4 Phases of the Family Farmer Life Cycle

Feb 18, 2024 | Uncategorized

A common issue with many ag operations is the best way to bring the next generation into the business.

A framework to help get a grasp on how that process ought to look is viewing a farming career (especially one who is joining a family operation) through a life-cycle.

Ultimately, there’s 4 main phases of a family farmer:

I was recently speaking to a 71 year old row crop + cow/calf farmer who is a 2nd generation owner/operator. His son is the third gen and hopefully his 2 grandkids will become 4th gens.

Now, his story may not have aligned directly with the 4 phases (Laborer, Leader, Manager/Owner, and Laborer/Mentor) but his story more or less followed the trend.

I share this story because I think it’s important to view the management duties and ownership rights as separate.

First, the management/decision making responsibilities ought to be transitioned.

Then, the ownership can be transitioned.

Too often, there’s no management transition plan in place and the owner generation ups and says, “well, I guess I’m going to retire” (or worse they pass away) and the next generation gets all the roles, responsibilities, and obligations dumped on their lap.

Whether they’re ready or not.

So, if we can view operating a farm through this life-cycle, maybe we can prevent some of the disfunction that can happen with a sudden transfer.

Here’s that farmer’s story:

Phase I: Laborer

He grew up working hard, manual labor on the farm.

Joined the Army right out of H.S. & returned after 6 yrs away. He ran heavy equipment in the Army & learned diesel mechanic skills.

Provided a big help when he returned to the farm as a “lowly farmhand.”

Phase II: Leader

Dad put him in charge of equipment repair & maintenance thanks to his Army mechanics skills.

Took to the shop & started building all sorts of useful tools.

Eventually started building cattle equipment & selling to neighbors.

Phase III: Manager & Owner

Over the years he rented & bought ground of his own.

Shared equipment w/ Dad and they helped each other during the busy times.

He bought the cattle herd & most equipment as his dad started transitioning out.

Eventually, bought everything but the land Mom & Dad still owned.

Phase IV: Laborer & Mentor

His son has been farming with him for 15 years now, and he’s ready to “sunset.”

Told me he still wants to work most days, but leaves the management up to his son.

“I’m back to where I started → as a tractor driver.”

The key takeaway to his story is this:

There was a gradual transition of responsibilities and expectations from his dad to him (and now from him to his son).

It happened over years, not all at once.

So, maybe it’s time to start thinking about letting go of some of the decision making and let that next generation prove themselves through an orderly transition.

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