Tips for choosing a successor for the family farm

Trudy Kelly Forsythe
June 08, 2017
By Trudy Kelly Forsythe
Tips for choosing a successor for the family farm
Photo by Fotolia
Choosing a successor is no easy task. While various family members may have ideas about who’s entitled to inherit the farm, the current owners may have very different ideas about who has the skills to keep the farm going in the long run.

Throw blended families and in-laws into the mix and the question of succession may not have any clear-cut answers. And, in some instances, the best successor may come from outside the family. How does one decide?

Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada, advises families to strike the concept of entitlement from discussions about farm transfer. “It is an antiquated concept,” she says. “We need to shift our thinking to taking over the farm as any employer would seek the best candidate for the job.”

So, what factors should an owner consider when choosing a successor? Watson says the farm must consider the necessary skills required to keep the farm healthy for generations to come, whether that skill set is readily available, whether further training is required and how advisory services could be employed. Keep in mind that while skills are important, like with any job, passion is also important.

“It may be worth considering who has the most passion for the job and whether the skills could either be developed or hired in to fulfill the requirements of the farm,” Watson says. “This exercise often requires the current generation to reflect upon what qualities have helped them the most in managing for success and potential areas for improvement that can be worked into grooming successors.”

John Fast, president of Family Enterprise Solutions, recommends doing some competency screening to see who among the potential successors is the most competent.

Start talking
Starting the conversation can be a daunting task for many farmers but they should start long before the successor is chosen. It is best practice for farm families and teams to hold regular business meetings. In fact, Watson says, research shows farm families who hold regular farm business meetings are 21 per cent more profitable.

Watson recommends working the farm transition conversation into the farm business meetings as a key component of business continuity planning.

“While parents might have an idea of who may be best suited to take over the farm, this is a great opportunity for a broader conversation on the skills required to take over the farm, who is best suited, and most importantly, who is up for the job,” she says. “While parents can choose their successor, the next generation also has a choice as to whether they wish to fulfill that role.”

Seek help
The complex nature of farm transition, both from a personal and professional perspective, means it is not a do-it-yourself project. From the personal perspective, there are some important conversations that need to take place concerning who has a place in the future of the farm business. From a professional perspective, transition planning involves getting a read on the current and future business environment, including optimal business structures, in addition to legal and financial advice.

Watson recommends seeking opportunities to learn about farm transition and to understand the process and its distinct parts. Then, she says, seek out a farm business advisor who can serve as a facilitator and bring a multidisciplinary team of experts to the table. The advisor can act as a process leader, bringing the different content expertise into the business as it is needed along the way.

“A farm business advisor, facilitator and/or coach can help the family move through the various topics of discussion revolving around farm transfer,” Watson explains. “This is especially important when there are non-farming siblings and in-laws involved. A facilitator or coach will act as an unbiased third party to help families work through sometimes very personal and emotional conversations.”

Fast agrees the keys are to start early, get help and communicate. “Prepare well and do it in a supportive way,” he says. “Lay a base with your children so they grow up to be healthy and successful. The biggest issue is families do not present issues and problems.”

Fast also agrees that getting professionals involved is a good idea. In addition, he recommends becoming part of a peer group. “Best practices rub off,” he says.

Click here for misconceptions about farm transition planning

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