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Grasses burn in a sea of fire. gatorinsc/ThinkstockPhotos

Conflict in transition planning: controlled burn or wildfire?

When it’s out of control, bad things happen and people get burnt.

As I watched the fire creep slowly across the ground during the annual controlled burn of our Conservation Reserve Program grass, I thought how conflict, especially around transition planning, is like a grass fire. It can either be effective and routine, or really exciting and out of control.

When it’s out of control, bad things happen and people get burnt.

The transition planning process is often the first real test of a family farm’s ability to have passionate discussions around important topics that are key to everyone’s futures.

Conflict, and the fear of conflict, is a major detractor of the transition planning process and at the heart of many failed transitions. Unmanaged conflict looks like a raging wildfire: white hot, blown by the winds of change and out of control.

A prairie fire is necessary to remove the dead grass, volunteer trees and weeds, while creating fertile soil for new grass to germinate. Similarly, the fire of conflict allows new ideas to sprout.

Three tips for planning a transition:

  1. Tackle any emotional issues before the raw emotions become the issue. Time has rarely solved really tough problems. If there is a bad marriage, bad blood, chemical dependency or past wrongs, deal with them or make amends. A clean slate is your fire break for conflict.
  2. Discuss each other’s personal goals, concerns and vision. Learn and understand what is important to each other. You don’t have to agree with each other, just understand where people are coming from. (Don’t forget to include any spouses.)
  3. Agree on a common set of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that are important to the success of the family farm. Then discuss the goals and vision for the farm and the personal vision of the key players. This step is neither easy nor quick, so take your time. Farm vision is one area where a near consensus is needed to move forward with the transition plan.

One time a planned grass fire on CRP land went out of control with flames 15 feet high. Before it was over, the fire department, Minnesota State Highway Patrol, sheriff and most of the neighborhood was involved. Trees were burned, telephone poles were blackened, and I made the local paper. It was embarrassing.

We still burn, because it is important for a healthy CRP. But today we create boundaries and fire breaks instead of leaving it to chance.

Conflict and the fear of conflict often derails estate and transition planning. Too often families either don’t light the fire out of fear, or light a match and hope for the best, often with disastrous results. The steps outlined above are your firebreak and your water. They keep the conflict constructive.

Questions? Write Tim at

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

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