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September 2007: Can their problem be solved?

I grew up on a great cattle ranch in the Midwest, but because my father and uncle were in a nasty partnership, I couldn't stay.

That was back in 1975. Now I'm 50 years old and established 150 miles away. Ranching is not an option.

My father and uncle have passed on. My 75-year-old mother lives on the ranch and has a family living in my uncle's house on the farm. Their presence there is a blessing, but the family lacks ambition and has very few abilities.

What we need in their place is a young farm family who needs a ready-to-operate unit and would be good stewards of the ranch, but can't swing the high land prices.

I know there are good young ranchers out there. But they all want to buy the farm, and we don't want to sell it. It has 3,000 acres of ranch with about 400 in alfalfa and the rest in grass. I realize I am biased, but it's one of the nicer ranches in the area.

My brother, sister, and I still hold the ranch as a special place, and Mom has it paid for so there is no reason to sell it. But Mom can't manage it forever. We need to plan now because the place will fall apart when Mom's not there.

This is my question: Are there any programs to link young farmer/ranchers to people like my mom?

I know there are programs with the intent of selling to the new farmers, and that may be a long-term possibility. But we have all the grass rented to neighbors and the alfalfa put up on a share basis, so the farm is functioning.

One other problem is it's too far away from any town to live on the place and drive to an in-town job. Any ideas would be appreciated.

It's certainly worth exploring the farm-link programs. Quick access to state programs can be found at the National Farm Transition Network Web site (

The challenge in W.D.'s case is the fact that ownership transfer to the caretaker family is not on the table (at least initially), and farm-link programs are generally aimed at ownership transition.

Actually, W.D. and his siblings really want a way to separate the occupation of ranching from the ownership of the ranch assets. This challenge is being faced by more off-farm inheritors every year.

With no debt burden and a functioning ranch, it's possible W.D.'s family can afford to be "patient capital." It's less likely that a young family can afford to live solely on what the owners can afford to pay.

This may, instead, be a viable second-career opportunity for a couple who seriously desire the rural life but no longer have the responsibility of children or the need to build a retirement from scratch.

W.D.'s family could focus their search on empty nesters and early retirees, candidates who have agriculture in their blood and other assets of their own. Local and regional newspaper ads are a place to start.

It's probable that the next generation in W.D.'s family won't share the same love of the ranch or agree on ownership options. They should start now to determine their long-term plans for the ranch.

Donald J. Jonovic, Ph.D., is coauthor with his wife, Pamela, of Ag-Planner/IV: An Agreement Builder for Family Agribusinesses ($66.45). His most recent book on family business is The Ultimate Legacy ($35.95). His new video on farm management and succession, "Surviving Family Farming Whitewater," is available as a two-DVD set ($65.95). All prices include shipping.

Family Business Management Services
P.O. Box 201400
Cleveland, OH 44120

I grew up on a great cattle ranch in the Midwest, but because my father and uncle were in a nasty partnership, I couldn't stay.

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