Thinking about farm succession plans

sunset tractor

The tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, Jan. 26, sent shock waves of emotion. I know this accident caused many to take pause, hold their loved ones closer, and to reflect on their own mortality.

Death is a topic that many of us are not comfortable talking about. It is even harder to think about our own mortality. From my experience, death has the potential to bring a family closer or rip it apart. As tragic as Bryant’s death was, I hope it was a trigger for your family to talk and think about how your family and your farm will operate once you are gone.

One of the hypothetical questions I pose in our OSU farm succession workshops is “What knowledge would you need to pass on if you knew you had only two months to live?”

This exact scenario happened to our family 10 years ago when my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My dad fought a courageous battle for seven weeks before passing away. I am grateful that we had the seven weeks with my dad to make preparations.

Bryant’s crash reminds us that your world can change in an instant. I challenge you to think how your farm and family would react to the loss of the principle operator.

Hard questions

During our farm succession workshops, we challenge families to develop a long term plan for their farm. As you plan, there are a myriad of decisions to be made. One of the most difficult is determining how to be fair to off-farm heirs without jeopardizing the future of the heirs who have remained with the family business.

Other decisions include deciding who will manage the business in the future, how to distribute assets, how and when the senior generation will retire and how the business will deal with unexpected issues such as divorce, disability or paying for nursing home expenses.

One of the most crucial planning functions is preparing the next generation to lead the farm in the future. It is a great idea to ask the next generation what additional responsibilities they believe they should be taking on and what changes they would like to see made for them to be successful in the future.

What do they need to be schooled up on? Have you completed a skills assessment with each son or daughter to see what training they need to be successful in the future? If they had to take over the farm today, what would they be most concerned or scared about? So how do you know if the next generation is ready?

There are two other approaches I offer as ways you can use to help prepare the next generation to lead without you.

Opossum approach

Just as an opossum plays dead, so too should the principle operator. Take an unannounced week away from the farm during one of the busiest times of the year and allow the junior generation to take over with no communication from the senior generation.

I know this sounds crazy but how else will you know what knowledge and skills need to be transferred? It is a lot easier to come back after a short vacation and be able to answer questions. You won’t have this opportunity when you pass away.

365-day challenge

Outside of using the opossum approach, it should be the goal of the senior generation to transfer at least one knowledge point or skill to the next generation each day. In 2020, you get one extra day. So by the end of the year, your heirs will have 366 new tools in their management toolbox.

If you do this over the next five to 10 years, you can teach your heirs an incredible amount. Our farm succession team is here to help you. In addition to our workshops, we are also available to speak at other events and to conduct kitchen-table meetings. For details, visit

To close today’s column, I would like to share a quote Chuck Palahniuk who stated, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”


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David Marrison is an associate professor and Extension educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension. He can be reached at 740-622-2265 or



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