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Wide-Open Spaces and Plentiful Opportunities

May 15th 2015, Legacy By Design

Photo courtesy of the Attema family.By Kevin Spafford, for Farm Futures Magazine

Though it’s home, staying in the Netherlands meant confined spaces and limited opportunities for Menno Attema. Growing up on the family farm was enough to whet his appetite and encourage him to dream of more. So, during his college years, he participated in an exchange program to learn about farming practices in the U.S. and the rest, as they say, is history.  

He fell in love, not once but twice. The first was a love for the wide open spaces and plentiful opportunities for farming in the Midwest. And the other was for his wife Jeanne Ann, who he met at a church social. Now 35 years later these corn and soybean farmers of Platte City, Missouri are facing yet another life challenge. Of their four grown children, three have aspirations of following in their parents’ footsteps and becoming part of the family farming operation. Yet, like so many other families, the challenge today is not ‘will’ someone take over the family farm, but rather ‘who.’ Choosing from a brood of the willing is a very tough decision for parents.   

Today, the Attemas are finding their way through the succession planning process and holding family meetings on a regular basis. They’ve attended some workshops and know that many of the steps and some of the obstacles are best handled in open discussions around the table. Beyond legal strategies, tax techniques, and financial analysis they’re committing to leadership development, dividing job responsibilities, and learning to work as a team. For this family in farming, the decisions are about how best to utilize their various talents to build a better business.      

When the conversation comes around to succession, experience tells us most farmers: 

  • Know what they want to achieve; they just don’t know where to begin.
  • Want to have constructive conversations; they just don’t know which questions to ask. 
  • Are interested in some form of planning; they just don’t know who (or what profession) can help.  

Like Menno, most farmers want a plan to protect the farm, ensure financial security, and provide opportunities for a well-prepared next generation. They hesitate due to an overwhelming number of unknowns or confusion about what a plan entails.   

I suggest you start with a family meeting. Bringing the family together to talk about the future of the family farm is very exciting. Children who may not know a career on the family farm is an option, will be pleasantly surprised. Parents who’ve never encouraged a career in farming may be heartened by their children’s reaction. Engaging in this one simple act puts everyone on notice that ‘we care about creating future opportunities for our family in agriculture.’  

In the meetings the family should aim to establish common goals. It’s normal for each person to focus on ‘what’s in it for me?’ But in a family operation, the attitude must be ‘what’s best for the operation?’ And, ‘how can I contribute to the success of the whole?’ When a family sits around the table, the succession planning process comes alive when the conversation focuses on what can I/we do to grow the operation forward and allow it to continue to endow the family for generations to come? 

Photo courtesy of the Attema family.To achieve planning success, every family will need to overcome certain obstacles. Challenges usually arise around the questions related to fair versus equal, in-laws, control, financial insecurity, and family disharmony. These issues can be intimidating and cause all progress to stop. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. First, recognize that each of these challenges exist whether discussed or not. Each can cause destruction of the family operation if left untended. And, each will only grow in stature if not brought up and managed toward a constructive end. 

Then, commit to continue no matter what, how, or who may get in the way. If, like most farm families, the operation constitutes 97% of everything they own. If the operation is part of the family’s heritage, if it represents their lifestyle, if it provides financial security and future opportunities, it’s important to plan for success, devise strategies to keep it together, and protect it from harm. For the Attemas, continuing success is a choice.

Published as ''Wide-Open Spaces and Plentiful Opportunities", by Kevin Spafford for "Farm Futures" magazine, June 2015. 
Photos courtesy of the Attema Family.

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