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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Family Farm Transitions

With the average age of the American farmer being just shy of 60-years-old, farm/ranch transitions from one generation to the next are prevalent. In family farm transition conversations and meetings that I’m a part of, it is clear the stress that comes with navigating this process feels all-consuming for the parties involved. What makes farm transitions complex goes beyond the financial and legal intricacies to include difficult relationship dynamics, communication breakdown, identification of new roles and responsibilities, and a loss of identity in some cases.

First let’s look at trends I see with the older or “outgoing” generation. In most cases they have spent their lives working, building, and sustaining the family farm. Their identity, purpose, and feelings of usefulness are tied to the farming operation. To think of life without the daily decisions, work, and maintenance is a reality that many cannot fathom. Thinking about the end of their farming days also brings up realities of physical and cognitive decline as well as an awareness of their own mortality. In addition, many question if the next generation can manage the operation and keep the legacy alive.

With all this weighing on the hearts and minds of the older generation, it is not uncommon for them to avoid discussing a transition or succession plan. This, of course, can add to the stress and frustration for the younger or “incoming” generation often resulting in hard feelings and difficult communication.

Farming and ranching practices are dynamic and ever changing with new strategies, products, and practices. Often the younger partners on the farm have a desire to implement ideas and change practices that will increase efficiency and profitability only to feel unheard by the older generation who retain the primary decision-making authority. Furthermore, many in this generation are concerned with balancing work and family time as well as off-farm employment.

Each farm/ranch transition is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all guide to navigating this process. However here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful.

1. Effective communication is critical! If you are unable to do that without a neutral third party being present, access someone to help. Extension, Farm Business Managers, and other professionals have training and experience in assisting families through this time.

2. ALL involved family members need to be at the table.

3. Set a realistic timeframe. Take into account your seasonal workload and avoid scheduling meetings and/or deadlines during busy times.

4. Make one of your first conversations in this process about the legacy, values, and goals of your operation. What is the purpose behind which you’ve operated the business and how can this be shared as it moves from one generation to the next.

5. Find ways to honor the older generation. If the operation is still in business, they have done something right. Let them tell their story. Ask them how they made it through their own transition and other difficult times. Ask them what has been hard and what has been rewarding. Get out photos and share in the memories of the farm’s past.

6. Disagreements will happen. Go into meetings with a problem-solving mindset and a willingness to compromise.

7. Define what each person’s role looks like before, during, and after transition. Who will complete which tasks? Who is in charge of what? Who makes decisions? Who manages employees? The more clearly defined the roles are, the less opportunity for confusion, frustration, and inefficiency.

8. I find it useful to have all family members complete a personality style assessment and a communication styles assessment. This helps everyone understand how and why people function the way they do.

9. Finally, remember and operate under the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

It is important to start transition and succession planning conversations early and communicate often about wishes and plans. Farm and ranch transitions are stressful but can also be a time to celebrate the ongoing legacy of the operation.