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Don’t let farm crash and burn: Start new year with succession plan

Business Basics: Have family meetings while you are still alive and hear what the owner and heirs really want.

January 22, 2024

3 Min Read
View from an airplane over agricultural landscape
SKY VIEW: It is easy to see how amazing a farm is from 30,000 feet, but when it comes to keeping that beauty in the family, too often we run out of time to bring the next generation in for a smooth landing. Succession planning should be a goal for every farm in 2024. Thomas Winz/Getty Images

by Wesley Tucker

Several years ago, I heard speaker Rena Striegel, president of Transition Point Business Advisors and creator of the DIRTT Project, describe succession planning as an airport runway.

She asked the audience if they had ever been on a large plane forced to land on a shorter runway than it really needed. The moment tires touched down, the pilot was forced to slam on the brakes and hit the reverse thrusters.

Passengers are pinned against their seat belts and thrown back and forth. These landings are rough and come at great risk of personal injury to passengers, or worse yet, the plane could go off the runway to crash and burn.

When you choose to begin the farm succession discussion, it is very much like that airport runway. The sooner you begin talking about it, the longer your runway is, and the smoother your landing can be.

Trouble on the tarmac

Recently, I was visiting with a family who were becoming more and more frustrated with their efforts to keep the farm in the family.

An uncle recently passed away, and with no heirs, everything went to his five nieces and nephews. For the most part, the cousins all agreed their uncle would want the farm to stay in the family. Four of the five had developed a workable plan. However, there was one holdout who only saw dollar signs.

As we talked, I shared if these discussions had taken place while the uncle was still alive, this individual’s behavior would have likely been very different.

In my experience, heirs are less likely to act against the elder’s wishes if they are forced to do it in front of them. But wait until after the funeral, and the knives come out. Money brings out the worst in people.

This is just one more reason I am so adamant these discussions must take place while your loved ones are still with you.

Touch down with family meetings

I always encourage farm businesses to conduct three types of family meetings:

  • farm operating meetings for day-to-day needs

  • farm business meetings for those actively involved in the business

  • family council meetings for the broader extended family.

It’s no surprise that of these three types of meetings, family council meetings are the ones people find most difficult to begin. Why is that?

Family council meetings usually have the greatest potential for conflict. Don’t get me wrong, there is still conflict among family members working together in the business during farm business meetings. But the divide between on-farm and off-farm heirs is usually greater.

So what do most families do? Simply put, they stick their head in the sand. They avoid it. Does that mean the problem goes away? Of course not!

To help you structure meetings, visit extension.missouri.edu/publications/g515. Use it as a guide to discuss succession planning with those extended family members.

Start now to soften approach

If you wait until Dad has just been diagnosed with cancer so you only have six months to get everything done — or even worse, Dad just died — then your landing is going to be very rough. It will come with great risk of injury to family members, the family unit and the longevity of the farm business.

So, take Striegel’s analogy to heart, if you don’t want your farm business to crash and burn or family members to get injured in the process, give yourself a longer runway so it can be a smoother landing.

Rip off that Band-Aid now while you are still alive, and start having difficult family discussions. Good luck!

Tucker is a University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist, succession planner and national conference speaker. He can be reached at [email protected] or 417-326-4916.

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Farm Succession
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