A Season of Transitions

July 5, 2011 10:34 AM
A Season of Transitions

by Russell Redding,
former Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture

Without a formal plan, it’s a battle to keep the farm.

While growing up on a family dairy farm in Gettysburg, Pa., my brothers and I had a solid routine: milking and chores each morning, school or church, then field or barn work and milking again at night. We were able to fit in some FFA activities, but there wasn’t a lot of deviation from the schedule. If we overslept, which meant past 4:30 a.m., Dad would remind us we were needed in the barn. Typically, this came in the form of him calling from the bottom of the stairs, "Are you boys going to sleep all day?"

As my 10 siblings and I grew, roles shifted. I clearly remember my first day on milking duty. It sounds like a cliché, but it was a turning point in my life. I had "graduated" to milker from other chores, and it confirmed for me that I wanted to be a dairy farmer. There was no doubt that I would one day come back to the farm.

In college, everything was on track until my junior year, when Dad unexpectedly passed away. Suddenly 11 of us, plus some spouses, were trying to figure out what to do with a farm that all of us liked but only a few wanted to operate.

After graduation, I moved to New York to work in the dairy industry, and a year later headed back to Pennsylvania to help on the farm. It became clear early on that if my wife, Nina, and I were going to realize our dream, we would have to start our own dairy on a rented farm with our only assets—the cows.

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Five years later, we made the hardest decision of our lives and exited the dairy industry. We found new ways to be involved in agriculture: Nina became a frontline supporter of agriculture as a teacher and Extension educator, and I forged a career as a public servant in the state capitol and later the nation’s Capitol as a policy adviser to a U.S. senator. From 2009 to 2011, I had the chance to help shape state agriculture policy as the Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture.

Without a plan. Looking back, I can see that without a formal transition plan for our family’s dairy, we were fighting an uphill battle to keep the farm in production agriculture. I am pleased that our family farm is one of the more than 4,000 preserved farms in Pennsylvania, but there is no doubt that my heart remained on the farm a lot longer than the cows did.

This story is not unique to my family. Many farm families struggle with managing an asset that is part family legacy and part independent business operation. Crafting a transition plan with the folks that you asked to pass you the mashed potatoes at dinner is no small task. Starting the conversation about transition can be awkward and painful, but it is critical.

Knowing what I do about our family’s transition challenges, this is a very personal topic for me. In 2006, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture launched the Center for Farm Transitions to provide information, insight and professional resources to farmers looking to enter or exit production agriculture.

For five years, we saw the need for this transition assistance grow, with more farm families interested in starting the conversation about transition. While we valued the personal meetings we had, we couldn’t reach every family or meet over every kitchen table.

Just as my family needed to take the next step in the conversation about our farm, we as a department needed to look at the future and how we could best serve the state’s 63,000 farms.

A helping hand. Our farms—and our food, fiber and fuel supply—are here because each and every day families honor the commitment that they have made to themselves, their community and even their lenders to be a part of this noble industry. Our challenge in Pennsylvania became how to leverage our limited resources in a way that we could support the farm families who wanted to enter the transition conversation.

This past December, Pennsylvania became the first state to host its own Legacy Project Workshop with Farm Journal Media. More than 225 farm family members came to Harrisburg to start the conversation about transitioning their farms. It was an impressive group to meet with: Some families in the audience represented the 10th generation on their farm. This is unheard of in some parts of the country, but reflective of the strong agrarian heritage we have in Pennsylvania.

A few decades ago, my family struggled with the decisions related to farm transition. Thanks to this personal challenge, I had the opportunity later in life to help other farm families avoid the issues we faced.

Prepare for the Unexpected

Most of us still remember grade school fire or tornado drills. Even the most unruly children ultimately learned the protocols of where to go and what to do in the event of an emergency.

Farm family businesses would do well to mimic these early teachings and build contingency plans for significant life changes or setbacks, says Bonnie Brown Hartley, president of Transition Dynamics Inc., a Florida consulting firm specializing in family business transitions.

Planning what to do in the event of a sudden death or life-threatening illness isn’t something people look forward to. "Too often, we avoid asking ‘what-if’ questions," Hartley says. "Once people get over the shock of imagining such a thing, they realize the urgency for contingency planning to prepare for the impact of loss."

Fact versus emotion. Dick Wittman, a rancher and family business consultant in Culdesac, Idaho, knows firsthand that prior planning can provide comfort during difficult times. His own family and farm business has weathered disability, death and divorce. "It’s impossible to traverse multiple generations without encountering some life-changing events," Wittman says.

The Wittman family first designed a contingency plan after a family member became disabled years ago. The plan has helped the family work through other changes and multiple generational transfers.

"No one is ever ready for a tragic event, but the farm business doesn’t wait for you to recover. Livestock still need to be fed and crops have to be planted. The plan of action allowed us to move forward with decisions based on fact rather than emotions," Wittman says.

Get started. Leslie Dashew, president of the Human Side of Enterprise in Scottsdale, Ariz., says family firms are more apt to consider what will happen if the main decision maker or elder generation is disabled, dies or disappears. "But it’s equally important to create plans that consider spouses and children," she says.

Dashew suggests you start by determining a shared vision for the family enterprise. "Once you have a shared dream, you can start to think about the range of emergencies, obstacles or threats that might challenge that vision," she says.

She encourages every family business partner to build a binder that contains the factual information needed to make critical decisions at a time of grief. "Mine includes all copies of my credit cards; passwords; insurance policies; wills; financial statements; and home and vehicle titles," she says. "Keep the information updated, and make sure other family members know it exists and where it is located."

—Pam Smith

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