Nestled within the rolling hills and verdant valleys of idyllic Winneshiek County, where North Bear Creek winds through the countryside like a horseshoe northeast of Decorah and Middle Bear Creek meanders up from the south, stands Valley View Farms, a historic farmstead with its roots dating back to 1886.

On any given day you might catch a glimpse of an eagle pair as they roost in the pine trees north of the Valley View homestead.

Or take a glance to the south and watch as the fog lifts over the lowland — the inspiration for the Valley View name.

“About any direction you look at you can see the valley,” said Walter Langland, who at 96 years old officially has “retired” from his farm duties as of 2023 but still shares bits of farming wisdom. “We had next to nothing here at the beginning. 

“Started with dairy … had one of the first milking parlors in the area … expanded to 50 cows, doubled the size of the farm … and grew to where we are today.”

That meant partnering with his son, Steve, who joined in the farm operation after college in 1980 when Walter’s brother and farm partner, Maurice, retired. Over the years they have seen their farm expand to roughly 250 acres in corn/soybean rotation and pasture, earn honors for implementing conservation practices such as strip till, terracing and streambank stabilizations, and be a leader and mentor for neighbors and the Decorah community.

But after nearly 45 years of partnership, Walter and Steve admit decisions needed to be made as they approach the twilight of their careers. Steve’s recent health scares — a bout with cancer and a bacterial infection that took the lower portion of his leg — have accelerated that process.

“That was the point we had to make a decision because I have no heirs,” Steve explained.

What the father and son knew is they didn’t want to sell to investors or a large farmer. “We didn’t want to put it up for auction to the highest bidder because very likely it would be an investor who would rent out the land to a large operator,” explained Walter.

Added Steve, “We wanted to keep our conservation practices alive and going. We’ve had a long history of conservation on this farm … It’s very important to us. We didn’t want to see terraces ripped out. Didn’t want to see it parceled off and sold for recreation.”

Enter Sawyer Wise, a young farmer and neighbor who Steve had watched grow up just a stone’s throw away from the Langland farm. At 25 years old and looking to own and operate his own farm, Sawyer was admittedly “frustrated” at the difficulty he, as a young farmer, was having in securing that elusive first piece of ground.

“I grew up farming … always knew it was something I wanted to pursue,” Sawyer said. “There was a stretch of my life where it seemed almost unattainable. It’s been extremely difficult and continues to be for anyone who wants to get involved at a young age. You really have to have someone who has your back and willing to give you an opportunity.

“That’s when Steve called.”

What followed has been a unique partnership not typically heard of in the ag industry these days that has combined the young and old in a formal, yet informal, farm succession plan that benefits both Steve and Walter as well as Sawyer, now 28, and his family — wife, Randi Jo, and daughters Amelia, 2, and Paetyn, 7 months.

“It really has been a great relationship, and it came together quickly,” said Steve. “We really think we’re on to something here.”

Helping a young farmer

Like much of rural Iowa, the region’s younger population has dwindled as Gen Z and millennials seek perceived greener pastures elsewhere. “It’s been 15 years since there’s been a school-aged child in our area,” said Walter.

Offering the opportunity to a young farmer to essentially take over their operation was a no-brainer, said Steve. “So many people think they’re going to sell to the biggest farmer,” he said. “It’s sad because there are so many young people like Sawyer who would like to get going. It’s important to get young people back in the community.

“And I knew I needed the help. I wouldn’t be able to keep farming without him.”

It started as an offer to Sawyer to rent some pasture for grazing beef cows, and he jumped at the chance. “Around here, ground doesn’t come up very often,” Sawyer said.

Within the year, Sawyer offered to assist Walter and Steve with farm needs. “I could see it was going to be difficult for them to do everything they wanted to do,” Sawyer explained. 

As a trained mechanic through the John Deere tech program at Northeast Iowa Community College, Sawyer could work on equipment as well as aid in planting and harvest.

From there, discussions quickly ramped up regarding farm transition.

“We kind of fast tracked it … kind of dived in,” said Steve, who was looking for a young farmer who was ambitious, interested, willing to purchase the land, hard-working, determined, resourceful and mindful of conservation to take over the farm. “We wanted to give somebody a chance …, keep the farm intact as is … and Sawyer was the perfect fit.”

Succession terms were simple:

• Sawyer purchased 150 acres utilizing a Farm Service Agency (FSA) young farmer program with 50% financed with FSA (low-interest for an extended period of time) and Steve and Walter financing the remaining 50%. Plans are for Sawyer to purchase the remaining farm acres in the future at no more than what he paid for the current 150 acres, or 80% of the initial farm ground purchase price should farmland prices drop.

• Sawyer can utilize all farm equipment but will also maintain it for his own use and for Steve and Walter. He will eventually buy out the line of equipment.

• Sawyer will help Steve and Walter from planting through harvest with farm needs.

The opportunity the Langlands have afforded Sawyer and his family to transition to farm ownership has been nontraditional yet critical for their success, said Sawyer, especially Steve’s and Walter’s offer to finance half of the initial sale as well as use of the farm equipment.

“It really was the difference between us being able to do this or not,” he said. “You’re just unable to purchase the land … let alone buy a full line of equipment to run the ground. That’s been instrumental.”

Pictured above: Sawyer Wise, left, and Steve Langland look over the valley and pasture where Wise’s cattle graze. Their partnership began with Sawyer renting the ground and has evolved into a rewarding farm transition plan.  PHOTO / CONRAD SCHMIDT

Outside the box

For Steve and Walter, they get the satisfaction of seeing their farm flourish under young ownership while Steve continues to farm his acres with help from Sawyer for “at least three or four more years.”

The decision to contact Sawyer was a good one, Steve said.

“You’ve got to think outside the box,” he said. “Think about that young person …, give a young farmer a chance and a break. It’s vital, otherwise we’ll see our rural communities die, and all we’ll see are bigger and bigger farms.”

Sawyer said it’s important for him to honor the Langland legacy, what they’ve built and to carry on their core values.

“I’m most excited for the opportunity to raise a family on this farm,” he said. “Excited to have the opportunity to care for this ground until it’s my turn to pass it on. Hopefully I’ll leave it better for the next person.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity Walter and Steve have given us.”