Who will lead your farm after you?

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How much time do you think company leaders should spend developing the next generation of leadership?

The question was posed in a business e-mail that I opened, skimmed and deleted in 5 seconds.

But when the tallied responses were e-mailed a week later, I paused to consider the answers. Of the 1,602 respondents, 57 percent had answered “10 percent to 25 percent of their time.” Another 27 percent answered “more than 25 percent of their time.”

Looking at a ballpark 50-hour work week, that’s five hours a week on the low end and at least 12 1/2 hours a week on the high end.

How much do farm business leaders or farmers spend developing the next generation of leaders? Oh, um, probably about 1 percent or less.

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s not that farm owners don’t care about the future of their farms. It can’t be. They didn’t work all their lives to build up their farms, without caring how the operation might continue without them. So what’s up?

Maybe we don’t want to think of our mortality, or of retiring. Maybe we procrastinate. Maybe it’s messy — kids off the farm, kids on the farm. Maybe it’s complex; maybe it’s risky.

Get over it and get on with it.

It all starts with a question: Do I want my farm business to continue after I stop farming? Then it continues with a plan, a business structure that fits your farming situation and family. Sole ownership? Sibling partnership? And in every step along the way, it takes communication. Honest, brutal questions and answers.

Who can become a member of the owner group (shares or partnership or whatever structure you have)? Can owners sell shares to anyone? Can shares be inherited? And perhaps the most tricky question of all: How do we deal with in-laws and the next generation?

Be prepared for emotions — something stoic, independent farmers try to avoid. But a family who owns a business can’t be successful unless it addresses emotional issues and works through them.

How do you encourage the next generation and listen to their needs? How will that generation change your business model?

Your role as a family business is extremely important in this huge, shifting thing we call the national economy. Studies show that the best family businesses outperform traditional public companies when it comes to growth, profitability and financial stability. When you’re talking about farm family business, the importance magnifies, in my opinion. We need you — not only for food and fiber, but for natural resources conservation, and environmental protection, and open spaces and economic development.

Here’s the thing: Your farm business, your family business is a long-term venture. If you plan only for the short-term, you may be successful, but your farm may fail in the future.

Sometimes it comes down to trust. You have to trust that the people who will follow in your leadership shoes can do the job, and they can’t do it if they’re not allowed to learn, to try, to fail, to change, to succeed. That’s where taking the time to develop that next generation comes in. Time spent developing your farm’s next leader is as important as selecting bulls, poring over farm records or picking the right corn hybrid.

How much time do you spend developing your farm’s next generation of leadership?

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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