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Succession Setbacks

October 6, 2010
By: Jeanne Bernick, Top Producer Editor
Chet Esther is not one for excuses, but he readily admits that one area of weakness for his farm is staying focused, particularly when it comes to succession planning. He even has it listed as an area for improvement on his office whiteboard.  

Life happens. It especially happens on a farm where three busy families live, work and play. 

"This past summer felt like one step forward, two steps back," says Chet Esther of Esther Family Farming in Beardstown, Ill., one of the Farm Journal Legacy Project case studies. Chet is referring to the events that piled up this summer to sidetrack the family from reaching its succession planning goals.

The Esthers had agreed to come up with several critical improvements to their business structure over six months. Responsibilities were assigned and agreed upon, yet several deadlines were missed. 

Talking about the whole thing makes Chet squirm like a scolded puppy. Ordinarily he’s a man of action, not procrastination. He doesn’t like excuses, but…life happens.

Who among us doesn’t struggle with keeping momentum on projects beyond the chores of daily life? When it comes to farming, distractions naturally seem to come up that take priority over paperwork. Our best laid plans often take a back seat to necessity.

In the Esthers’ case, it all started with a wet spring. When they weren’t cutting ditches to drain water, they were working to deliver more nitrogen to the corn. They sprayed, they dribbled and they knifed in the vital ingredients whenever conditions allowed, and these rescue operations were distracting.

At the same time, Illinois’ stormy weather messed with their efforts to build a new house for son Chad and his wife, Tanya. There were board meetings to attend. Chet and son Ryan took time for a much needed week of vacation fishing in Canada. Before the Esthers knew it, harvest was upon them.

In the middle of all this chaos, the Esthers missed a very important date—their self-appointed deadline for drawing up a buy/sell agreement between EFFCO (Chet and Ryan’s current farm business) and Esther Farms (Ryan and Chad’s newly formed business).

This agreement is critical to a smooth succession because it ensures that the operation remains in the family and is protected from death, disability, divorce and dissolution, says Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal succession planning expert. Spafford and the Legacy Project planning team met with the Esthers in early summer to evaluate their succession progress and to set goals.

"Assigning deadlines during family meetings is the only way succession planning really gets accomplished," Spafford says. He recommends assigning due dates and making one person responsible for each goal, whether it is business planning or simply setting up the next family meeting.

Chet was responsible for making sure the buy/sell agreement between he and Ryan was drawn up by July 16. "I’m not one for excuses," Chet says, "but a lot of things happened this summer and it just didn’t get done."
How to Refocus. The "life happens" part of succession planning is something the Legacy Project team fully anticipates.

"Setbacks like this are common, especially with farmers who are typically more focused on farming than drawing up documents," says Josh Sylvester, part of the team helping the Esthers. "It is certainly not the end of the world to miss a deadline. A large part of our job as facilitators is to keep the process moving. We start calling when we haven’t heard from families by appointed dates."

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - October 2010

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