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The Farmer’s Daughter

December 8, 2010
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Donna Armacost is a piece of the Dell family succession puzzle, even though she is not an active partner. Her mother, Leona Dell, is especially sensitive to that fact.  

When Donna Dell Armacost saw the Dell family tree in the Summer 2009 Farm Journal, she thought she’d been pruned away: Her branch was missing.

Fact is, only active partners and their families were included. Officially, Armacost is not part of the Dell farm partnership that was chosen to participate in the Farm Journal Legacy Project. However, her situation raises an important question: Where do nonactive siblings fit in the succession picture?

Armacost willingly signed over her shares of Cranberry Meadow Farm some 30 years ago. Although the real monetary value of farm shares is often a moving target, she did so to release the farm and active partners from obligation.

“I want the farm to endure and my brothers to be successful,” she says. “I’ve never felt the farm owed me something because I once lived there. On the other hand, I might feel differently if they weren’t doing a good job.”

Armacost, a school nurse, and her husband, Douglas, farm a county away from the Westminster, Md., homestead. “We have our own succession story,” she notes. The youngest of their five children survived a drowning accident as a toddler but remains severely disabled. “My life changed 14 years ago,” Armacost says. “Everything else seems small by comparison.”

Still, her parents, Donald and Leona Dell, think it is important that her brothers be mindful of their sister’s contribution. “This fair versus equal issue is not always easy,” Leona says.

“Traditionally, women have been asked to make room for the men of the family.”

Times have changed when it comes to women’s role on the farm, says Danny Klinefelter of Texas AgriLife Extension Service. “There is more awareness of the farm as a major asset and business opportunity. We’ve evolved to understand that talent and skill matter more than sheer physical strength. That’s good, but it also means there are more potential business partners to sort through.”

Plan now. Armacost seems surprised at any suggestion that she has taken one for the team. The family talked through her involvement early in the process. Her parents have been up-front with the entire family about how she is to be provided for upon their death. Beyond cash from life insurance distributions, she will receive their current home and a vacation home.

Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal’s succession planning expert, says Donald and Leona Dell “are being clear about their wishes and that is a true gift to their children. Ironically, too many parents leave these decisions to their death because they do not want to be unfair,” he says.

Involvement of Inactive Family

Five suggestions for working with inactive children and siblings:

  • Schedule a family meeting to explain the succession planning process.
  • Have everyone complete the Conversation Starters tool (
  • Solicit participation from all family members.
  • Don’t be judgmental about family members who chose a different profession—not everyone is passionate about farming.
  • Be careful about giving decision-making control over day-to-day operations to off-farm heirs.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - December 2010

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