In 2013, Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander was asked to meet with the Ames-based not-for-profit Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a situation she likens to “getting called into the principal’s office” for offenses unknown. Yet when it turned out she was actually being commissioned to write a play about farmland transitions, Swander says her immediate reaction was likely the same as those faced with the prospect of seeing a play about farmland transitions: “Hmm ... really?”
With a laugh, Swander explains, “On the one hand, I thought, ‘How am I going to make that dramatic on the stage?’ And I knew PFI wanted to tour it a bit, and you don’t want 10 characters in the show as family members sitting around a table – it just costs you too much money.
“But on the other hand,” she adds, “I’ve been through farmland transfer with my own family, and knew how tense it could be. There’s also a swath of land in the United States as big as the Louisiana Purchase that’s gonna change hands in the next 10 years, and the majority of farmers now are over the age of 65, and they haven’t done anything to address their farmland transfer. So even though it was a big challenge, I was definitely interested.”
What resulted from Swander’s PFI commission is 2014’s Map of My Kingdom, a one-act, one-woman play that will receive its Quad Cities debut at the Bettendorf Public Library on February 24. Directed by Swander’s former Iowa State University colleague Matt Foss and performed by Steppenwolf-trained Chicago actor Cora Vander Broek, the touring production will find its star portraying roughly 20 separate characters in its exploration of farm-transfer issues and those affected by them.
Yet as Swander says, her play is more universally “about wealth transfer. People might think, ‘Well, I don’t own any farmland, so this doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ But everybody owns something, and we’re all gonna die, and people fight over stuff – the most minute things in the household. Multiply that by the cost of farmland per acre, and the number of acres a family owns, and you can see what kind of big money you’re getting into.”
With Map of My Kingdom’s solo performer playing a land mediator who also enacts the roles of nearly two-dozen clients, Swander’s play addresses such topics as deciding to whom to bequeath one’s land, preserving the integrity of farms against urban sprawl, and land division among siblings. The latter subject is one that Swander is especially well-acquainted with.
“With our family’s farm,” she says, “I knew that eventually I was going to inherit it with my two brothers. But because my mother died really young, I ended up with it at age 23. Fortunately, we had a really good family lawyer who knew what he was doing, because it could’ve been just nutty.
“But these things can blow up a whole family,” Swander continues. “One of the biggest battles I heard about from a lawyer I spoke to was over 80 acres. Usually, with 80 acres, we’re not talking about that much money. But this was a farm on the edge of the cities where acres get sold for commercial prices instead of farmland prices, so we’re talking about a lot of money, and that farm was in the courts for 10 years. It bankrupted all the parties involved, the lawyers ended up with all the money ... .
“I mean, families will find a way to fight over anything,” she says with a laugh. “But every old family sore will come up when you don’t have things like this worked out,” which is precisely why PFI and its director of farm transfer, Teresa Opheim, commissioned the play in the first place.
“Teresa had so many [PFI] members who said, ‘We’ve got to address this issue,’ because apparently there were several of them who hadn’t, and their farms basically got sucked up by interests that they didn’t want having them. And you don’t want to not discuss it with your family. You have to let your kids know what’s going on, at least to a certain extent, or make some resources available if something should happen” to you.
During her roughly nine months of research before “shutting myself into my little writing cabin for a month of really solid hard work,” Swander says, “Teresa sent me all around the state interviewing different farmers. I got a lot of other stories from different PFI members and sessions at a conference on farmland transfer. And then people just started coming up to me volunteering their stories, and every farmer I talked to – no matter what their position was – took the subject very, very seriously, and encouraged me and the play.
“I talked to a woman in central Ohio,” says Swander. “She had five farms not far from Des Moines, and her husband farmed them all, and then – boom! – he dropped dead of a heart attack. She was 90 years old, and he had no transition in place, and none of her kids wanted the farm. But her grandson came forward. He did want to farm but had not grown up on the farm – didn’t even know how to turn on the tractor. But this woman and her grandson worked together and got the harvest in. He drove the combine, she drove the tractor.
“But then you’ll have a family with four kids,” she continues. “Two of them just want to cash out and get the money, and the other two want to hang on to it but don’t want to farm. The situation starts to have all sorts of gyrations. ‘Who’s gonna be on the land?’ ‘Who are they gonna rent it out to?’ ‘Will the renter farm it right?’ There aren’t a lot of venues where you can discuss this.”
Yet Swander says that, happily, discussions of this sort have been taking place in Map of My Kingdom’s post-show conversations ever since the play’s 2014 debut, and are even allowing her to continue her own education about farmland transfer.
“I’ve been all over the state with this show,” she says of its 40-odd performances to date, “and I’m still learning. Like, we did the show in Dubuque for this very socially conscious audience, and I opened it up to questions afterward, and right away somebody stood up and said, ‘We took this land away from the Native Americans, so why don’t we just give it back?’ And then somebody else stood up and said, ‘Well, there is a land trust where you can give your farm to Native Americans and they put beginning Native farmers on it.’
“I mean, I didn’t even know that land trust existed,” says Swander. “What this experience is showing me is there are so many more options out there than there were when I was 23, and people are thinking in a more open way. Farming is different. Agriculture is different. The economy is different. The tax laws are different. And I review my own plan, like, every five years. You have to keep up with the changes.”
Saying that the target audience for her play is “land-owners who have not set up estate planning,” the author mentions that with past Map of My Kingdom performances, “the people who tend to come are in that 50 to 65 age group. But we’ve had tables full of widows in their 80s whose husbands died and didn’t have farmland transition plans in place. Among them they might own 8,000 acres, and after seeing the show they’re like, ‘Oh, I guess it’s time to get this done!’” Swander laughs. “‘Yes! Exactly!’
“But given my experience, I would really invite young people to see it, too,” says Swander. “Like with me at age 23; you just don’t know when things will change.”
Map of My Kingdom will be performed at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive, Bettendorf) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 24. The free, hour-long presentation will be followed by a Q&A with playwright Mary Swander, and more information is available by calling (563)344-4175 or visiting BettendorfLibrary.com.
For more information on Map of My Kingdom’s author and Iowa’s poet laureate, visit MarySwander.com.