MERRILL E. SWANSON: LOVE OF THE LAND
MERRILL E. SWANSON: LOVE OF THE LAND
COURTESY OF ASFMRA
Growing up on the family farm in the upper Coastal Bend of Texas, hunting for quail and arrowheads were two of Merrill Swanson’s favorite pastimes. Swanson remembers as a child wading barefoot through the muddy rice fields with his father, Merrill C., and brother, William, on the family farm in Wharton County, hunting for the treasures and making memories. Those were the years where Swanson’s love for the land were formed.
“We grew rice and other crops on our family farm, and we had cattle,” Swanson says. “Like most kids in a farming and ranching family, I was an active participant in most of the crop and livestock activities. There were long hours and plenty of hard work. There were also times when we were not so busy when we had time to do other things. We spent a lot of time outdoors. Whether we were walking the fields checking the crops or cattle, operating equipment, hunting quail or looking for arrowheads, my Dad was always telling us stories about the land and those who operated and owned it.
“We also spent a great deal of time in the pickup with our Dad and Mother, too, for that matter; that was also a good place to hear about the tales of the country. It was a great way to grow up and it instilled a great appreciation for the land in my brother and me.”
Today, Swanson carries that same appreciation for the land in his career as an accredited rural appraiser (ARA). He is Senior Managing Director for Valbridge Property Advisors | Dugger, Canaday, Grafe, Inc., in San Antonio, Texas, where he focuses on rural land and agribusiness properties through appraisal, appraisal review, counseling and brokerage.
This year, Swanson was installed as president of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA). He joined ASFMRA in 1994—earning his accreditation in 1998—and credits the organization with the education and networking that has helped him increase his appraiser professionalism. He cites a number of mentors along the way including his father, the partners at the firm, other rural professionals in South Texas and friends and clients who have shared their time, experience and knowledge.
“I always have said that you join ASFMRA for the education and you stay for the people and the networking,” Swanson says. “The people I have been able to work with through ASFMRA are top notch and salt of the earth. And the opportunities that have presented themselves to me through the organization have been over the top.”
Knowing that he wanted to pursue a career in land properties and management, Swanson left the family farm in El Campo in the early 1980s to attend Texas A&M, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and a master’s in land economics and real estate. When he joined Love and Dugger (predecessor of Valbridge Property Advisors |Dugger, Canaday, Grafe, Inc.) as a young associate in 1989, he soon found his niche.
“Early on, I worked on appraisals of a variety of properties – both commercial and rural,” Swanson recalls. “But it became clear that my interest and passion were in the ag sector and I started focusing on rural properties. A colleague suggested that I join ASFMRA, which I did, and my career really took off from there.”
Energized by Stories of the Land
If you ask Swanson today what inspires him, he will tell you that it’s all about the people and tales of the land—and those he interacts with every day. “I get to see the ranches and the agricultural properties that few people will ever see. Meeting the people and hearing their family stories and history behind the unique properties that will never be sold are the richest parts of the job. It never gets old and it’s energizing.”
As senior managing director at Valbridge with a staff of 22, Swanson is one of three ARAs in the firm and also supervises a team of associates in the company’s ag sector. There are seven MAIs at the firm including Swanson’s three partners. It’s a relationship business, adds Swanson, who gains great personal rewards from helping clients navigate the paperwork and red tape—including property assessments and inspections, conservation easements, litigation support, estate settlement and planning and property transfers.
“You really get to know the families and their dynamics,” Swanson says. “I love being an important part of their lives and seeing their success.”
Over the years, Swanson has held several leadership positions at the state and national level within ASFMRA, including the government relations committee and executive council. One of the highlights was the opportunity to attend the week-long ASFMRA Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., six times, where they learned about how to navigate and communicate with politicians and regulators about policies that affect their business.
Investing in today’s youth is important for Swanson. An avid hunter and fisherman and naturalist, Swanson and his wife, Elizabeth, also work to instill the same love for the land in their children—Cecelia, Caroline and Travis.
“Our family doesn’t actively farm rice anymore, but we’re able to get out to the country to look at crops and cattle on family land. We have also made it a point to spend time in the country with our children to enjoy nature through hunting and other outdoor activities,” he says.
As ASFMRA president, he has made a commitment to help increase membership, particularly among younger professionals. He remembers attending ASFMRA’s Summer Education Week eight years ago and noticed that the attendees were more experienced professionals.
“I went back three years ago, and there were a lot more young professionals,” he says. “It was great to see, and I would like to see that momentum continue.”
Swanson encourages today’s youth to look into a career in land management and appraisal.
“It’s a wonderful career and affords you an opportunity to get close to the land. Through ASFMRA, we have the tools and the networking opportunities for members to be the best that they can be.”