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Transitioning the farm: keeping your family's legacy alive

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Family farm transitions are complex from a legal and financial standpoint. But the emotional complexity and interpersonal relationships inherent within these transitions are often what throw off even the most well-meaning intentions.

To reduce stress for the outgoing and incoming farming generations, keep reading. This article discusses common pressures that tend to arise during a farming transition and the actions you can take to help the process go as smoothly as possible.

Considerations for the older or "owner" generation 

Current estimates indicate that about 70 percent of American farmland will change hands within the next two decades. This means that if you're a farm or ranch owner, there's a good chance your family's future generations will soon be stepping up in a major way.

But while it can be incredibly rewarding to witness a farming family legacy continue, the outgoing generations of older farmers often deal with several challenges during such a transition. These challenges include:

  • Changes to their sense of self and purpose. No longer playing a major role in the day-to-day and big-picture farming operations can create an existential crisis for the outgoing generation. If I'm not farming, what is my purpose? If I'm not a farmer, who am I? Questions like these can be uncomfortable to grapple with and may spark a painful identity crisis. In addition, transitioning a farm demands that the outgoing generation lets go, which can stir up grief and loss.
  • Age-related physical and cognitive decline. Due to chronic health conditions and even the normal effects of aging, many older farmers begin to struggle with cognitive and physical duties that they used to be able to do with ease—from making financial decisions to operating heavy machinery. Unfortunately, these changes might start to happen before they're ready to transition the farm to the next generation, which can lead to difficult confrontations with concerned family members. 
  • End-of-life considerations. As with many retirees, older farmers who have handed off their farms to the next generation often feel suddenly confronted by the reality of their impending mortality. They may feel as if they're just "waiting to die" now that they're not farming anymore—especially if they are struggling to figure out their new identity and role within the business and family. 
  • Concerns about the next generation's success. Some older farmers have a perception that the younger generation isn't as willing as they were to make sacrifices. They may have doubts over changes that the new generation wants to introduce into farming operations. The older generation may even feel worried or guilty about the farm debt that has been passed down as a result of the transition—in addition to having concerns about their own financial needs and their ability to live the way they want in retirement.


Considerations for the incoming generation

A family farm transition can be just as exciting and intense for the incoming generation as it is for the outgoing generation. After all, the incoming generations are poised to continue their family's legacy and may have many great ideas on how do to that! But this doesn't mean they don't face challenges, too. These challenges might include: 

  • Balancing family life and farm life. This is especially true if the younger generation doesn't live on the farm, if they have other careers outside of farming and if they have non-farming siblings who are wondering how the changing of hands will affect them.
  • Initiating change. Many younger farmers are more interested in things like innovative technologies, marketing strategies, new farming practices and other industry changes compared to older farmers. Younger farmers may also be more risk-tolerant than their older, more risk-averse counterparts, all of which can create a power struggle between the outgoing and incoming generations.
  • Gaining confidence and clarity. It can take time during a transition for the incoming generation of agricultural owners to feel confident and clear about their roles. They may be confused about what decisions they can make and when and how they fit into the changing culture. It's also common to have anxieties about how they are going to keep the farm operation solvent and support their families, including their retired parents.
  • Communication difficulties. Communicating effectively with a business partner who also happens to be a family member can be hard enough. But when that family member begins to exhibit signs of physical and cognitive decline, it can put the younger generation in an unfamiliar position. Telling a loved one you don't think it's safe for them to operate heavy equipment anymore can be immensely uncomfortable, even if it's the right thing to do!


Strategies that can help while transitioning your farming or ranching operation

No matter who is taking over your farm—whether the next generation in your family or an outside party—you can help ease the transition and yours by utilizing some sound strategies. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Everyone deserves a place at the table. This means the whole family needs to meet regularly in order to ensure there is a structured and agreed-upon plan for the upcoming transition. Making sure all parties (including spouses) have the opportunity to make their voices heard will help avoid delays, derailments and frustrations.
  • Get clear about everyone's new roles. Regular and structured family meetings—along with any necessary legal documents—also help determine and define each family member's new roles, both during and after the transition. This ensures that everyone understands who is taking over what responsibilities, which is huge for preventing conflict and avoiding unnecessary redundancy or confusion. 
  • Work with a consultant. A good support team—which may include a lawyer, accountant, counselor, farm business manager or other third-party consultant—can help you navigate the legal and financial complexities of farm transitions as well as the emotional and relational complexities, too. Consultants can help clarify the family's roles and responsibilities, facilitate negotiations and compromises and optimize interpersonal communication.
  • Set a realistic time frame. Transitions that don't progress as quickly as intended can churn up a lot of frustration and confusion. Avoid this by being realistic about how long a transition may take for your family, and be sure to break the larger time frame down into shorter-term goals and action steps to keep you all on track. 
  • Be respectful. You're a business—but you're a family first. Always do your best to treat each other with respect and act in ways that help you strengthen your bonds. During family group meetings, be sure to ask: what are our family's goals and values? What does legacy mean? What does the farm to mean to our family and our community? How can we honor the older generations who have dedicated their lives to this operation? Consider asking the outgoing generation to share old photos and stories—or throw some sort of celebration honoring the important role they've played on the farm!


Are you preparing to transition your farm to the next generation? 

We all need support from time to time, especially when we are going through any major life change. If you're thinking about transitioning your farm or ranch to the next generation, our team at the Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI) can help. Reach out today to learn about the counseling and other resources we offer, or connect with SIU Medicine to find a doctor with any other wellness concerns.

Karen Leavitt Stallman
Ag Resource Specialist

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