Farm owners work hard to build and maintain a farm. Often the farm has been in the family for generations. Years of sweat equity has been put into the land and farm operation. But what happens when the next generation isn’t interested in keeping the farm?
Naturally, it is easy to assume your heirs want to keep the farm “in the family.” But it is important that you avoid assumptions and have the tough conversations.
Have an open and honest conversation with your children about the future of the farm.
Ask direct questions, with no pressure or guilt.
Work out a plan with them for the future of the farm.
Get outside help, if needed.
Too often, farm families do not follow these steps and the final outcome ends in bitterness. As a trust officer, I have been involved in situations where I have seen the bitterness come from the lengthy process, when some are anxious for their inheritance (money) while others are upset because they wanted to keep the farm or have more control over the final use of the land.
The reasons for the bitterness are diverse. The intensity of the bitterness can be as shocking as it is common. Even in families with only one or two children, bitterness over what was left undone in settling or running the estate/trust is common. Settling even a simple estate comes with its stressors.
As farm owners work through the estate planning process I encourage you to think about these important facts:
- Each of your children have unique desires and needs.
- They have a different perspective.
- Their hopes, dreams and future plans may be different than what you have for them.
- The world is a different place than when you first began farming the land.
Baby boomers and earlier generations tended to live in the same area where they grew up. Jobs were plentiful in general and there wasn’t a large need to move.
Boomers can be very confused by younger generations and a seeming lack of dedication to the past, including the hard work put into building the farm into what it is today. Older generations tended to sacrifice family time for building financial security.
Your children (born after 1960) have adulted in a very different environment. Jobs are not as secure as the previous generations. Employers change direction, leaving younger generations without a job which makes them need career flexibility. Companies are sold and bought with amazing regularity. We hear that Gen X and Millennial generations aren’t dedicated to an employer like Baby Boomers and older generations were. The fact is that most employers aren’t as dedicated to their employees as they were in the past. As a result, an adult child may need flexibility (and cash) over the tradition of keeping the farm in the family.
Added to this equation, some in the younger generations prioritize family time and place a high priority on job flexibility. Owning, operating or managing a farm is not flexible.
Even if a child is not currently working on the farm, it is wise to discuss their desires, financial situation, and skills sets as they relate to farming and/or farm ownership. There is a chance that their current situation and goals might not align with your desire to pass the farm operation and ownership to them.
In situations where your children have made it clear they don’t intend to farm, does that mean they don’t want to deal with farm ownership? No it doesn’t, but it might.
If not having the time to work on the farm or manage the farm is an issue with your adult children, find out what the concerns are. Is there some type of training you can provide to make the future transition earlier?
In agriculture, it is common that parents do not let their children in on the inner workings (including financial) of the farm. Do they know how to deal with a farm lease when you are gone? Do they know how to read a soil test? Would they know what to discuss with a farm manager?
Ask yourself, do they have the time and interest needed to navigate the rapidly changing agriculture industry? Talk to your kids openly and listen to understand all sides.
No matter what you end up deciding about the estate plan, discussing your estate plans with your family is the No. 1 thing you must do to help minimize future frustration and bitterness for your heirs. Giving your children and/or heirs “ownership” by hearing them during your decision-making process and making decisions accordingly will likely reduce frustrations even more.
There are a lot of positive reasons to encourage your descendants to keep the farm. Owning farmland over the decades has been a very good “investment,” but so have other investments. Maybe it’s time to fit the farm’s future into your children’s lives by asking them what they want rather than just making the farm theirs for their disposal and possible frustration.
Open the discussion with your children. Don’t let your desires or assumptions cause undue stress on you or them. Don’t “guilt” them into keeping a farm after you are gone or promising to keep the farm just to appease you or grandpa’s mantra “never sell the farm.” Talk to them. Work out what you can ahead of time. Do what you can to avoid bitterness in your family after you are gone. Talk it out.
Kevin Brooks is the farm business management and marketing educator for Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties in Illinois. He grew up on a corn and hog farm in Iowa. He has professionally managed and consulted on over 25,000 acres of farmland and marketed grain for farm management customers.