For sellers, land provides the jackpot of their dreams

The windfall that comes from selling the family farm is helping remake rural areas.

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Gene Stoel of Lake Wilson purchased an additional 160 acres last fall for $6,800 per acre.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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The record farmland prices that are shaking up rural America offer a potential bonanza for sellers.

Money from recent farmland sales is helping families pay off debt, buy second homes or make other investments, auctioneers say. Some finance education for their families.

"To call it just a seller's market is almost downplaying it," said Chuck Wingert of Wingert Realty & Land Services, an active farm auction company in Mankato. "We've never been here before. It's a windfall at the moment."

For Jack and Betty Thomas, the family farm they sold is financing a retirement dream in northern Minnesota: opening an animal shelter called Paws and Claws.

For years the Thomases have rented out the 80-acre farm that Betty grew up on near Worthington but started eyeing the market in recent years for a good time to sell. In November, they made their move. Expecting about $6,000 an acre, the Thomases sold the land at a public auction for $8,150. The market "fit right into our plans just perfectly," Jack Thomas said.

The couple, who don't have children, said they're lifelong animal lovers and want to donate the money to build a state-of-the art animal shelter for Cass County, which they said doesn't have one.

"Life's been pretty good to us," said Jack, 75. "This was a way for us to give back."

Glen Fladeboe, whose Willmar-based Fladeboe Auctions sold the farm for the Thomases, said he sees a lot of families enjoying the upside to the boom.

But not everyone who owns farmland is fully aware of the opportunity, he said, explaining that he routinely meets with people a generation or two removed from the family farm who harvest paychecks in the Twin Cities now but still own the farm.

"They're unaware of the really huge growth in farmland values," Fladeboe said. "Nobody's sending them a monthly statement in the mail with what their farmland has gone up, like with their stock returns."

There was no surprise for Kelvin Bonnema. The 66-year-old retired Medtronic senior scientist in Brooklyn Park said he'd been reading farm newsletters. Plus, farmers had been contacting him, asking about the land he and his brothers and sisters still owned near Willmar.

None of the children farms, and Bonnema said that after their parents passed away, they finally decided it was time to sell.

In November, Fladeboe Auctions sold the family's 154-acre farm in Kandiyohi County for $8,112 per acre -- still the county record.

"The people at the auction were happy for us. But at the same time ... it went for too much," Bonnema said. "I was shocked."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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