Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How To Grow A Legacy Of Family Farming

June 6, 2011

Out in farm and ranch country, the land and the work have a powerful grip on people. The risks are great. The work is compelling. The lifestyle is rewarding. The autonomy is exhilarating.

Timing is everything. It is tough to allow someone else to take over the reins. It takes trust, good communications and a willingness to give up some control. How decisions and management are shared affects the competence and opportunities of the next generation and the generations to come.

The timing of shared management decisions determines to a large extent a growing legacy of family farming versus attrition and eventual demise of the farm within the family.

Letfs take two families, with opposite styles of control. Letfs call one family Mr. and Mrs. Farmer Brown and the other Mr. and Mrs. Farmer Jones.

The lone ranger. Farmer Brown is 55. His father just died at age 86. The old man stayed right in the saddle until he died. He didnft ease off a bit. He had a reputation for being a hard-nosed workaholic. He was a headstrong and plain spoken man. Some might say demanding and overbearing. He was tough, tough as rawhide. He took few risks and avoided debt.

When he was growing up, Farmer Brown and his brothers learned not to open their mouths or make mistakes. Dad would lose his temper and unload on them. He checked and double checked on their work.

Farmer Brownfs brothers left, not wanting much to do with the old man or the farm. Farmer Brown now has a son in his 20s who wants to farm. There is no available equity for expansion.

Farmer Brown is now in charge and with his fatherfs death, is getting his crack at calling his own shots. He repeats the same autocratic style that he had to deal with over the years. Through the generations, only one son from each generation has stayed in farming, taking over the home place when his father died.

The more, the merrier. Now letfs consider Farmer Jones. Like Farmer Brown he is 55. He has been farming his own land for more than 30 years. He also farms in a larger operation with two brothers and their families.

They share equipment, labor and management in their joint operation. Their communications are open and freewheeling. Each works hard to see the big picture and make decisions that benefit the farm operation as a whole.

Farmer Jones has been a leader in the community and has participated on several boards. Together, Mr. and Mrs. Jones enjoy an active social life with friends, church service and hobbies.

Farmer Jonesf father was a warm, generous man. He retired on the place and eased into a role of helping his son when he was needed. He and his wife were active in square dancing. They took several trips to visit. They liked to travel and see new places.


Farmer Jones remembers his father being a loving and patient father when teaching farming skills. Farmer Jones was given many opportunities to make decisions and mistakes from boyhood on. His father asked him his opinion and took his ideas into account.

Early expansion. His father took some risks and expanded his operation so that there would be enough land and enterprise opportunity for each of his children who wanted to farm. When his sons and their families joined the operation, he made it possible for them to move into lease agreements and land purchases of their own. Decisions were made by consensus after plenty of give-and-take.

The long term interests of the farm and each family were taken into consideration. Farmer Jonesf parents built up non-farm equity to insure fairness for the non-farming heirs and to preserve the operational viability of the farm for the active farm families.

Good communication. Now Farmer Jones has three sons who are part of a joint operation. There is plenty of management responsibility and challenge for each of them. The families meet in regularly held and family business meetings.

Each family gains equity through farming their own ground as well as contributing and benefitting from the partnership. While only in their late 20's, Farmer Jonesf children have reputations for being knowledgeable and astute farmers.

Farmer Jones and his wife are looking forward to retirement in a few years. He is already starting to pull back in a few areas. Each of his offspring knows the estate plan as it stands and how they will be affected.

Altogether, seven of grandfather Jonesf sons and grandsons are actively engaged in farming. Their operations are solid and do well in good times and bad.

What is the difference between the two families? Why did one family barely hang on from one generation to the next while the other seemed to improve their foothold in agriculture in numbers of farm households and control of land?

The difference was in the 1) management of human resources and 2) the skill and trust with which they communicated. The Jones family 3) shared common goals and 4) prepared their children to assume management responsibility early in their farming careers.

The parents 5) actively shared control and decision-making with their partner families coming aboard. This attitude of cooperation and shared management made 6) a much more productive and aggressive farming operation that covers a lot of ground.