Kriss Lightner, 56, still feels a rush when he pulls the planter into the field. He knows when he's done all he can to lay the groundwork for a bin-busting harvest. He's in the driver's seat and ready to go.
The Lohrville, Iowa, farmer can't quite muster the same enthusiasm for studying tax tables, income projections, and retirement timetables. He's still in the driver's seat, but long-range plans sometimes take a backseat. "We get busy, and with the urgency of production and harvest, planning is pushed aside," says his wife, Deb.
The Lightners aren't alone. Working a successor into the business can be intimidating. Farmers spend a lifetime building a business; it's not in their nature to look forward to winding down. In reality, management and ownership transition are more a series of steps than an abrupt exit.
The Lightners are making headway toward their goals. They prepared the seedbed by encouraging son Zac as a young sprout. The 33-year-old began raising cattle and renting land when he was in FFA. "When Zac and his wife, Darci, returned in 2003, we knew we needed to generate a plan," Kriss says. "It always seemed far in the future," Deb says. "In 2005, we turned 50 and although we knew we'd continue with some input in the operation for some time, we needed to move on it."
Their plan is to complete the management transition when they're in their early to mid-60s. Kriss buys fertilizer, equipment, feeder cattle, feedstuffs, and land. Deb is financial manager, record keeper, and grain marketer. Zac collects and analyzes technical data to help with input purchases, makes seed purchasing and chemical plan decisions, runs the sprayer, and does mechanical repairs and welding. He began managing their employees in 2006. "Management transition is a constant work in progress," Kriss says. "Every day you're involved, you can feel the needle move a little more. It's complicated -- like a montage."
Deb agrees. "Zac isn't the only one going through transition," she says. "As he takes on more, Kriss' jobs change." Darci, a teacher, also is transitioning. She recently completed Annie's Project workshops to prepare for a business role.
At the same time, the Lightners are addressing changes in the farm business structure. A family corporation formed in 1984 includes Kriss' two sisters and his mother, Jeanne. Over the past two years, they interviewed advisers at four or five firms. "We needed to make sure it was a good fit," Kriss says. After finding a match, they've made progress through face-to-face meetings, conference calls, e-mail exchanges, and meetings with extended family.
The Lightners have a daughter who is not involved in the farm. "It's a cliché," Deb says. "But we still dance around equal vs. fair. We're looking at the legal, financial, and emotional sides. You can't find a consultant for the emotional. We have to be honest, compromise, and work things out."
In the last year, a plan has taken shape. "It's down on paper," Deb says. "We knew what we wanted for everyone, and we designed a plan. They tweaked it and outlined legal and tax implications. We've presented it to our family."
They have a time line. "It's going to take longer than we thought," Deb says. Kriss agrees. "You can't ever say you're done with the process," he adds. "Change is a constant."