Farm Transition Facilitators Learn How to Work With Farmers

5/4/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. — Picture this. Bud and Lola have a 200-cow dairy and 600 acres of land, but they are ready to retire from the business and pass it on to the next generation.

One child, the oldest of seven, has been farming with them for 20 years. Another child, the youngest, wants to come back.

And while the other five children have no interest in farming, they want to know what they’ll inherit from their parents.

A lot to swallow, huh?

It’s the kind of scenario a group of farm succession facilitators agonized over during a three-day training session at the AmishView Inn & Suites earlier this week.

Of course Bud and Lola aren’t real. But their scenario may not be that far-fetched.

Throw in emotions and past history, and it’s no wonder that for many farm families, transitioning to the next generation can be downright traumatic.

There is where a facilitator can play a key role, according to Darlene Livingston, executive director of Pennsylvania Farm Link, which handled the registration for the event.

She said the training, which is held annually across the country by the International Farm Transitition Network, gives facilitators a chance to learn from each other as much as from the people presenting.

“All of the states have the need to do succession planning and to facilitate succession planning. And so our goal is to learn, I believe, from each other as much as from the process that has been set up to help us to do that more efficiently with families,” Livingston said.

Around 30 people attended the three-day meeting, which was funded by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It included discussion about how to get a farm succession meeting started, tips on communicating with people and what the role of the facilitator should be.

There were also role-playing scenarios, where some played the facilitator and others played the family member.

Joy Kirkpatrick, outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability, said it’s important for a facilitator to set expectations with a family right from the outset.

“You have to go through that whole process of building that rapport with that large group now,” Kirkpatrick said.

Just as important is getting the family comfortable with a facilitator, through a discussion of the farm’s history or something else that will at least get people talking.

John Baker, attorney with the Beginning Farmer Center in Urbandale, Iowa, said it helps to know where family members are coming from and what values are most important to them.

One way of doing that, he said, is to ask people to look over a list of values and rate them according to what’s important to them.

“The other thing, not everyone shares the same values. The problem in having a values is you can’t compromise,” Baker said.

So how do you work through that?

Baker recommends synthesizing a solution that doesn’t require a compromise. For instance, if two brothers who are going to take over a dairy farm would both rather spend time with family at night rather than with the cows, you can discuss hiring an employee to take that shift.

Having facilitated many farm succession meetings, Livingston said the big thing for many families is putting personal feelings aside and thinking of the succession plan as a business transaction.

“I think in many cases, the big thing I have heard is they don’t know where to start. It’s a very scary and daunting task for them because there is a lot of various aspects that come into play,” she said.

Helping them figure out where to start to look to build the parts of a succession plan is important.

“We don’t try to tell them what to do,” she said. “We seek for them to have the professionals in each area of the documents needed, to have the right professions involved.”

Although she was one of the presenters, Kirkpatrick said she also hoped to come away with things she could apply to her own job.

“What I feel I can get out of it is I learn every time I do these, there are people who are experienced with farm families, and so I learn new techniques and ideas,” she said.

One family Kirkpatrick worked with, where the next generation was ready to take over for the parents, was especially stressful. An initial meeting was set up at the parent’s new home, which overlooked the farm.

“They had built a new house on top of the hill, the farm was in the valley. When I walked into the living room, they had a telescope, but it was pointed down at the farm instead of into the sky,” she said, laughing.

It was a hard start to overcome, Kirkpatrick said. But working with the family, she got the family members to talk to one another, understand where each was coming from and come to an agreement.

In many cases, the older generation, while well intentioned, has a hard time letting go of a business that they helped to create, she said.

“I think that the older generation sometimes struggles with losing control, but they realize they want to see the farm continue. So there is that constant struggle and ... they have to balance those things out,” Kirkpatrick said.

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