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It's time to have a long talk with Dad

Agrivision: Parents and children need to discuss the future of the farm and talk to others involved.

January 9, 2020

9 Min Read
cattle grazing in green pasture
EXPLORE OPTIONS: Sit down with your potential farm partners and have a frank exchange of ideas to see if you can reach common ground. The discussion and sharing of goals needs to be done before anyone commits time and money to the endeavor.

I currently work about 75 hours per week on a 125-cow dairy farm as well as run our family farm. We have 55 beef cattle with 90 acres owned and an additional 25 acres rented in central Wisconsin. My brother and dad help with the beef; however, Dad is in his 70s and my brother isn’t very interested in being a partner. Dad insists on him being a part of it because I can’t run the show myself; therefore, the income is divided three ways. My boss might have found part-time help so I can be home more in the future. I’ve been trying to make the farm a one-man operation as much as possible to reduce unnecessary costs and convince Dad that my brother would be more of a hassle than a partner. The land and cows are Dad’s, but I've been buying bulls the last six years to breed them to, and one-third of the machinery is mine. I’m not sure whether to stay at home and accept my “partner” or find a nearby farm to rent and step away until Dad is ready to sell out without my brother being a part of it. What are your thoughts?

Tom Kestell: You asked so many difficult and long-term personal questions. I would step back a bit and read your question out loud when you have time to reflect on the dilemma you face. Often, the desire is to keep the whole family involved generation to generation, but many times this is not feasible, practical or advisable. 

To begin with, partnerships must be based on mutual respect, shared goals and equal dedication to shared end results — or they simply will not work. I would suggest you sit down with your potential partners and have a frank and constructive exchange of ideas to see if you can reach common ground. The discussion and sharing of goals needs to be done before any of you commit resources of time and money to this endeavor. 

The next thing you have to decide as a group: Is this going to be a hobby farm? Or an effort to provide a livelihood for the individuals involved? Seek advice from similar operations to see what can be expected as a return on your efforts. Look at the possibilities to change the way you operate to increase revenue and sustainability. Maybe develop breeding stock; exotic breeds and the sale of genetics would increase revenue.

My last bit of personal advice would be to never enter into a business dealing that you have severe reservations about. This is a recipe for disappointment, resentment and failure. I would also talk to your current employer and ask if there would be an opportunity to work into that operation in the future. 

Sam Miller: There are only so many hours in a day, and working two demanding jobs will lead to burnout and other potentially damaging outcomes. Take some time to think about your goals and put together a business plan — if you want to farm the beef cattle, put together a plan — that includes financial, marketing, etc., to make a viable business. You may need to keep the other farm job until you can reach your desired goal. Once you have your plan, discuss it with your father and brother. If they do not want to be a part of it, seek out an alternative farm to rent.

Your local Extension or technical college farm instructor can provide business planning templates to get you started and would likely assist with the planning process. It sounds like you are burning the candle at both ends. Some planning can improve your quality of life and meet your personal and business goals. Good luck with the planning process.

Katie Wantoch: Before you make any decisions, I feel you need to have a thorough discussion with your dad. We assume that others understand or know about our ideas, thoughts and feelings, but often this is not be the case. Farmers like to do activities and not always sit around talking about them. You are working hard at two different farms, so I’m not sure if you’ve been able to dedicate time to having an operational or strategic meeting with your dad. Operational meetings should be happening weekly to discuss tasks and any projects that need attention that week. Strategic planning meetings should involve all partners of the farm and should discuss big decisions that need to be made, such as yearlong plans.

I would encourage you to have a strategic planning meeting with your dad and brother to discuss details of the farm operation over the next year. This would be a good time to inquire with your dad about any farm succession plans he has envisioned, ask your brother about thoughts he may have for the future, and share with them your ideas. If you don’t feel comfortable coordinating this meeting, you may seek out an Extension educator, technical college instructor or another neutral party to assist in facilitating this meeting for you.

You and your dad may want to attend an Extension farm succession workshop this winter to gather information on assisting with your farm transition. Make sure you have all the details you need, such as your dad’s plans for his farm, in order to make informed decisions about your future farming efforts.

At a crossroads

I'm 55 years old. I own 200 acres and milk 100 cows in east-central Wisconsin. We have a freestall setup. I owe about $300,000 on my mortgage. My son is graduating from high school in June. He is my youngest child. He has been a big help on the farm the last eight years. I was hoping he would decide to farm, but he says he is planning to go to college and become an agronomist. I know money has been tight four out of the last five years, and that’s the main reason he is leaving the farm. I’m too young to retire. I’m wondering if I should sell the cows this spring and rent my land to a neighbor or hire someone to work on the farm with me? Please advise.

Tom Kestell: It will give you little comfort to know that fathers and sons have been facing similar situations for many generations. I’m glad that you have enjoyed working with your son the past eight years. This experience will aid your son going forward to help map out his future career choices. I definitely think your son should continue his education after high school. It will not only give him options in his future career, but also will expose him to new ideas, broaden his horizons and give him different options going forward. 

It is almost always best for the new generation to work and learn outside the comfort of the home operation. This will help your son evaluate how he will spend his life. Your situation is somewhat different — you have chosen your career, have enjoyed its rewards and are still in a position to operate your farm until you decide when it is right for you to retire. I would start early to find someone to work with you, and take the time to hire the right kind of employee so that you can enjoy working together on a daily basis. 

I believe this is the most critical stage of your career. By this I mean you must monitor your financial, mental and physical health to ensure continuing to farm will not jeopardize any of these areas. 

You never know if after college, your son may see the benefit of returning to the home farm. You could keep the options open for both of you, but not confine either of you to a predetermined outcome.

Sam Miller: You shouldn’t be deciding the future of your business based on availability of family labor. If you enjoy running your dairy business, seek a replacement labor source and remain in business. If you don’t enjoy it, then evaluate selling the cows and renting out the farm. If you take this path, what will you plan to do? Given the low unemployment rate and highly transferrable skills of farm operators, you would have little difficulty finding work.

You would also need to consider the tax considerations of selling assets: livestock and machinery. Visit with your accountant to gather information about potential capital gains and income taxes from an asset sale.

Lastly, your son will be going to college, but it sounds like he is still interested in agriculture by seeking an agronomy degree. There is a chance he will get an education, work for an agribusiness and have an interest in coming back to the farm in five to 10 years. If you enjoy farming, this may be a way of ultimately transferring the business. Consider what it is you would like to do and encourage your son to further his education. Good luck with your decision.

Katie Wantoch: The average age of the Wisconsin farmer is 56 years old. You are not alone with this struggle on what the future of your dairy farm and labor may be. First, I would encourage you to have a conversation with your son to see if he envisions himself milking cows or crop farming with you in the future. You can’t answer this question truthfully unless you have asked him that question. If he is unsure or expresses little interest, you need to respect his decision and try not to place any blame. It sounds like he plans to be involved with agriculture, and I’m sure that you have instilled in him a strong work ethic that his future employers will appreciate.

The next steps will be tough and may be difficult for you. You should start to think about the use of your time in your later years. How many years do you estimate milking cows? Would you be willing to hire other farm labor or mentor a beginning farmer? Do you have other career aspirations besides farming? Setting aside some time to consider these options ensures that your future is what you envision for you and your family. These answers may come easily to you, but often they are hard to solve and take time to find the right solutions. There are many ag professionals who can assist you with your plans once you have some ideas for your future. 

Agrivision panel: Tom Kestell, Sheboygan County, Wis., dairy farmer; Sam Miller, managing director, group head of agricultural banking, BMO Harris Bank; and Katie Wantoch, Dunn County Extension agriculture agent specializing in economic development. If you have questions you would like the panel to answer, send them to: Wisconsin Agriculturist, P.O. Box 236, Brandon, WI 53919; or email [email protected].

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