really a crop-share lease which thereby entitles the landlord to a proportionate share of the government payments attributable to the leased land.
Under Farm Service Agency (FSA) regulations (7 C.F.R. §1412.504(a)(2)), a lease is a “cash lease” if it provides for only a guaranteed sum certain cash payment, or a fixed quantity of the crop (for example, cash, pounds, or bushels per acre).” All other types of leases are share leases. In April 2007, FSA issued a Notice stating that if any portion of the rental payment is based on gross revenue, the lease is a share lease. Notice DCP-172 (April 2, 2007). However, according to FSA, if a flex or variable lease pegs rental payments to a set amount of production based on future market value that is not associated with the farm’s specific production, it’s a cash lease. Id. That was the FSA’s position through the 2008 crop year. Beginning, with the 2009 crop year, FSA has taken the position that a tenant and landlord may reach any agreement they wish concerning “flexing” the cash rent payment and the agreement will not convert the cash lease into a share-rent arrangement.
There are many issues that surround farmland leasing. Today’s post just scratches the surface with a few. Of course, many detailed tax rules also come into play when farmland is leased. The bottom line is that the type of lease matters, for many reasons. Give your leasing arrangement careful consideration and get it in writing.