MANHEIM, Pa. — Transferring a farm from one generation to the next is no easy task.
That’s partly because farms include costly capital like land, buildings and machinery — and partly because the world doesn’t hit pause during the transition.
In the words of country singer Thomas Rhett, “Life changes.”
Chris Waddell knows that all too well.
She and her husband, Rob, began transitioning their Townville dairy farm to one of their sons 15 years ago.
“We had no reason to believe that either of our other children were going to come back at that time,” she said.
But a few years ago, their younger son moved back to the area and started showing an interest in the farm.
Through some tough conversations, the Waddells came up with a new plan.
The parents and both sons will be part of a limited liability company that controls the farm property, while the LLC for the 1,100-cow dairy will include just Chris, Rob and the son who’s been at the farm longer.
Waddell and two other dairy farm women told their transition stories Nov. 7 at the Dairy Girl Network’s Forward Together Conference.
Advisers can help farmers navigate the process.
Christine Bender and her parents began working with a moderator — a neutral party who facilitates discussion — a year before she returned to their Wisconsin farm in 2016.
The family is also working with an attorney to sort out the paperwork.
The plan includes gifting assets as part of a move from a sole proprietorship to an LLC, and finding a way to compensate Bender’s nonfarming brother in the estate plan.
“It’s a lot to learn, and we have a long way to go,” Bender said.
A transition can involve many advisers, such as accountants and consultants, but it’s good to start out with a discussion facilitator whom the whole family trusts.
“If the first person you find is not the one for you, find another one,” Waddell said.
Working with an outside consultant also helps to make meetings happen, said Maria Forry, a part owner of Oregon Dairy in Lititz.
“There are always a 101 other things you need to be doing. It takes a lot of intentionality to do those meetings and they are so, so important,” Forry said.
Her family has used tax planning and gifting to transfer assets from her father, George Hurst, to Forry, her husband and a brother.
Hurst also owns a grocery store and restaurant, and Forry has two sisters who aren’t part of the farm.
Forry said her father has smoothed the transition by being an open book about his estate plan.
“When Dad is gone, we know what the final outcome is going to be,” she said.
Still, plans can change as family members age and circumstances change.
“When you get involved in (transition plans), you can’t just put them aside. You have to look at them at least once a year,” Waddell said.
Her family is doing OK making day-to-day decisions, but it’s still working on bigger ones, such as when her husband will yield final say in decisions to their sons.
The web of family relationships — being the spouse, parent or sibling to different members of farm ownership — can make tough conversations even harder.
When her family is in that situation, Waddell requires everyone to verbally agree to the decision.
That way, if anyone complains afterward, she can remind the person that he previously agreed to the plan.
To sort out the farm’s responsibilities, Bender’s family is developing an organizational chart.
Bender oversees the lactating herd, but sometimes her parents have overstepped that boundary because of their interest in the cows.
Bender’s family has started a regular airing of the grievances called “taking out the trash.”
“We all know working with family is challenging, and we take everything to heart,” Bender said. “We found that the sooner that you talk about things, the easier it is to overcome them.”