Tackling the Challenges of Farm Succession

As a farm succession mediator, I have seen some extreme situations. In fact, the memory of my first client is ingrained in my mind after having to take a shotgun out of his hands. That farmer had lived to set up his son for farming success. He explained to me that he had the best relationship with his son when he was a teenager, and his son was his world. But as soon as his son hit his 20s, he began to question his father and insisted on implementing his different ideas. Each day, the two stubborn men argued and each day the friction got worse. For the next decade, business problems, personal problems and other dysfunctions developed as a spinoff. What was a very successful family farm that everyone looked up to, was now falling apart. Dad was so upset with the state of affairs that he considered taking his own life.

That was 13 years ago. What I once considered an isolated situation I have come to learn happens “behind the barn” on most family farms.

What caused this sad state of affairs?   

Nobody gets married expecting a divorce. Nobody joins the family business expecting problems. Yet, sadly, half of farming partnerships and marriages fail because people fail to recognize potential pitfalls. Farmers fail to anticipate encountering problems and lack the skills to work through those problems with their families and on their farm.

 "Everyone expects a farming partnership with their family to be perfect."

Much like how some teenage girls dream of a fairytale romance, some farmers dream of the day that their kids join the family business. For most farms, the year that the son or daughter come home to farm after college or career is like a honeymoon. So how does this honeymoon transition into a nightmare for many?  

Just like fairytales often end with “happily ever after,” everyone expects a farming partnership with their family to be perfect. They never anticipate problems working with their families because they have gotten along great growing up. 

The only thing I can tell you for certain about farming with family is: 

Rule #1:  You will encounter business and production problems. No matter how good you are at planning and management, you will encounter unanticipated problems. Always. 

Rule #2:  Your biggest struggle won’t be solving business and production problems. It will be the challenge of sitting down with your family and solving those problems WITH your family. 

The combination of these two rules results in problems for your farming partnership. In fact, it is the #1 problem that threatens your farm overall! It threatens a solid partnership. It threatens your bottom line. It threatens your day-to-day happiness. And, like the story above, it can threaten someone’s life. If you want to nearly double your farm’s profitability without spending a dime and fix those frustrations that come with farming with your family, fix the problem of HOW your family solves problems!

So how do we solve this issue?

We need to shake our heads and rethink our expectations. We need to stop pretending that farming with family is going to be sunshine and unicorns. We need to understand that not everyone is going to agree about everything all the time, and figure out a way to disagree without the situation being disagreeable. 

How can your family get better at problem-solving together as a team? How can you eliminate the “I’m smarter than you” culture and start making smarter decisions together?

If you want farming with family to be sunshine and unicorns, you have to be realistic and know that no farm or farm family is perfect. Having a framework in place that helps farm families solve their problems is critical – both for the health and longevity of the family and of the farm. But adopting a healthy approach to making family business decisions doesn’t happen without a purposeful effort to develop a process that the family is comfortable with. There are experts out there who are working with farm families to achieve this goal. 

This column was originally published by Washington Farm Bureau and re-published with permission by Farm Bureau's Focus on Agriculture