The Reluctant Farmer
I was picking up a book at my library in May when the librarian confessed that she couldn’t find garden seeds and that was okay since she preferred reading anyway, and dubbed herself “the reluctant gardener”. I smiled knowingly as I could see in my mind’s eye the quack grass having a hay day in my own yard.
I’ve also been getting a few calls from the fallout of “reluctant farmers”. My colleague, Shaun Haney of Real Agriculture.com, asked me what I thought were the common pitfalls of succession planning that farmers need to avoid. (See the interview on YouTube) We talked about the lack of courage to have those starter conversations about expectations, intent (the WHY I am doing this) and the fact that many farm founders just don’t want to quit farming …ever. They are reluctant to even entertain any thoughts about letting go of land title, or making a young son a shareholder “too soon.” I was also struck by the reluctance of parents to build trust with their son’s new fiancé who was not thrilled about the demand to sign a pre-nuptial agreement.
So how does one avoid the mistakes of others and make a better plan?
First I would suggest that you figure out what you really want, and work out a united script with your spouse. Ha! The farm man wants to be on the tractor for another decade or more, and his wife really is ready to downsize with a move to a less busy locale.
“Face your fears and do it anyway” as Susan Jeffers would say. What are you really afraid of? Is it your sense of usefulness once you become the hired man again? Are you that wrapped up in your identity as a farmer, that if your name is not on the municipal land map anymore you consider yourself a nobody? What about all those promises you made to yourself to spend more time with your non-farm kids and their families? And the grandkids who want more of you close to the farm?
Are you afraid that if you start transferring land titles and some of the ownership of the home place that your next generation will get cocky and blow it all away? We have lower interest rates at the moment, and they likely are climbing as you read this. But do you not trust the years of blood, sweat and tears that you’ve invested in training the next generation to be a legacy of passion to KEEP the farm viable? Oh, and by the way, those 13 years of “cheap” labour that your 30 something son has provided needs to be compensated. You are very reluctant to open up that conversation.
How about your reluctance to admit that a small misunderstanding has simmered so long with anger that you are not sure how you are ever going to speak civilly to your brother again? Lack of forgiveness is one of the top 3 reasons why succession plans fail, people just can’t resolve conflict as mature adults, forgive past wrongs, and accept a new day or clean slate to make progress with the farm business.
I don’t have to dig deep to find examples of reluctant farmers. The word reluctant is defined as “unwilling or disinclined” as in “reluctant to leave”. My coaching clients sometimes pass away during our planning time-frame, because they are seventy, eighty or ninety-something when they decide to start having serious, and action-orientated family meetings to make transfers of land, money, and responsibility.
I understand that farmers don’t ever retire. I don’t agree that if farmers quit farming they will shortly expire. ie. die. I do strongly feel that the folks who make the transition from manager to a new role such as “being the hired man again” are happiest. Very few farm men want to stop all ties with the farm once they have let go of being the manager, or changed the names on the land title.
Here are some seeds of encouragement to change reluctance to willingness.
1. Establish what everyone on the farm team really wants.
2. Understand that “head issues” like understanding legal and tax implications may be stalling the creative process for building workable creative scenarios for change that really would work for your unique farm family. Find advisors that make common sense approaches to change work for you.
3. Be aware of your feelings and deep emotions about loss of health, friends, identity, meaning, purpose, passion, all the combined losses that tear you up when you stand in the wheat and watch it wave under the July sun.
4. Think of concrete ways that you can build trust with your spouse, son or daughter and successors. I truly believe that an intentional effort to converse with safety and respect can be the “tipping point” to moving the plans for the next generation into a reality, with deadlines that are adhered to. Ask “What would you like me to do differently?” Then shut your mouth and wait and listen for the answer. It may take some time, but as Susan Scott says “let the silence do the heavy lifting.”
5. Just keep taking the next step. I wrote a book 5 years ago, and I want to compile another one soon, but I’ve forgotten some of the steps. I just need to start the process again and ask for help. Don’t let the complexity of your situation drag you down or freeze your actions, keep taking small actions to build relational capital, trust, and load up the love tank of your family.
Paul Overstreet’s song “If I could bottle this up, I could make a million” makes me smile. He’s talking about the love of a woman and the tonic it brings. I’ve been asked many times for the magic formula to help reluctant farmers let go. There is none.
Each family is a unique blend of special personalities, hopes, dreams, and fears.
Folks all want to love and be loved. They also want to know that their work counts.
Figure out what you really want as you picnic, camp, golf, and ride the range this summer. Then let the rest of your farm team know in a respectful loving way what your intent is as you plan to release the reins of control and take “reluctant” out of your succession story script.