Family relationships affect succession


by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

A farm’s succession can be influenced by the family members involved. Practical Farmers of Iowa presented “Family Dynamics Farm & Ranch Succession Planning,” hosted by Diana Tourney of Clackamas Community College Small Business Development Center in Milwaukie, OR.

“Family dynamics are powerful – not understood by many people,” Tourney said. “They are subject to change, and the single most impactful issue in a family farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard or forest transition. But they are manageable.”

As an everyday dynamic, she said many people have “their” place at the family dinner table.

“You probably sat at the same place at the table day after day, year after year,” she said. “Some of those dynamics are good and some are not so good.”

She added that family dynamics are subject to change – which can be good.

“There are times where everyone is getting along and other times where they’re at odds with each other,” Tourney said. “It’s the single most impactful reason why a family farm transitions or does not transition.”

Families have to look at a variety of these family dynamics. Some members may say they’ll return to the farm but don’t. Could it be their career off the farm is taking off or they’ve changed their mind? Talking about it in a family meeting can help clarify everyone’s intentions.

“There needs to be an agenda and a time where everyone can participate,” Tourney said. “Many of your children may not be living in the same town or state so with the technology we have available, with Zoom or Skype, these can be very valuable tools for having these family meetings. No one should be allowed to black out so you can see their expressions. Develop a timeline as to when you’ll have them. It used to be people would meet at a restaurant. Now they order takeout and meet on Zoom.”

Inviting a counselor or a moderator could help “if there are tempers that will be flying,” Tourney said.

She encouraged farm owners to not try to manipulate the results to come out the way they want. If the family isn’t willing to step up to take over the farm, it may be time to begin looking for a farm manager.

The meeting shouldn’t be considered the final word; in fact, Tourney said it’s important to tell the attendees that nothing will be decided that day. It’s just for information gathering.

“You as the owner of the property and business can rely on others to help you,” Tourney said. “You need to think about really what you’re doing. Put something on paper about your farm and how you’ll respond to emergencies.”

The transition itself should have a timeline with the family involved. The timeline should be subject to change.

“I can’t imagine anything more gratifying than saying ‘We made it through our transition,’” Tourney said.

She said it’s also important to work through family issues to enable a transition because it maintains relationships, improves civic priorities and ensures that the land continues as farmland.

“There’s reasons to do this instead of folding your arms and saying ‘When I’m dead, I’m dead,’” Tourney said. “If you sell to someone objectionable, people won’t talk to you in the grocery store or have lunch with you again even if you thought you were friends for 40 years.

“Give some thought to it. Like it or not, you have ties to that land and they will follow you. When I headed off to college, I was never going to be a farmer again. That lasted for five years and I made the choice to get back to the land because I missed it. You’re going to find it comes back.”

Meeting with an estate planner can help answer hard questions and keep the land in agriculture.

“You get to make the choices,” Tourney said. “You don’t make them one day. You need to make them now. You can always change them in the future unless it’s an irrevocable trust. A transition is worth your time and a farm and ranch are worth it.”

Not all farm kids want to come back to the farm. In these cases, Tourney encouraged farmers to do all they can to sell to someone who wants to farm. Many programs are available to help veterans, new farmers and others purchase farms.

“There are lots of reasons people enjoy raising things,” Tourney said. “It’s so gratifying. If you don’t have a family member interested, there are a lot of people interested in farming.”

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