When the last hog loads on the trailer this summer, the Becker brothers will become full-time crop farmers. Chalk it up as just one more transition for a family that has never shied away from change.
The Laddonia, Mo., family represents Farm Journal’s own legacy of commitment to the topic of passing down the farm. Two decades ago, the Becker family wrote asking for the chance to have their family partnership analyzed by a professional consultant.
Our farm is beginning to change from one generation to the next. Dad plans to retire soon; two sons are already farming together; another is interested in coming back and we need to find a fair way to do it. We may need to expand as well.
Another concern is how can we buy the farm when there are seven kids in the family and each owns the same amount of farm shares? There are many questions we need answered, and we also feel we’re missing some important questions.
Tom Becker, Laddonia, Mo.
THAT WAS 1990. Retirements, new partners, marriages, babies and expansion of crop acreage all followed. So did the untimely death of a brother/farming partner to leukemia in 2000.
"I can tie almost every decision and every hurdle we’ve cleared to what was learned through that first transition exercise," Tom Becker says. "It’s not so much that life followed our plan, exactly, but we learned to open up, listen and not be afraid to ask for advice. We are big believers that there are some things worth hiring advisers to get done."
THE PROLOGUE. Darrell Dunteman, the Lewistown, Ill., family business consultant who guided the transition, recalls a family that came to the table on the same page and eager to get the job done. "That really is half the battle," Dunteman says. "Perhaps the Beckers weren’t totally in agreement on what to do, but they wanted it badly enough to be willing to compromise to accomplish the end goal."
Patriarch Anthony Becker came to this Laddonia farm in 1948 as a hired man. He had no idea that two years later he and his brother, Joseph, would become partners with the farm’s owner. By 1960, they owned the place.
When the Becker family sought Farm Journal’s help, Joseph had retired and the farm corporation had agreed to redeem or purchase all the outstanding stock owned by his branch of the family.
Anthony, then 68, and his wife, Betz, were also ready for retirement. They had seen too many family farms destroyed because the parents hung on too long. Sons Tom and John, 30 and 28 at the time, already had control of the farm’s hog business and were champing at the bit to take on more responsibility in other areas of the operation. They were also encouraging their brother, Bill, and his wife, Marcia, to come back to the farm.
Four additional off-farm heirs already owned farms or businesses of their own, but were also stockholders in the home farm.
Joseph Becker’s three children received substantial compensation when surrendering stock upon their father’s retirement, but doing the same for all of Anthony’s children was too much for the farm to handle in 1990.
THE EPILOGUE. Fast-forward 20 years. Tom’s letter today reads:
Our farm is facing a second transition from one generation to the next. My brother and I are currently farming together, but the third generation is beginning to enter the picture.
We have already made the decision to exit the hog business and have been expanding our cropping base. We may need to expand it even further.
We are currently purchasing outstanding shares in our corporation and retiring them. Shares are owned by four off-farm heirs, as well as our late brother’s widow [Marcia] and children. We have engaged professional help to achieve this transition and are involving all parties in negotiations and decisions to avoid conflict.
Tom Becker, Laddonia, Mo.
Tom began taking over the bookkeeping from Marcia this year. She continues to live on the farm and has remarried. Her husband, Steve Van Cleave, is a mechanic at a John Deere dealership and pitches in around the farm when asked. So does Anthony.
Since Anthony and Betz gifted shares of the corporation equally to all seven children, Tom and John face the same situation they did 20 years ago: Off-farm heirs still own more total shares of Becker Brothers Farm Inc., than the children working the farm. A buysell agreement between stockholders protects the corporation, but the brothers want to be fair and avoid any hurt feelings—all without putting the farm at risk.
"We’re working through all of that right now," Tom says. "We are lucky to have siblings that have been and remain patient. They understand that we will pay what we can service."
The brothers are buying only a portion of Marcia’s shares to leave the door open for her two sons to enter the business. Tom and his wife, Delana, have three children who are not interested in returning to the farm. John and wife Cheryl, who purchased the farm home and live there, have two children under 10.
GETTING ALONG. If the mixture of individuals and situations seems complicated to outsiders, it doesn’t bother the Beckers. Those who face tragedy often grasp life with broader understanding.
Bill, who was diagnosed with chronic leukemia as a teenager, held the disease in check for nearly two decades. The energy he brought to the farm during his time as a partner remains a good memory.
"Everyone in this family is proud of this farm," Tom says. "We know that money can be a divisive element and we’ve all worked together to avoid those issues. At the end of the day, we want to sit down together at holidays and celebrate being a family."
Tom and John credit their father and uncle for instilling an attitude of family togetherness. Tom recalls an early lesson that has served him well. "Dad and Uncle Joe always said: Never bring an argument home. You can forgive your brother, but your wife can’t."
You can e-mail Pam Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.