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Communicate to build a strong transition plan

Martin Barraud/Getty Images Family in wheat field
JUST KEEP TALKING: To ensure a smooth farm transition between generations, have conversations about plans for the future.
Make sure the entire team and family are part of planning the operation’s future.

Holidays are a good time for family get-togethers — a time to share with loved ones you may not see often enough. Or if you’re in a family operation and you work side by side with your loved ones daily, the holidays can be a time to see your co-workers in a different light.

Intermingled with great food and cheer can be great conversation. At least at our family gatherings, talk usually includes stories from the past, mostly ones that are told every holiday, lest someone forget. As of late, politics and COVID-19 can be mixed in with family tales. However, I would recommend venturing down that rabbit hole only so far, unless you really want to cut back on relationships and gifts for the next holiday.

Families can be good at talking with each other, but do they talk about issues important to the family, especially important to a family operation such as a farm enterprise?

Holidays probably are not the best time to talk about business, but business talk, particularly about the future of the family farm operation, needs to take place. Though as I said, the holidays may not be the best time to broach such issues, but they may be the perfect time to at least throw out the idea that further discussions need to take place.

Conquer the uncomfortable

Such conversations may not be the most comfortable, but they do need to occur. These conversations can’t be handled while working cattle, and they can’t be between one or two of the involved parties. To be most constructive, these conversations need to take place in the farm office, at the kitchen table or maybe an off-farm location, where there won’t be potential distractions by “work that needs to be done.”

As mentioned before, these conversations (at least the initial talks) need to include the entire family, even those who may not be involved in the family operation. Unintentionally misguided assumptions can be the fastest way to derail family togetherness and stir up unnecessary friction.

When these talks occur, all parties need to be clear on the mission at hand. Take, for example, long-term transition planning. Discuss not only a business transfer for when the older generation wants to step away from the operation, but also an estate transfer for when the older generation passes away.

Earlier this year, Allan Vyhnalek, farm and ranch succession Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Agricultural Profitability, issued the report Keys to Successful Farm Transition. In the report, he wrote, “Many use the terms ‘farm estate planning’ and ‘farm transition planning’ interchangeably. There are some important differences. Estate planning can simply be what happens to assets when one generation passes. Transition is the important planning that allows the successors the opportunity to keep that farming or ranching operation in business and moving forward.”

Communication key

Communication is something that farm families are not historically known for, or at least not known to do well. If a true family operation exists, then the plan for moving forward needs to have input from the entire family. It can’t just be Mom and Dad telling the rest of the family, “This is how it’s going to be.”

While no one is entitled to anything, and there are no guarantees, the youngsters who may be in their 30s, 40s or even 50s should also have a say in how they envision the future of the family operation.

Though Mom and Dad may not get everything they envision in the plan, and the children’s view may not be as clear as they believe it should be, these meetings will get the ball rolling in the right direction, or at least get the ball rolling.

Once all family members get on the same page of how the transition should flow, then it is best to bring in other members of your team — accountant, tax adviser, lawyer, etc. Maybe even a family counselor, if one’s services have been used in the past, should be brought to the table.

From all of these conversations, a successful transition plan can be formulated. But once you have a plan in place, don’t just put it on a shelf and forget about it. A transition plan can, and should, be a living and breathing thing. Circumstances change, family dynamics may change, and the plan should reflect any of the changes that occur over time.

Establishing your “team” to assist in formulating a transition plan is an important step. But the most important step, and the first step that is necessary, is to communicate.

Just start talking and keep talking.

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