DOVER, Ohio – Dan Evans’ mother stood only a bit over 5 feet tall, but had keen perception and commanded respect.
Going to the dealership for parts not long after the family bought a new Ford tractor, the parts man told her he wasn’t sure if he even had what she needed.
“She said that if they were going to sell the tractor, they ought to have the parts to fix it,” Evans said.
“I don’t know how many places my mother offered to buy and run like they should have been,” he added.
His father, stricken with polio as a child, had calloused fingertips and knuckles to show for years of using his hand to flex his leg to walk.
Charles Evans was proud of his only child, his wife, their kempt farm near Newark.
He spent his days plowing and, on hands and knees, trimming grass around fence posts with a scythe.
Revelation. The man was 81 before he admitted to his only child – Dan was in his mid-40s at the time – that he couldn’t get the job done anymore.
“He never wanted help, never wanted to lose control,” Dan said.
Sadly, Dan and his sons – Jim, J.B. and Jeremy – know that until recently, that man still controlled their farm operation, even from his grave.
According to the youngest son, Jeremy, the family was caught in a certain mindset, always wondering what his grandfather would think.
“We’re so worried about the little things, but those don’t matter and who cares what Grandpa would think,” he said defiantly.
The family has begun to tackle what’s being called the real farm crisis: passing the farm to the next generation.
Wake up. The transition started only after the Evans family got a real-life wake-up call.
Health problems – Dan suffered a heart attack late last year and his wife, Diane, battled cancer – kicked everything into high gear.
“We all got scared last year. I don’t want anyone except these boys to have what I’ve worked so long and hard for,” Evans said.
Handing over the farm is not a problem for Evans after coming so close to being burnt by his parents.
“I didn’t want that to happen here,” Evans said.
First steps. Evans acknowledged his vincibility, that he wouldn’t be around forever. He registered himself, his three sons and his son-in-law, Jim Tomlinson, for a seminar sponsored by Ohio State University Extension.
It directed participants’ minds toward the future of their family business – including the next generation.
The spring seminar offered guidelines and the chance for an outside party to bring up difficult issues the family had danced around for too long.
Killing family farms. The seminar opened their eyes to one simple fact: Unplanned farm and asset transfers are what is killing family farms.
Most family businesses don’t make it to the third generation, but the Evanses were determined.
The men embraced the idea of change and transition despite its inherent difficulties. The entire family sat down for a two-hour meeting the evening of the seminar.
Their two farms, located in Dover and Newark, needed a check-up.
Charles Evans started a registered Hereford cow-calf operation on the Newark farm in 1932. The younger Evans family found the cow-calf operation too demanding and slowly changed focus to the current commercial cow herd.
Dan, Diane, and the younger children moved to the Dover area in 1987 and moved to the current homestead on Minard Road in 1995.
Jim, 40, and Jane Ann, 42, still live at the Newark homestead with their spouses and children. J.B., 34, lives nearby with his wife and daughter.
Jeremy, 21, lives at the home farm in Dover and attends Kent State’s Stark campus. Twenty-year-old Julie attends West Liberty State College in West Liberty, W.Va.
Still searching. Today, the farm has a commercial cow herd but is still changing. The Evanses are phasing out the herd and Jeremy is building a registered club calf business based on Angus and Maine-Anjou genetics.
The other siblings needed more.
“We brainstormed and got some good ideas out there. The potential is enormous,” Dan said of alternative enterprises the family could take on to help support each of the families.
Diversify. The Dover farm is also in its second year of raising contract dairy heifers for a neighbor. The operation feeds roughly 75 heifers each year.
Jeremy also tried his hand at club pigs this year, a move he doesn’t plan on repeating anytime soon. He farrowed three gilts and has only four piglets to show for his work.
“It was a real good way to learn we’re not set up for hogs,” he said. “But it was worth the experience. I’m not ashamed of trying,” he said.
In Newark there are other challenges.
The farm is situated just 500 yards outside the town limits and is now surrounded by houses.
“If the city line moves, if [Newark] keeps expanding the way it is, we’ll have to generate income to at least support the property taxes,” Jim said.
“Our goal, every one of us, is to keep the farm. That’s what drives us and keeps us going with this,” Jeremy related.
Watching from afar. Dan sat all last winter in a recliner inside the house, recuperating from his heart attack and watching others do his work.
“I was so upset I couldn’t get things done. It finally had to hit me: Maybe it wasn’t done my way, but at least it was done. I didn’t have to be there to do it,” he said.
Still today he’s not ‘good’ for the 12-, 14- or 16-hour days he’s been accustomed to, he said, but wonders if his health situation was a sign from the good Lord to quit repeating his father’s ways.
“With Dad, it was always like, ‘Here it is and if you don’t like it, too bad.'”
The three sons shake their heads in agreement.
“You were doing things just like Grandpa,” said Jeremy. “Things are changing, though.”
‘Family business.’ The family isn’t bitter about the past and seems to have come to grips with the road they’re headed down: juggling the farm business, the family, and the whole concept of ‘family business.’
“We’re running [this farm] for ourselves and have to make decisions based on that. It’s going to work. Things will change. We’ll survive,” Jeremy said.
The change is already showing. Two acres of land at the Newark farm has been mowed and baled into hay each summer for what the family estimates to be close to 80 years.
Since the move to Dover, the family kept with the hay tradition, hauling bales from Newark despite being uneconomical and awkward.
Just weeks ago, the field was plowed for the first time in any of the surviving Evans’ men’s lives and planted with sweet corn.
The diversification was the brainchild of the family’s meeting after attending the seminar.
“Every farm is unique and there’s no set recipe for success, but we’ll build on what we know works for us. We might struggle …” Jim said.
“… But it’s better to start out hard,” his dad finished.
Hard for dad. Dan now faces the daunting challenge so many other farmers ignore – how to retire from something so liquid in his blood that life won’t seem quite right without it.
His plan is to completely pass the farm to his children by 2005. He admits he’d completely hand over the farm today if he knew things would work.
“But I want to do it right,” he said.
“They will probably fuss and fight and tempers will fly, but everybody has to get their true feelings out.”
“I can’t redo what happened with my parents, but I can change the future,” Evans said.
Looking at others. “So many situations are so sad. So many farmers could be exposed to this but they won’t turn anything loose,” he said.
“If they only knew the risk they were making for the survival of their farm…”
When the farm transition is complete, the Evans children will own the farm and all the equipment. The Newark farm will be transitioned debt-free.
Already showing. Evidence of the change-over is there.
Jim recently approached his dad to ask about a decision regarding the cattle. According to the elder Evans, Jim stopped midsentence, looked at his father and walked away.
The question, he knew, should be asked of Jeremy, now in charge of decisions involving the herd.
“I’m really tickled with them,” Evans said. “Many minds work miracles if things are allowed to happen.”
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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