The Biggest Worry for Farmers

How do we successfully transfer the farm from generation to generation?

The farmer meeting season is winding down as we head into spring. Planting season is just around the corner. I've spent many hours this winter behind the microphone and in front of farmers. It has been a good opportunity to learn from farmers, asking them about their biggest worry. I have heard all kinds of answers to that question, but the answer that I heard most often has to do with the transfer of the farm from one generation to the next.

Those farmers who are ready to retire are concerned with the multitude of changes in agriculture. The pace is faster. The business skills required to be a successful operator are more intense. The volatility of prices is unforgiving. They're concerned about having properly trained their next generation for the challenges they will face. Concern is high that skills needed are things they themselves – the retiring generation – did not have to learn.

Those farmers on the receiving end of the transfer carry a heavy burden also. They worry that everything their father and grandfather worked for could be gone with a mistake or two on their part. They worry that they're not ready – that they haven't learned all aspects of management. They're apprehensive, thinking they might not be able to handle what's around the next corner for their family business.

There are some answers to this dilemma, but none come easily. I learned just this week of a very large family farming operation in California. It's a story I heard while I attended the Commodity Classic in Nashville. This large operation had a certification program that the next generation of managers had to complete before they could buy into the operation.

As I said, it was a very large, extremely diverse farm. There were many employees and many areas of business. Each new family member that wanted in was not magically in charge of something when they reached a certain age. First they were required to go to college and study something pertinent to the business, bringing home a degree.

Next they were required to work on the farm for a number of years. I think it was at least five years they had to work in another business. When they came back to the operation they had to train in every business area of the operation, working hands-on with the employees so they could understand the day-to-day work. Then candidates must pass an intense series of oral tests given by the rest of the owners. Upon passing, they were welcomed to "buy in" to the operation.

Think about your farm and how you might develop some rigor around passing your legacy on to the next generation. You might secure outside help to build processes for this purpose. It's an investment of time that will make both generations feel more comfortable about the transfer.

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