Farm patriarch wonders if anyone in the next generation has what it takes to run the operation

Can their problem be solved?

The Problem (submitted by N.H.)

My wife and I are 67 years old, and we’ve had a great farming career. We inherited some land early and then several things fell into place. Now we have 2,700 acres of paid-for land. I love to farm. We have fun and everything is clicking when I am around, but I know someday that will come to an end. We have three children. Two of them have no interest in farming; another shows interest and works for us, but I question his managerial ability. Our son-in-law is interested and helps from time to time, but I don’t think he has what it takes either. I’m just not sure how to pass this on as I question the leadership and managerial qualities of the next generation. 

The Solution

Let’s talk about a simple word. The word is it. Some farms and some people have it, and some don’t. When a farm or a person has it, everyone can tell, and when they don’t, everyone can tell. It is unique. It is hard to find, but impossible to miss. So what is it? I can’t say for sure because it is hard to define, but when I see a person or farm that has it, I know there is something special. A person who has it usually has a combination of these qualities: 

  • A deep passion for their family
  • An unwavering love of agriculture
  • Integrity at all times
  • Humility
  • Hope, enthusiasm, and vision for the future
  • A resolve to persist through tough times
  • A realistic perspective on life
  • An ability to create and act upon opportunities

Right now what you are describing is that your farm has it, and you are concerned your farm may lose it because the next generation of heirs doesn’t have it. My assumption is that over the years you have tried to pass it on and are very willing to share it but for some reason they do not get it.

In my own life of athletics, church, farming, and estate-planning business, I too have often found myself saying, “These people have it. They get it. They understand it.” Unfortunately, other times I’ve said, “They don’t get it. They don’t understand it. They just don’t have it.” 

Maybe it’s time to start a farm test while you’re still alive. It sounds like financially you are in good shape so, for example, rather than paying them $50,000 to work for the farm, give them 200 acres rent-free and let them buy all the inputs, make all the decisions, and rent your equipment. Whatever they make is their pay.

Everyone will learn fast. If they don’t take the deal, you are right. They don’t have it. If they do take the deal, they may surprise you and step up to the opportunity. Maybe they have it but never had a chance to show it. Maybe they don’t have it, and this will prove it.

That doesn’t mean they’re bad people if they don’t get it. It may just mean they’re not cut out to run the operation in the future. Rather than setting them up for failure or tying up the land for eternity, maybe the farm gets divided as you see fit. After they get the assets, they might start to get it. If they do, they might start to multiply it. If they don’t, they may sell it to someone who does get it. Sometimes it’s easier to pass on your assets, than it is to pass on it.

Myron Friesen is co-owner of Farm Financial Strategies in Osage, Iowa. During the past 19 years, he has worked exclusively with farm families across the Midwest to develop farm transition strategies. Friesen grew up on a Mountain Lake, Minnesota, farm. He owns and operates a 910-acre crop and livestock farm with his wife and four children. farmestate.com

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