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Successful farm succession hinges on starting early

Purdue specialist emphasizes bringing family members into decisions before passing on the farm.

June 10, 2024

5 Min Read
Two women and two dogs walk toward a grain system
BRING THEM IN: A key piece of advice in farm succession planning is bringing the next generation in on decisions long before they take over the operation. Aubrie Ginther

by Aubrie Ginther

Indiana families passing their farm to the next generation should not wait to start the succession process, according to Renee Wiatt, family business management specialist for the Purdue Institute for Family Business in the Department of Agricultural Economics.

“Research has shown that intrafamily succession — when you pass it on to a relative — takes, on average, about six and a half years to complete that process from when you actually start transferring to when you finish transferring,” Wiatt says. “A lot of people, when they hear succession, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I have my will — I’m good.’ But I would like farmers to start earlier.”

Where to start with succession

Wiatt says the process starts with identifying potential successors. Research shows that most farm business owners have not identified successors. Wiatt recommends starting conversations with possible successors and speaking to them early and often.

The advice to start the process early is not lost on Dave and Sara Davis of Reynolds, Ind. The Davises are involving their children in discussions and decision-making on their wean-to-finish commercial hog operation. The farm works on contract with Dykhuis Farms in Zeeland, Mich., and produces nearly 30,000 pigs a year.

“Including our children on decisions has been helpful in many ways,” Dave says. “The kids are able to understand the processes by being involved, and they have gained a greater respect for the farm and the work that goes into it.”

Claire Davis pets a pig in a hog barn

For the past four years, Dave and Sara’s daughter, Claire, has been helping her parents run the farm. From administering medications to sitting in on business meetings, the 23-year-old has been fully immersed in the operation.

“Learning about the many aspects of the farm and how much work goes into running it has definitely helped me appreciate it even more,” Claire says. “After learning how much work my parents put into the farm, I am proud to have the chance to carry on the family legacy by running it myself one day.”

Claire Davis and her mother, Sara, holding piglets

Eyeing the farm’s future

In addition to teaching their children about the daily responsibilities on the farm, Dave and Sara include them in decisions about the farm as another way to prepare for the future. With the knowledge that the farm will one day be passed down to the next generation, the Davises are confident that including their children in major decisions will help equip them for the future.

Wiatt emphasizes that the process can be very emotional for all involved.

“They’re looking back on their whole life, everything they poured into this farm, and for farmers, it’s not just a job,” she explains. “It’s a life their whole family has to buy into.”

 Pictured from left: Dave, Claire, Isaac, Zeb and Sara Davis

Though these topics can be hard to face, getting an early start to farm succession planning and adopting new ways of business can bring peace of mind to many farm operators.

“Greater peace of mind is definitely a benefit of early farm succession planning because it secures the future of the family farm,” Sara says. “All of the hard work that has been put in wasn’t for nothing, and it didn’t go unappreciated.”

As they continue farm succession planning, the Davises are already seeing the benefits of starting early and maintaining transparency as they communicate with their children throughout the process.

Communication is an essential part to being successful in farm transferring, Wiatt says. “Having that communication piece in place — where you have an idea of what everybody expects and what everybody wants — can get you really far in succession planning.”

Farm succession resources

Thinking about the future of the farm is a difficult topic, and it is not at the top of the list for many farmers. But Purdue has resources available to aid the process.

Purdue’s succession planning team is a group of Extension educators and specialists who work to provide in-person assistance to farmers as they plan to transfer the farm to the next generation. The team aids Indiana farm families by discussing important topics with families as they begin their farm succession planning. These topics include financial well-being, farm management and risk assessment.

Purdue’s succession planning team also helps farmers by conducting farm family visits and hosting events such as regional workshops and planning presentations.

The team has put together a 150-page guidebook for intrafamily succession that provides educational information and prompts for farm families to respond to as they work through their succession planning.

Purdue’s Leadership and Succession Planning webpage provides additional information and a link to download the guidebook free of charge.

Ginther is a senior in ag communication at Purdue University.

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Farm Succession
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