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Dirt Under Your Nails

Small farms, local foods, alternative agriculture, acreages, sustainability

Securing the Future of Your Farm

Illinois farmers are getting older. I guess everybody else is, too, but what I mean is that the average age of Illinois farmers increased to 57.8 years according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. As a matter of fact, "70 years and over" was the 2nd most populous age bracket in their last report. We've been hearing about this trend in agriculture for a while now, but what is alarming is the number of farmers in those senior age brackets who do not have a plan in place for what will happen to their farm after they are no longer able to provide the day-to-day labor and management.

Last year, I became a certified Farm Transition Facilitator through the International Farm Transition Network. This year, I have cut my teeth assisting several area families with intergenerational farm succession. I have found that farm transition/succession is not something that most farmers like thinking about; the mere mention conjures anxious thoughts about death, taxes, and family feuds. But I would argue that putting a transition plan in place is a great way to minimize the sting of all three.

The typical farmer wants nothing more than to keep their farm together, and to keep their family together. These two things generally represent the sum total of a farmer's life-long personal, financial, and emotional investment. They have seen farms sold off and siblings permanently estranged as a result of a messy inheritance, and they don't want their families to end up in the same boat.

In spite of this desire, many farm families have never communicated directly about what their heirs want. Do they want land? Do they want cash? Do they want to farm? Or just to be a landlord? What about the grandkids? Even though there is no more straightforward route to a mutually agreeable plan than to sit everybody down for a heart-to-heart conversation, this often goes undone because we're so worried the encounter will be inconvenient, uncomfortable, or confrontational.

In farm transition situations where the next generation is a successor who has started farming with his or her folks, other questions quickly arise about this complicated family/business relationship. When should I treat them like my kids, and when are they my partners? Who makes which management decisions? How do we make big decisions? Who writes the checks? Who drives the combine and who hauls grain? Who lives at the home place? And when do we need to revisit all these answers?

One particularly thorny issue revolves around equal treatment among on-farm and off-farm heirs. It seems like everybody wants to treat all their kids equally, but is equal always equitable? If a son or daughter has been farming with mom and dad for years, built the net worth of the operation, and possibly sacrificed other professional opportunities to do so, is it really fair for them to have to buy out their siblings' equal portion of the land and equipment when they take over the farm?

I know you have worked all your life for what you have, and you have every right to do with it what you want, but since you can't take it with you, as they say, it can't hurt to articulate a plan for who gets what when. This goes for both assets and management responsibilities. Please remember, though, that a transition plan mutually agreed upon by all parties involved is much more likely to succeed than a plan created in isolation. The conversations can be hard, and are always emotional, but family members often share many values, so farmers may be pleasantly surprised at just how much everyone agrees.

For more information on this topic, feel free to drop me a line, or check out the Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State.

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