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Succession planning, one of the most difficult types of planning for farmers

By Tess Brown-Lavoie, farmer and Rhode Island Field Agent, Land For Good.

Tess Brown-Lavoie, Rhode Island Field Agent, works with farmers at the Farm Succession School this winter.

Farmers are used to planning: we make crop plans, business plans, and marketing plans. Yet succession planning is one of the most difficult types of planning that farmers must engage in. Many farmers are reluctant to talk concretely about what changes their businesses will undergo when one generation passes farm operations and/or farm assets to the next generation.

The majority of farmers I work with want their land to stay in agriculture; the legacy of the land is often a cherished value. But few farm families have plans in place that articulate exactly how the land, equipment, business, and other assets will be divided among heirs and farm successors. Especially in farm businesses, reckoning with property plus the interpersonal dynamics within a family can be a daunting prospect. Divisions between a family and a farm business are often blurry, and different family members can have very different visions for what should happen in the event of interpersonal transition. So it makes sense that people are ambivalent to talk concretely about the future of their land and their businesses. 

The biggest hurdle in farm succession planning is getting the plan done. As part of our Land Access Project phase 2 (2015 – 2018) we piloted a Farm Succession School designed for senior farmers and farm couples looking toward retirement and farm transition to offer much needed structure and support.

This winter, 21 farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island made huge strides toward completing their plans by attending our Farm Succession School. Led by Kathy Ruhf (Land For Good) and Jon Jaffe (Farm Credit East), the School brought transitioning farmers and farm couples together for 3 full-day sessions spread out over the winter months. In between sessions, participants completed “homework” such as retirement budgeting and family meetings. By the end of the course, each farm had a binder that documented their progress, along with a game plan for completing their succession plan over the coming year. 

Each farm brought a different business and family situation to the table. One of the biggest takeaways was that there is no one way to deal with farm transition; what works for one family won’t work for another. It was powerful to hear the solutions people were developing in their families, and also the obstacles people faced. 

There are many tools and methods that help guide a family to a set of plans that will secure their future. The school offered a comprehensive overview of the issues a farm family needs to address in transition. Farmer-participants arrived daunted by the breadth of transfer-related materials they face. They left with exercises for visioning the future of their land and farms, and clear next steps for the conversations they need to have with their families, and documents they should assemble to provision for a smooth transition.

If you’re a farmer considering succession planning, contact us for guidance or check out our free Toolbox for help getting started.

If you’re an farm service provider, contact us about hosting a future workshop in your area.

This training is supported by a grant from the USDA/NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (NIFA #2015-04544).

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