Only 49 percent of Iowa farmers have identified a successor to eventually run their farms, according to the 2014 farm poll.
Many avoid the topic because they equate retirement with mortality. They are quick to relay stories of farmers who died shortly after retiring — presumably, they imply, because of a loss of purpose.
Even those who have selected a successor are loath to pick a retirement date and actively prepare for it.
It took a tornado for Dean Vaske's father, Art, to retire and move into town. He had been milking cows twice a day until his early 70s. Then the tornado wiped out another son's farm buildings, prompting Art to invite that son to move onto his farm.
Looking back, Dean Vaske said, the transition was smooth. "We couldn't have planned it much better," he said.
Farmers here assume retirement will work itself out. "If everyone's raised right, the next generation will take care of us when we get to the point that we can't farm ourselves," said Jim Hogan, 66, a fifth-generation farmer from Monticello, Iowa, whose father never retired.
Mr. Hogan has two sons who farm with him and "no idea" how he will structure his retirement income when he scales back from daily operations. Yet he admits that his father's lack of succession planning (the farm was ultimately left in the control of Mr. Hogan's mother when his father died) was not ideal, limiting what Mr. Hogan and his brothers can now do with the land, which is still owned by his mother in a trust controlled by a law firm.
David W. Baker, a farm transition specialist from Iowa State Extension and Outreach, said that when he counsels families to help them begin discussing retirement, 90 percent of his meetings bring someone to tears. "There are strong feelings about the farm, about what grandpa and grandma did, about my son or daughter having no interest in my farm," Mr. Baker said.
Amanda Van Steenwyk, who leads a succession-planning program for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said the worst-case scenario can be devastating. "From the lack of planning, the farm will get split up — or even worse, the family will get split up," she said.