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What If It Doesn't Work?
By Kevin Spafford, for Farm Progress Magazines
Five years ago, they contacted me intent on bringing their son into the farming operation as an owner. He had a desire, the education and experience. They had a need. The operation was growing, demand was increasing, and the neighbor wanted to sell. “So why not?” said ‘dad’ enthusiastically. And besides, “Isn’t that why they call it a family farm?” chimed in ‘mom,’ obviously motivated by the thought of them all working together.
After some preliminary work, family meetings and cursory assessments, my team and I advised against the move. From our vantage point, we saw things the family chose to ignore. There was a collection of reasons why, but most came down to a lack of respect and an outsized ego that wouldn’t allow their young prodigy to work with his father. Though not all the son’s fault, these well-intended parents were willing to overlook the obvious. They wouldn’t acknowledge the undercurrent of animosity. They knew in their hearts that over time he would come around and recognize the opportunity.
But that was then. Recently they called to confess it isn’t going to happen. After years of trying they finally realize the concerns we shared way back then are real and to dad’s credit, he acknowledged, “Problems don’t just go away…” Beyond recognizing that our systems work, as aging agripreneurs with a growing operation they wanted to know, “Where do we go from here?”
The initial steps in planning for succession can be difficult. The path is not always direct. And, though the process is based on generating specific results, the exact outcome cannot be known at the outset. You can set very specific and measurable goals but, if you don’t have the foundation for a productive relationship, it’s probably not going to work. In spite of evidence to the contrary, this family plowed headlong into fulfilling a want, without first analyzing the undercurrents of an already tense situation.
It’s cliché to dismiss a lesson as hard-earned; however those oft repeated statements are borne of bad experiences. Succession planning works. The process will help you achieve your goals and allow the farm to continue to endow the generations to come. By design, a viable solution is based on the common goals of the family. The keys to planning success are to:
- Follow a proven planning model and a defined process – this is the road map that leads you on the journey to your goals.
- Acknowledge and overcome the obstacles that all families face – the list is long, but there are solutions if you’re willing to talk about equal versus fair, in-laws, control, conflict, etc.
- Focus of common goals – all can agree to first do no harm, make the operation stronger, ensure financial security and prepare the next generation to lead.
- Practice good communication and learn to listen – we’re all good at waiting to talk, but learning to listen, acknowledging others and reacting appropriately is a skill that must be practiced.
- Commit – because it is difficult and the path is not always clear, you must be willing to continue no matter what. With everything on the line, succession may be the most important commitment you’ll make…
Planning is never once and done. For this family, we’ve fortified the operation, created options to begin stepping away, and we’re now in the process of transitioning ownership to loyal employees. Their son will still be their son; he’s stepping back into the corporate world where he belongs. Someday he may inherit the land and collaborate with the tenants as they continue to grow the operation forward. And, due to what his parents started and the nature of succession, he’ll have a renewed appreciation for the farming profession and gratitude for the efforts of those who came before him.
Photo courtesy of Catherine Frost at folio marketing + creative (for visual interest only; not related to the story shared in this column).Published as '"What if it doesn't work?" and "Five Keys to Succession Planning", by Kevin Spafford for Farm Progress nationwide publication (13 print magazines, including Dakota Farmer), February 2015.
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