Organic Broadcaster

Communication is key to successful farm transfer

By Teresa Opheim, Practical Farmers of Iowa

The generational divide can seem especially wide when you’re trying to cross it to secure your farming future. In the course of writing The Future of Family Farms, I heard from many farmers about their experiences and plans for transferring the family farm from one generation to the next. If you’re in the midst of taking over a family farm, here’s some advice to help you bridge the divide for a smoother farm transition.

Before you even say a word, listen. We are often so eager to make our mark that we don’t understand where our elders have been, why they do what they do, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

“Your elders have their way of doing things, and you should try to understand why,” said Francis Tyson (not his real name). Tyson is an organic grain farmer who has been share-cropping land as a tenant, and is also working with his parents to take over the family farm.
Listening sounds easy, but most of us do not do it very well. Instead we start formulating responses in our heads as soon as the other person starts to talk. It might help to think about and write down the specific questions you have for your elders about their farm transfer vision, goals and plans. And write down their answers to read back to them, so you are forced to listen and make sure you heard correctly. Then you also have a record for both parties moving forward.

The Farm Journal Legacy Project has a list of statements you could ask your elders to rank so you better understand their priorities. The statements, which you score from 5 (agree) to 1 (disagree), include:

• Maintaining family ownership of the farm is important.
• Ownership is a privilege, not an entitlement.
• Business success is more important than
family harmony.
• Active family members should receive adequate compensation for their time, commitment and loyalty to the family operation.

After you have listened, only then is it time to share your own vision, goals and plans. What do your elders most need to know about you with respect to farm transfer? Here are some starter questions for you:

  1. Why do you farm/want to farm?
  2. What are your professional short-term and long-range goals?
  3. When you think about taking over the farm, what challenges do you anticipate?
  4. What rewards do you anticipate?
  5. What do you feel best about how the farm transition is going so far?
  6. What do you not feel so good about how the farm transition is going?

It may get easier for you to have these conversations with your elders. Or you might need someone with “no skin” in the game or even a professional facilitator to help, especially if you’re from stoic stock or you have certain family members who tend to dominate the conversation.

As important as what to communicate is how to do it. Is it better to approach your elders while working together in the barn or at a sit-down in the farm office? Does the process go better if you provide a lot of background explanation to warm up to the problem, or is cutting to the chase a more effective way to capture their attention? Do they prefer spelled-out options or are they better with brainstorming? Do they each have different styles?

“For some people, written out, detailed plans and maps help, but some people don’t have any interest in that stuff and the conversation is all that matters,” Tyson explained. “I typically talk to my landlords at least once a week, even in the off season, and practically every day in the busy seasons. Of course it helps that we’re mostly crop share and they still help with the work on the farm. So usually I just bring up my ideas in casual conversation—just put the idea out as a possibility.

“For the more major decisions, like transitioning one of the farms to organic, I gave them field maps and list of the planned crops/acres over the entire transition period. I explained the economics, marketing and whole system I intended to use. Of course this was part of setting up our initial lease so we were already deep into details at that point.”

Remember that change takes time. If someone has been doing something a certain way for a long time, change can be hard; it may seem like you are rejecting the system they took years to develop.

“Getting my dad to change something just takes time—lots and lots of time,” Tyson said. “Usually after a few months to a year of mild prodding, he starts heading the direction I want him to go. Eventually he comes around to see most things my way but sometimes it’s got to seem like it was his idea.”

Remember we often need to hear things several times. “Sometimes my landlords forget what we’ve talked about and what we’ve agreed to. That might work in my favor and sometimes it doesn’t,” Tyson added. “For example, the lease says that we will share lime costs 50-50. When the lime bill came due, they were going to pay all of it. I said ‘no, I’m supposed to pay half of it.’ On the other hand, when it came time to make the lease payment on their machinery, one of them suggested I should pay more ‘for the tractors’ (maybe he thought I used them more than he was expecting because at harvest mine were busy with manure pumping), even though the lease was clear that the use of their tractors was included in the set rate, and I thought I was clear in our conversations that that would be the case.”

Younger people forget important communication as well. Linda Lynch, who farms with her family in Central Iowa, has been surprised that her children don’t remember the significant decisions she and husband Bob have told them about their farm transfer plans. “Early and often” is the mantra for family communication. Surprises are often the thing that tears families apart the most.

Leave your sense of entitlement at the barn door. The sentiment “the old man just needs to get out of the way” is rude and crude. Plus it isn’t accurate: Until they decide otherwise, the farming business and land are Mom’s and Dad’s (or Uncle’s or Neighbor’s), and as the younger generation, it may be yours someday—but not yet.

“I have a sibling who thinks that because our dad and his siblings own the farm, he owns it, too,” said one southwest Iowa farmer. “I agree that it’s Dad and Mom’s money and land to do with as they see fit or use if needed for long-term care. I currently rent half of my family farm and hope/plan to have a portion passed down to me someday. However, I also know there is always a chance none may be left when the generation changes again. There is no guarantee. I am thankful for the opportunity to farm what is available, and will continue working towards owning my own farm someday.” Amen.

Finally, focus on what matters most. Many families who thought they got along well have later split over who gets the farm and what that farm business will look like in the future. As one farmland owner told me, “To inherit farmland and a farm business is nice. To grow up feeling loved and having learned important lessons is wonderful—a blessing.”

Don’t let farm transitions make you lose sight of the blessings you’ve been given.

Teresa Opheim directs the Farm Transfer Program for Practical Farmers of Iowa. 

From the January | February 2017 Issue


Farm Journal Legacy

Land for Good
List of questions for the younger generation to answer to start the conversation with the older generation:

Practical Farmers of Iowa
Worksheet, template and many farmer profiles:

Farm Transition
Resources on all aspects of farm transfer:



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