Over more than 20 years, I’ve had the privilege to tell the story of countless farm families. From large multigenerational spreads to small mom-and-pop farms, they all have their roles to play in our nation’s agricultural tapestry.
But no matter the size or scope of the business, no matter if they were livestock operations or strictly crop farms, there was one thing each of the successful ones had in common.
At some point, the family patriarch or matriarch had enough self-awareness and foresight to set the next generation up for success without them. They acknowledged that the longevity of the farm was more important than their egos and their need to micromanage every decision.
Now, there’s two kinds of folks reading those words. Those who are nodding, and those whose hackles just rose.
Folks, it’s an observation, not a judgment.
Provide a foundation
No one likes to think they’re replaceable. But we all are.
Coming to grips with that and accepting that there will be people farming the land and raising the livestock after you, whether they share your DNA or not, is the first step. The next step is figuring out how to set those generations who follow on a path to success when you aren’t there.
We start by enrolling our youth in 4-H and FFA, organizations that teach the foundational skills of farming, management and agricultural science concepts. It’s there that our next generation of farmers, ranchers and agribusiness people starts to grow and mature. You see it at the county fair, when your teenager helps the younger member with their bucket calf. You see it on the stage during the Kansas State FFA Convention, when that shy child blossoms into a confident, self-assured speaker and leader.
It is truly remarkable to see them mature.
I may not have kids in those programs, but even I can see their importance in establishing the next generation who will follow in my footsteps as an agricultural communicator. I, myself, don’t like to think of someone replacing me on this masthead — and God willing, it won’t happen for a few decades at least. But I volunteer my time to speak to young people, and judge public speaking and other communications contests, so that I can shape my future replacements. My hope is, even when I’m not here, something I say will stick with them as they tell the future stories of agriculture.
If we set this foundation right in their teenage years, we can then build on it as they grow into young adults returning to our farms and agribusinesses.
If we’re to continue the work of 4-H and FFA in our young people, we must nurture the maturity and skills that they developed as teenagers on into their young adulthood. That means setting up opportunities for them to safely make decisions — and yes, even fail a time or two.
And do so now while we’re around to mentor and guide them.
In talking with our Kansas Master Farmers and Master Farm Homemakers, there’s this theme that’s developed: mentoring.
For some, that might mean handing over a section of ground to their children with the rule, “It’s your ground, your calls.” For others, it might mean turning over the keys to the planter and the combine, or standing back at the bull sale while the child bids on the next genetic improvement to the herd.
Now, there’s a lot of trust in these actions. Trust that the young adult has the maturity and skills from a lifetime of watching their parents to know the right answers. Trust in the parents that questions can be asked, and advice given without judgment or fear that the opportunity will be taken away from the young adult.
I’ve asked farmers who are in the middle of this transition phase: What’s the best advice they could give? Many say they put down formal agreements on paper for the farm and transition of assets. That way, objectives and duties are clearly spelled out for everyone.
Others say they consult experts to help them map out plans, or to advise them on balancing family dynamics with farm management. But almost all agree, you can’t micromanage a growth opportunity. No matter how anxious it makes you as the head of the farm, and as a parent.
As one farmer once told me, he could either start transitioning responsibilities to his children when they were in their 20s, and he was available to consult; or, he could wait until they were in their 60s, and all they had was his headstone to ask.
That stuck with me, and I hope it sticks with you, too. Because, at the end of the day, we’re not only raising the food, fiber and fuel for our nation’s security, but we’re also raising and mentoring the generation who will continue that work when we’re gone.