That's right, farm succession is not an event, like going to the Dentist's office - something you probably do only when you have a tooth ache that has beaten out your usual remedies. Farm succession should be more of a life style. It should start early, is adjusted often, and be constantly in focus.
Needless to say farm succession is typically about developing leaders and managers from within your immediate family to own and run the farm in the future. That may not be your situation though. You may have a nephew or neighbor who will fill the role of your successor. My comments below are still valid - the matters of ownership transfer should be taken up with your professional advisors.
For most of you figuring out which or if one or more of your kids will be part of the farm's future is job #1. Historically farmers have taken one of two approaches with their offspring when it comes to determining who's going to run the place in the next generation.
Some choose their potential successor very early, based on their seeming interest in the farm - in the actions of farming such as riding the tractor on their daddy's knee as soon as they could sit up. Or they take a hands-off approach, maybe even encouraging their kids to choose a different profession as a result of this apparent disinterest.
In the glamorous world of the 21st century, along with all the cool things their kids are learning at their consolidated high schools - it's easy to see how the farmer might feel unable to compete, to the point that they unconsciously push away all but those who show the greatest interest in farming.
What a tragedy! Today being a successful farmer is a lot more than being able to handle the actual chores associated with your day to day activities. It is about global competition, government regulation, Internet marketing, financial management and every other business technique and strategy we can think of.
Being able to plow straight rows, mow into the corners, haul water, and fix fences is important - but they are not the key components you are looking for in your successor are they?
My observations have demonstrated that both the hands-off approach or the early recognition of interest in the act of farming are huge mistakes. Time and time again I have seen people leave the farm who should have stayed. And I have seen them return after years working off the farm to try and recapture years of lost momentum.
Farmers should be more aggressive from the very beginning when trying to identify and motivate future successors, especially considering the many ways the younger generation can be involved in the farm operation today - even without living there, rather than leaving the outcome to chance.
Don't let them overlook the important opportunity that being part of a successful farm operation offers! Ok, so maybe it's not about the big paycheck from some important company, it is however a chance to accomplish something that will be around long after they're gone, a chance to expand the business as a continuing symbol of your families accomplishments, and something they will own they can pass to those who follow them. This is no a dream, this is a reality.
One farm succession myth I've heard talked about by the experts is that you should never talk about business problems at the dinner table. That assumes everyone sits down under their framed Norman Rockwell cover from the Saturday Evening Post and listens attentively as dad complains about his day.
In reality successful farmers take every opportunity, whether it's at the rare family dinner or in the pickup going through the McDonald's drive-through, to talk about the problems and challenges of farming - always looking for input and ideas they may not have considered or knew about and forgot. You'll be amazed how a 12 year old can ask questions that will bring you up short and bingo the light goes on.
These successful farmers make talking about the farm a never-ending story. They bring others into the conversation early and often, report how their last suggestions turned out, and show how they value the opinions of there children no matter how young they are.
In so doing they unleash the power, creativity, and imagination of these energetic youngsters - people not bound up with the presumptions of what will and what won't work.