Double farm transition leads couple from Virginia to Kansas and back
Transition planning is different for every family, but don’t think that the farm transition will just happen. You must make deliberate decisions on how the family business will pass from one generation to the next. Having experienced not one, not two, but three attempts at transition, Jason and Paige Pratt know only too well how difficult the discussions around those decisions can be.
Born and raised in southwest Virginia, the plan had always been for Jason to be the next generation to lead the family’s purebred Angus operation.
“After graduating from Virginia Tech, I returned to the farm,” Jason recalls. “Like any other graduate, I was ready to take the world by the tail. However, when we started to work on the transition, my parents weren’t quite ready to hand over the keys and let me have the farm.”
Because their expectations weren’t aligned, the three weren’t able to overcome the tension and roadblocks the situation created.
At that point, Jason decided to leave the farm and take a job with the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Not long after, he met Paige who grew up in the Flint Hills of Kansas on a commercial cow-calf and stocker operation. Her family also farmed a little over 2,000 acres of row crops including corn, soybeans, sorghum, and sorghum silage, primarily for cattle feed.
“My sister is a schoolteacher and never really showed much interest in farming, but my two brothers and I wanted to be a part of the operation,” Paige says.
As Jason and Paige’s relationship grew, so did the labor issue on the farm in Virginia. “Not only did my dad farm but he also had an off-farm job. When the labor situation changed on the farm, he decided he wasn’t ready to take it all on by himself,” Jason says.
Once again, the talk of transition was back on the table, and Jason returned to the family farm. Soon after, Jason and Paige married, and they purchased the cattle and equipment and leased the land from Jason’s parents.
As the couple began investing in the operation’s infrastructure, there was still no clarity as to how the farm would ultimately transition to Jason and his sister should something happen to their parents.
“We were spending money to improve land we didn’t own, and we really didn’t know if we were going to be there for a long time,” Jason says. “We were being told, ‘It’s going to be yours,’ but we didn’t have anything in place to ensure that would happen. My dad was having a hard time deciding how to divide the farm between me and my sister. Paige and I assumed it was going to be a 50/50 split, but we really didn’t know.”
Adding to an already tense situation was the fact that Jason’s father still wanted to have a voice in the operation and there wasn’t a good plan in place on how they were going to work together managing the farm.
“As the next generation, you want to stretch your legs. You have your own ideas. We felt it was our show, and we wanted our name on it,” Paige says. “You want to lead, but you also want to respect the older generation. It can be a tough situation and one we struggled with.”
At that point, Jason’s father stepped back and let them run the operation. For the first four years of their marriage, the couple never left the farm together because the bulls had to be fed 365 days a year, twice a day.
“One thing we learned is everyone wants security regardless of age,” Paige says. “Because there wasn’t a plan in place, we didn’t feel like we had security in Virginia.”
So, when her father called to say they were hiring a farm transition facilitator, the couple decided to be part of the discussion to see if it was an opportunity they wanted to take.
“If we had any inkling of ever wanting to farm in Kansas, my father wanted us at the table,” Paige says. “We flew to Kansas several times, and our family met with the facilitator. Ultimately, Jason and I decided to go with the security and the plan.”
The promise in Kansas
The couple packed up eight semi loads of cattle and three semi loads of equipment. “We watched his mom cry as we drove away with one child in the backseat and another on the way,” Paige recalls.
For the Kansas farm transition, an LLC and a buy-sell agreement were formed among Jason and Paige, Paige’s parents, and her two brothers. The land would be split three ways with no boundary lines of who owned what.
“Everybody brought their net asset value to the table, and we divided it by percentages of 100%, so if you owned 20%, then you owned 20% of the net assets put into the operation. We also built a buy-sell agreement with the LLC,” Paige says.
Everything seemed to be going along smoothly until her oldest brother and his wife decided they’d rather farm on his own. “When one of the kids defaulted, it wrecked my dad’s plan,” Paige says. “It was also clear that Jason and my dad were very similar creatures. It was also clear Jason and my other brother who was in the operation with us were very different creatures. After two years, the honeymoon was over.”
A return to Virginia
While it can be hard to recognize, the couple realized it was time to call a truce. “We told my brother we loved him, but that we didn’t want to be business partners,” Paige says. “We all knew it was the right decision.”
The couple considered several options, so they could continue farming in Kansas, but none seemed feasible. Meanwhile, back in Virginia, there were a lot of realizations that came about during the separation.
“My dad realized that while my sister was interested in agriculture, she wasn’t interested in production agriculture. My parents also knew things weren’t 100% in Kansas. They said they wanted us to come back and explained what they were thinking as far as transition,” Jason says. “Expectations were set for what each person was going to contribute, which really helped us more than anything.”
In spring 2017, the Pratts returned to Virginia and became a part of Pratt Cattle Company. One of a number of things that changed was ensuring everyone felt included.
“If you look at our sale catalog, it doesn’t say ‘Jason and Paige Pratt.’ It says, ‘The CW Pratt Family,’ and my dad is still actively involved,” Jason says. “Paige and I were able to buy another farm about a year and a half after we came back. We’ve also been able to pick up several leases and hire an employee to help.”
While the couple admits they made many mistakes along the way, there were also valuable lessons learned.
“Being on the same page is extremely important. What are your goals? Everyone needs to bring goals to discuss. If you never allow someone to bring a goal to the table and help you set goals, how are they going to do it when you’re gone?” Paige says.
You also need to be open to new ideas. “As you communicate, the plan might look different, but it also might look a lot better,” she says. “It’s also why being flexible is key.”
Another thing that’s important to remember is that each situation is different … there is no cookie-cutter solution for transitioning the farm to the next generation.
“No two farms are the same. The infrastructure is different. The people are different. It’s also why you must find the right people to help you build your own roadmap to transition. For us, it was finding the right CPA, attorney, and transition facilitator to help you put a plan in place to meet your individual needs,” Jason says.