Ohio dairy farmers share advice on farm succession


DALTON, Ohio — One thing all farms have in common is that they will some day change hands. And, we generally don’t know when that day will come.

That was part of the message at the annual Northeast Ohio Regional Dairy conference Feb. 25 at the Buckeye Event Center in Dalton. Producers were challenged to think critically about their farm succession plans, and to make sure they communicate and record those plans with all parties.

“Our farms will pass on — our decision is how,” said dairy farmer Scott Stoller, who operates Stoller’s Organic Dairy of Sterling.

Stoller, who farms about 500 acres, was part of a panel of dairy farmers who spoke about farm succession and advice for other farmers.

Business model

Stoller has taken advantage of the limited liability corporation model, which allows his children to buy into the family operation after they turn 18.

He’s still actively involved himself, but has made arrangements so that in his retirement years, he can still be involved and earn an income, even if he’s unable to provide as much labor.

Planning ahead was the key message. Like other farmers on the panel, Stoller faced several unexpected challenges, including the loss of an arm in a farming accident in 1997, and the untimely death of his grandparents.

Stark County dairy farmer Frank Burkett III, of Clardale Farms, has invested in life insurance as a way of being prepared. It’s been a valuable decision, especially when he lost his wife, Christina, to cancer in 2010.

He farms in partnership with three of his uncles, and together they operate a 700-cow, 850-acre dairy farm that employs 14 people full-time.


With so many families involved, communication is key.

“It’s not easy, but we recognize on the days that it’s not easy, that we’re better off farming together than we are on a one-on-one basis,” Burkett said.

The farm now operates under multiple limited liability corporations, and each family member is in charge of something different. Burkett said its “rewarding” and “humbling” to get to farm with his own family, and see the effort they put into the family operation.

“The rewards of farming with family — I can’t even put it into words,” he said.

Another chance

Doug Horst, of Legend Dairy in Sterling, said his family’s farm didn’t have some of the plans it should have, and it resulted in some conflicts and eventually a split in partners and operations. In 2010, he and his family started a new limited liability business, known as Legend Dairy, where they now milk 125 head and farm 600 acres.

On the upside, “We get a chance to do it again,” Horst said — this time with his family, parents and children.

Bob Esselburn, who operates Esselburn Dairy with his brother, Dave, near Shreve, said they were fortunate they didn’t have to deal with unexpected deaths, but they were prepared just in case.

“You never know when your time is coming and we do have a plan in place,” he said.

Esselburn said in his opinion, having a succession plan — even if it isn’t perfect — is better than nothing.

“A bad plan executed wisely is better than a good plan that never materializes,” he said.

Kurt Steiner, of Steinhurst Dairy near Creston, said life insurance has been a good investment for his farm, as well. He farms in partnership with his uncle John, brother Eric, and they have seven employees.

Partner rules

Steiner said they talk often about the future of the farm, and they have some rules — like to become a partner, you have to work on the farm for at least three years.

In addition to the panel, the conference featured a day-long program on farm succession, led by OSU Extension Educator David Marrison of Ashtabula County. Marrison provided producers a sample copy of everything they need to record if they want transitions to go smoothly.

Marrison will be presenting during another farm transition update, March 11 and March 18 at the OARDC. Call the Wayne County OSU-Extension for more details, at 330-264-8722. The deadline to register is March 4.

The dairy conference was presented by the dairy veterinarians of the Killbuck Valley Veterinary Medical Association.


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