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Master mentorship to smooth your farm’s transition

Getty Images/Photodjo Proud two generations farmers are standing in their barley field and examining crops, senior man is teaching his successor about the farming.
PASS IT ON: Generations of knowledge will go away if it is not shared. Farmers need to take the time to mentor, especially their own children, if they expect the family’s legacy to continue.
Business Basics: Take a step back in your on-farm role and teach the next generation.

As I’ve worked with families, I’ve seen how many of us farmers want more than anything else for our kids to continue our legacy. In practice, however, letting go and transitioning the operation are often hard steps to take.

And let’s face it, change is usually more difficult for us men. By 65, Mom may be ready to get an RV and travel, but we men often have a much harder time letting go of the cows or the planter.

Several times, I have heard John Baker of the Iowa Beginning Farmer Center, one of my mentors, tell the story of a senior farmer who was reluctant to turn over his farm’s management to his son. He kept telling Baker, “He’s just not ready.” After several years, Baker asked, “When do you think he will be ready?” The farmer responded, “Maybe in another five years.” The reality was the farmer was already 96, and the son was 72.

Far too often, we encounter this scenario in transition planning. The next generation nears retirement age before it gets a chance to run the business.

Why is the transition so difficult?

I’ve studied generational differences, and many previous generations have been expected to make their careers the anchor of their lives. But the challenge of farm transition goes beyond that. Consider how the average person views retirement.

For a teacher who’s spent 30 years in a classroom or a factory worker who has 32 years of experience on the line, retirement is anticipated and celebrated. A farmer more likely views retirement with fear.

The reason for the difference in perception might stem from “symbolic capital,” a concept my colleague Shane Conway at the University of Ireland has studied. Symbolic capital relates to a person’s “sense of identity and belonging in society.”

We’re familiar with other types of capital such as social, economic and political. Symbolic capital may be a new term for many of us, but it clearly can influence a farm’s transition to the next generation.

Here’s one example of how I see symbolic capital play out. When a farmer retires, he or she may not go to the coffee shop anymore to interact with other farmers because he or she no longer feels “part of the club.” Feeling like they don’t belong can contribute to mental health issues among those transitioning the farm to the next generation.

Find a new role

The fear of losing their identity or place in society discourages many farmers from turning over decision-making control to a successor. Holding on to control too long may limit the chances of their legacy continuing. By not embracing change, however, they could miss the most crucial role of their lives — being a mentor.

I routinely ask clients how effective they will be as mentors when they are 6 feet under. At that point, you obviously can’t mentor. By not giving our heirs an opportunity to make management decisions while we are still here, we limit their ability to grow and develop as decision-makers.

Mentorship is not just showing someone how to do something. It’s allowing them to learn it for themselves, sometimes making their own mistakes along the way. But with our support, the next generation learns to build on the foundation we created. 

It’s difficult to step back and let our kids assume the reins. However, operators who can transition from CEO into an adviser or mentor role enable their businesses to evolve into third-, fourth- or fifth-generation farms. 

Determine what is important

During transition planning conversations, I ask clients to think about which is more important: continuing their own success or seeing their kids succeed?

You won’t find a simple answer. Western culture pushes us to continue accumulating and building. It wants us to “win the game” as long as we can in life. 

Operating a family farm is not an individual sport, though. It’s a team competition. If we want to extend our legacy beyond our own lives, then helping our kids succeed must take priority at some point. Therefore, as you approach retirement, our role on the team needs to change. Challenge yourself to master mentorship.

Tucker is a University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist and succession planner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 417-326-4916.

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