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Easing ownership transition fears

By Dr. Donald J. Jonovic 

THE PROBLEM: Is there some way to eliminate the owning generation’s fear of ownership transition planning?


Your article from the August issue of Successful Farming magazine is written about H.B., a 30-year-old who is helping his father and uncle in their farming operation. I want to applaud H.B. for addressing the issue now rather than waiting several more years.

Like H.B., I, too, was interested in becoming more involved with my father and uncles in their farming operation. I assumed that their long-term plan was that I would be the one to transition into running the operation since I was the only one of my siblings and cousins who had any interest in agriculture. However, I was seldom given much responsibility, and rarely did they seek my input into various facets of the business.

At age 47, I was offered an exciting career opportunity, but one that would require relocation 500 miles away. My wife and I agreed that if my father and uncles (all in their 70s) would be willing to start transitioning and allow me to have a more active role in the operation (rather than just doing the grunt work), we would stay. If they weren’t ready to transition, we would know that it was time for us to move on.

I was shocked by my father and uncles’ response, not because they said I couldn’t take over the farm, but because they said they’d never even considered the idea!
Sadly, because of our lack of communication, I had stayed in a frustrating situation for way too many years.

I took the new job, sold my farm at home, and bought a new farm where we live, three states away. My family and I love living here, and I am so much more at ease not having the constant stress and frustration of working in such a challenging environment with my dad and uncles. My only regret is not moving away 20 years earlier.

I thought we did a good job of communicating, but in hindsight, I realize we never once had a real conversation about the future of the farm.

Looking back, could I have encouraged them to plan or even to talk?


Why do otherwise responsible people consistently fail to talk about the future of their primary asset or to take obvious protective actions?

The common belief is that this procrastination is driven by a sense of immortality, by the need to control, by simple selfishness, or by all of these.

Sure, some are driven by these motives, but I believe most fail to plan because they face an emotionally dangerous journey in a fog of uncertainty, with a deep canyon of irrevocability always ready to reward a wrong turn.

The danger? Every alternative seems certain to upset, anger, or hurt someone.
The uncertainty sounds like this: How do I decide the future of the farm when I don’t know how long I’ll keep working, or live, or what the farm will look like, or who my successors should be? Good questions.

Now, add irrevocability, the common belief that you only get one shot. Sign the papers and it’s all over.

It is little wonder that so many people don’t ever want to think – much less talk – about plans for the farm’s future.

Seen in this light, the claim of K.P.’s father and uncles that they never even thought about his succeeding them is a little less astounding.

Successful farmers are smart people. They know that the lives of loved ones and millions of dollars hang in the planning balance. They just need some fog lights and guardrails to build courage for the trip. I’ll focus on just that in the next column.

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