One Big Happy Family

July 5, 2011 10:53 AM
One Big Happy Family

How to make room at the table for multiple owners.

Working alongside multiple generations on a family farm is rewarding—and challenging. Knowing that there is a new generation coming up in the ranks solidifies all of the hard work of previous generations.

"Multigeneration family farms generally go through stages," acknowledges Dick Wittman, a family business consultant who also farms in a multigenerational partnership near Culdesac, Idaho. "The first generational transfer is easy and the second is generally manageable, but the third stage involving siblings and cousins requires the leadership to conduct some robust discussions that often get ignored," he says.

Meet three families who know a thing or two about involving multiple generations on the farm or ranch.

Leavens Ranches

An impressive 26 family members and three generations currently co-own the Leavens family fruit groves located in the Santa Clara River Valley, Calif. Two more generations wait in the wings to add their names to the ownership roles.

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"Each family branch bestows ownership differently, but generally, if you are a blood relative and 18 years old, you own a piece of this business," says Leslie Leavens-Crowe. Carefully drawn partnership and buy-sell agreements form the framework of this complex farming relationship, but it is a strong commitment to family that makes it work.

"For us, this farm is a conduit to keep family bonds strong," she says. "Other families talk about succession of the farm, we talk about succession of the family."

A nine-member "cousin generation" is primarily responsible for overseeing the Leavens Ranches, which involve 1,000-plus acres of lemons, avocados and grapes planted on six different ranches. Three managers—Leavens-Crowe, her brother, Link Leavens, and their cousin, David Schwabauer—handle the day-to-day operations.

The ranch office is housed in what was once their grandparents’ Victorian-era home. From her office window, Leavens-Crowe can see the trees she used to skinny as a kid. The thrill of working there stays sweet and satisfying. "We are committed to remaining a family in farming," she says.

Knowing that each successive generation could easily grow further away from the farm, the family sponsors its own summer camp. Camp Mary, named for an aunt, teaches those 13 and under about family heritage and why these trees matter. Older children have the opportunity to intern on the farm during the summer months. "It’s all about the importance of cousining," Leavens-Crowe says.

An annual family reunion draws nearly 50 family members to the ranch from across the nation. A monthly newsletter and semi-annual business meetings help communicate the farm’s policy of full disclosure of finances and management decisions.

Family members wishing to work on the ranch are required to obtain a college degree in agriculture or a related field and have three years’ work experience.

Mason Dixon Farm

In 1780, Pennsylvania’s founding father, William Penn, deeded a homestead to the Waybright family. Seventh-generation Horace and Richard, now in their 80s, have stepped back from the operation, allowing eighth-generation sons Jeffrey, Doyle, Bert, Alan and Joel to take over the reins of Mason Dixon Farm.

"Old geezers like us should have retired before we did because we have sons now approaching the age of 60," Richard says. Though the eighth-generation sons have been active managers since returning from college, the older generation probably should have gotten out of their way a decade sooner.

The Waybrights milk 2,500 cows, 1,100 of which are milked by robots in two specially designed robotic friendly, tunnel-ventilated barns. The family also sells 600 to 800 dairy heifers each year. Plus, it farms 3,000 acres in Pennsylvania and Maryland, just a few miles south of the historic Gettysburg Battlefield.

"Technology on today’s farms is more than any one person can handle," Richard says. To that end, the ninth generation of Waybright lineage—Hannah, Lance, Tyler, Aaron and Owen—are becoming much more involved in the operation.

This ninth generation is coming out of college smarter than ever, Richard says, and will be key to adopting new technology to move the operation forward.

To guard against inward thinking, the Waybrights have added a nonrelated, outside member, a professor from Virginia Tech, to their board of directors. This person has full voting rights but no ownership. The Mason Dixon Farm Board meets monthly to review financial performance and make decisions.

But key to success, Richard believes, is that each senior member of the management team has responsibility for one area. "That way, they can specialize in what they do best, hire the people they need and manage those people in that specialty," he says.

Rob A. Brown Ranch

Rob A. Brown was reared on a Texas ranch that has been in his family since 1895, but his entrepreneurial spirit led him to expand his own operation in order to ensure that his children and future generations have the chance to continue in the family business.

On Talley and Rob A. Brown’s ranch in Texas, all of their seven children help out with the daily chores, even six-year-old Ike. PHOTO: Amy Brown

He’s still actively involved in the 40,000-acre R.A. Brown Ranch that is owned by him and his wife, Talley; his parents, R.A. "Rob" and Peggy; his sisters, Betsy and Marianne, and their husbands, Jody and Todd; his brother Donnell and his wife, Kelli; and 17 grandchildren.

Like Rob A. and his family, each family operates its own businesses, but the ranches rely on the expertise of each family unit to thrive. For example, Donnell and Kelli manage a seed stock business, and Rob A. and Jody have developed a few partnerships, including stocker cattle, for which Jodi grows wheat.

"We are blessed to be able to work together separately for one common goal," Rob A. says.
In the past 10 years, Rob A. and Talley have purchased and inherited ranches to expand their commercial cattle and quarter horse operation, which is headquartered in Hutchinson County, Texas. Their planning and business savvy is paying off: Their oldest son, RA, is now managing one of the ranches that was inherited from Talley’s family.

"I feel so fortunate that our son will be able to start his family on land that was my father’s," Talley says.


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