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Winter Fair Farm Forum walks through difficult subject.
By Jenny Gessaman / Staff Writer
January 20, 2016
Keeping farms and ranches in the family is a source of pride for Montanans, but can also be a source of confusion. This year’s Montana Winter Fair organizers aim to make the topic approachable with a Farm Forum featuring Kevin Spafford, founder of a national firm specializing in agribusiness succession.
Spafford recognizes planning a succession can be overwhelming, but hopes his 5-hour workshop will make it less intimidating.
"I’ve taken a very complex topic and, hopefully, I’ve boiled it down to make it simpler so folks will understand and engage in the process," he said. "I want to make succession planning accessible."
Spafford’s firm uses a four-pronged strategy to plan out succession, with targets such as a well-prepared next generation and securing the past generation’s financial security. However, Spafford said his work often starts not with plans, but with families.
Spafford explained most of his clients’ worries center on where to start, how to bring the topic up to one’s family and how to treat children fairly. The statement he gets the most on these concerns? "I don’t want to create conflict," Spafford said.
Spafford’s firm encourages starting the succession process with a family-wide meeting where someone takes notes. He added it is important for a farmer or rancher to know where they stand before starting a plan.
"A plan is based on looking at where you are today, and where you want to be tomorrow, and creating the actions to get there," he said.
Spafford’s interest in agribusiness succession started as a teenager, when he developed a love for agriculture milking cows on his uncle’s ranch. He began his career with two decades as an insurance agent, where he realized the financial information he was learning would apply to his passion.
"I got to learn the nuts and bolts, and then I got to apply it to the ag community," Spafford said.
Angus McMillan learned the nuts and bolts of the succession process as he went through it. The 86-year-old runs McMillan Ranch, an operation started by his grandfather in 1880. McMillan still tends the ranch every day, and has been considering its future.
Although his succession plan skips a few generations and hands the ranch to his niece and her son, McMillan is still keeping the operation in the family.
“I’ve lived here so long, and I want to come back and look at it,” McMillan said.
He started the succession process four years ago and waded through attorneys, appraisals and options. McMillan settled on a three-person LLC for his operation. He said now other ranchers approach him about the succession process. His advice focuses more on timing than logistics.
"You can do it now instead of later," McMillan said. "Don’t wait until you’re in a nursing home or a hospital."
Lyndsay Bruno, communication director for the Montana Farmers Union, said her organization supports ranchers like McMillan, and explained one benefit of passing on a family operation.
"What we’re looking at now is the average age of a farmer is 58 years old," Bruno said.
She added that farmers and ranchers play a significant role in the national and local economy.
"We view family succession of farms and ranches as playing a vital role in Montana agriculture," Bruno said.
Montana Farmers Union recognizes the succession efforts of their members with an annual Centennial Family award. A qualifying farm or ranch must be over 100 years old, and must have been kept in the same family. Bruno said the organization hopes to do more with succession in the future.
"That’s one of our plans moving forward, to help families work through that process," Bruno said.
Spafford, on the other hand, has high hopes for the upcoming Montana Winter Fair.
"If people hear it, they might learn it, they might pick it up," he said. "If I can engage them in workshop activities, it makes them see they can do this and there is no one single way."
The Farm Forum takes place Wednesday, Jan 27. from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. at Eagles Hall.
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