Friday, July 3, 2015

Relieving the watch 
(Part 1 of 2)

March 1998

Succession on the farm is an emotional event for all involved. Because farmers strongly identify with their work, yielding control changes more than just who makes the decisions, it changes where we stand in our families and communities, what status we enjoy, and how much we are respected. Or so we often think.

The problem is becoming more pronounced because of recent developments in both the economics and culture of American agriculture. These circumstances have made traditional succession practices at best less effective, and at worst, threatening to the health of both the family and the farm.

First, succession is occurring later in farm careers. An anecdote is told of three old farmers talking at an auction. Two of them were classmates long ago. As they relive the past, the third farmer wanders off. One friend says to the other, “Bill, when are you going to retire? You and me are the same age and I quit six years ago. What are you waiting for?” His friend nods in the direction of the third elderly man standing nearby and says, “As soon as Dad quits, I can.”

When I tell this story at farm meetings, I watch the crowd. Some laugh. A few older farmers scowl. And many middle-aged farmers nod ever so slightly.

Farmers are living longer and healthier than ever. The idea of stepping aside may not occur to them if they don’t feel old and worn out - and most don’t! Cabs, heated shops and similar amenities eliminate many former obstacles. Nature doesn’t end as many careers as it used to.

Second, farms are larger. Your farm has probably been forced to grow to be competitive and provide the expected living standards. In short, we are not talking about handing over the reins to the family mule, but the executive authority for a significant enterprise.

Third, a successful farm is no small feat today, and current operators feel a justifiable pride of  achievement in their businesses. This close association unfortunately leads many to wonder how it could possibly continue without them in control. While infuriatingly patronizing to following generations, it is not a mean-spirited motive for maintaining control as long as possible. 

Above all, “stepping down” is seen as precisely that - a downward move in status, an acceptance of a lesser position. When this also involves yielding that authority to someone whose mistakes you know by heart (your child) the decision seems almost foolish. The natural tension between successive generations doesn’t help either. 

Letting go of control can also be interpreted as confirming publicly what you probably have been suspecting - you are slowing down or even losing capabilities. Even if you don’t think that, maybe you feel others will. 

Making any change at all is easy to postpone. Personal power over your life usually is greatest the day before you quit. So nobody can tell you to retire, often not even your doctor or spouse.

These subtle factors often complicate farm succession more than capital gains or buyout valuations. When the feelings of more family members are added (especially those off-farm), the succession process can bog down.

Maybe there is a better way for parents and children to go about this necessary step. More than a matter of contracts, agreements and structure, perhaps a different philosophical model to follow could help.

Philosophical considerations do matter. How we think about values in this profession impacts what we do - from buying land to cash rent to confinement livestock. And these are the very issues that seem to be giving us great difficulty as a profession.

Transferring executive power to a son or daughter need not be about manly vigor, or family respect, or mental capacity, or any of a dozen other “selfish steam” issues. It is about placing the enormous responsibilities of running a successful operation on the most capable shoulders. It is also about understanding our place in time, family and community.

As a young man in the Navy, I learned a different process to transfer command - the change of command for ship captains. Rather than a power struggle, the change was a matter of keeping the best people in the right places. When I think of farm succession, I like to compare it to this change: Relieving the Watch

It is the image of the oncoming, fresh watchstander bringing relief from duty, not seizing control, that I find most compelling. It contains elements of honor, commitment, respect, and closure that are often missing. 

Most crucial is a commitment to the “ship”. I used to think the analog was the farm - that preserving the farm operation was the highest goal. I have learned otherwise: that in order to preserve a family farm, you must first preserve the family. 

If committed to this common goal, the transition - relieving the watch - can be a celebrated milestone for all, viewed positively by the family and community. The actual process I will outline in another column.

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