“I wasn’t able to talk for over two years about what happened with my grandfather”, a young farmer confides as he describes a bitter battle over the transition of land titles from his father’s father to him.
I am concerned about the many threads of conversations across farm audiences this winter that weave a sad tale of loss, grief and exasperation with those farmers who are over eighty and are not finishing their farming careers well.
Leaving a lasting legacy as a farmer is not just about money and land. It also involves how you wish to be remembered for your character, and how you want to resolve conflicts before your passing. Do you want a family tree that is broken, or flourishing? Do you realize that the next generation and the younger farmers are just as passionate about being a great farmer as you were in your late twenties?
What is stopping you from gifting and transferring with a warm hand, an open generous hand on top, rather than a clenched fist?
I have my hunches.
1. Money equals security. You are afraid that you will not have enough to live on for the next 20 years, even though you have $500K in the bank, and shares in the company. You aren’t even enjoying the wealth you have now because your health keeps you housebound.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had something when he said , “your health is your wealth.”
Your pension income, your debt free living, and your personal wealth will keep you going. Why not transfer those farm assets and see the pride of ownership shine on your grandson’s face? Great family relationships ensure that even is you are close to dying broke, your loved ones will not “put you out on the street…or gravel road !”
2. Losing control is hard. Your friends are all dying and you certainly cannot control that. Facing death is hard for you, so you deny the invitations to update wills, and invoke the Power of Attorney that will protect your affairs with your trusted advisor now. Is holding on for you the only thing that gives you a sense of power and control over your own destiny? Yikes. I would choose to be rich in relationship over being a lonely land baron any day. Families are supposed to be a sanctuary of love and nurture, not nasty fight centers of conflict avoidance and deep hurt.
How about extending the hand of forgiveness and forging a new reconciled chapter in your family? How about dying without any regrets?
3. Hard times could happen again. You recall the depression as a young person who struggled. You are proud of the wealth you have built. You might sense that others see you as greedy, but you don’t care anymore. Your heart is so hardened that not even your wife’s pleading for family connection and harmony can get you to budge. Your word rules the day. You think interest and debt is evil, but do you realize that transfer of assets to your son, daughter, and grandchildren, could be a big boost to debt servicing capacity of the next generation. Your young grandchild can get young farmer rebates and loans that he or she can manage. They weren’t born in the early eighties to remember high interest rates, but they are financially astute and smart managers. Please trust them !
4. Communication is hard to restart once broken. You are desperate to have some form of communication, but unfortunately the chaotic conversations of TV sitcoms replace the voices of your family members.
We honour the fact that you have worked hard, struggled, and overcome many of the stresses of agriculture. We don’t see workaholism and family dictatorship as a badge of honour. The younger generation is much more collaborative in their approach. If do not wish to help them get started in building equity with transfer of your asset, they will seek non-family joint venture partners.
5. Character and legacy. What do you want written on your headstone? How would you like to be remembered? Are there special possessions like a gun collection, tools, or cars that you might like to share stories about with your beneficiaries? There is a song that says “when it is all said and done, things will just not matter.”
Pinball Clemons spoke to the Canadian Young Farmers Forum 2012 AGM, and he said farmers are super heroes. He also noted that strong healthy families are the foundation of everything else going right in the world. Our rural towns need strong families and farm businesses in order to be sustainable and thrive. Imagine if every farmer in their eighties took their legacy to heart, and did the things to finish well.
What would it look like to have grandparents celebrating the success of their farming children and grandchildren?
6. It is not all or nothing. Wealth can be transferred in stages, but a plan needs to be legally binding and well thought out for tax planning and meeting expectations of all generations. It is not a “you win, I lose” type of scenario. There are many creative options available when you use a great team of advisors who understand your intent and why you are making or avoiding certain decisions. Farmers are fiercely independent entrepreneurs. The new crop of leaders is going to use a collaborative approach, team up with non-family and seek out new innovation.
7.It is not cool to be a laggard. Remember how good it felt to finally get that new or “gently used” piece of equipment to make your farm tasks easier and be more efficient in your work? The folks who seek new tools early are called the early adaptors, and they are the ones that see profits first, long before the laggards, the last ones to change or even know what happened. Be cool. Be someone who is ahead of the game, rather than the unwise one who is left behind . Use common sense and your wisdom of your years, to be adaptable and trust your team of advisors to help you finish your farming career well.
8. There is still a place for you on the farm. You will never fully retire from farming, but your role as you age is now different. Take on the position of an elder mentor. Be the fellow who folks like to come for a historical perspective on how to be resilient, and yet practically optimistic about the future of agriculture.
I have some very wise, well-balanced over seventy farm coach clients. I just wish I could clone their skills and personalities to inject a sense of hope for those younger farmers who are feeling so stuck with a grandparent that refuses to finish well.
What is your choice going to be? Choose to resolve conflict and leave a great farm family legacy.