For beginning producers who farm and ranch on intergenerational family operations, good succession planning is essential to securing access to land.

By Brittany Ann Bula, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Beginning Farmer Institute 2016-2017

As a 4th generation farmer, and as my parents grow older, the touchy subject of secession farming is brought up more often than not. Nobody wants to plan for the day that their parents won’t be here, especially when you work next to them on a daily basis on the farm! But we all have to face reality and have these conversations to plan for when we are no longer together.

Our family farm consists of a mom and dad with four kids. Two of the siblings work full time on the farm, one works part time, and the other one has nothing to do with the farm at all. The big question is how do you make it fair for everyone, especially when we have a family LLC and everyone is currently a member, but not everyone puts the same efforts into the farm?

For the last six years, we have been having conversations about the farm and its future. What does each one of us see in our future?  What would we like to see happen to the farm when our parents are retired or no longer with us? Our conversations started with just members of the family, but we never seemed to get anywhere. It always ended with someone getting mad or having their feelings hurt. We now have a lawyer involved, who helps by acting as a neutral party. The children and parents have had separate meetings; we have yet to have the meeting with everyone together, but I feel that day is coming sooner than later.

In the past few years, my dad’s main focus has shifted  from keeping everything fair and splitting everything equally to keeping the farm running after he is gone. He has seen too many family farms dissolve when one sibling is asked to buy out the others because they are all entitled to their share of the farm, even if they have not worked a day on the farm in 25 years. He has said, “if I can do anything to keep this farm going after I am gone, I am going to do the best I can now. Then when I am gone it’s up to you kids to handle it!”

There isn’t an easy way to divide up a farm and keep it going after your parents are gone. Someone will end up with hurt feelings, someone will feel they were shorted, and others will just be unhappy for some reason or another. I encourage families to start having these conversations early and gain an understanding of what their children want and where they feel like they fit on the farm. I am currently 26 years old, and we have been talking about the farm and its future since I was 20. It gave me insight to what my parents wanted and expected from us. It also gave us a chance to speak up and voice our opinions as to what we want to see happen to the farm. Six years later, we have finally come to an agreement.

Tips for succession planning:

  1. Start talking about it early and often.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help. A neutral 3rd party will be extremely beneficial to you. One that has experience with the family and farming is a great added bonus!
  3. It won’t be fair, so don’t try to make it be fair. You didn’t choose to have your kids leave the farm. They choose to leave; so don’t have guilt about them getting less when you aren’t here.  (My dad struggled with this one, but now realizes this is how it will be.
  4. Everyone’s plan is different; there isn’t a right way or wrong way.

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