Working alongside multiple generations on a family farm is rewarding-—and challenging. Knowing that there is a new generation coming up in the ranks solidifies all of the hard work of previous generations.
"Multigeneration family farms generally go through stages," acknowledges Dick Wittman, a family business consultant who also farms in a multigenerational partnership near Culdesac, Idaho.
"The first generational transfer is easy and the second is generally manageable, but the third stage involving siblings and cousins requires the leadership to conduct some robust discussions that often get ignored," he says.
The Levens family is a great example of a large family working together to keep the farm. An impressive 26 family members and three generations currently co-own the Leavens family fruit groves located in the Santa Clara River Valley, Calif. Two more generations wait in the wings to add their names to the ownership roles.
"Each family branch bestows ownership differently, but generally, if you are a blood relative and 18 years old, you own a piece of this business," says Leslie Leavens-Crowe.
Carefully drawn partnership and buy-sell agreements form the framework of this complex farming relationship, but it is a strong commitment to family that makes it work.
"For us, this farm is a conduit to keep family bonds strong," she says. "Other families talk about succession of the farm, we talk about succession of the family."
A nine-member "cousin generation" is primarily responsible for overseeing the Leavens Ranches, which involve 1,000-plus acres of lemons, avocados and grapes planted on six different ranches. Three managers-—Leavens-Crowe, her brother, Link Leavens, and their cousin, David Schwabauer—handle the day-to-day operations.
The ranch office is housed in what was once their grandparents’ Victorian-era home. From her office window, Leavens-Crowe can see the trees she used to skinny as a kid. The thrill of working there stays sweet and satisfying.
"We are committed to remaining a family in farming," she says.
Knowing that each successive generation could easily grow further away from the farm, the family sponsors its own summer camp. Camp Mary, named for an aunt, teaches those 13 and under about family heritage and why these trees matter. Older children have the opportunity to intern on the farm during the summer months.
"It’s all about the importance of cousining," Leavens-Crowe says.
An annual family reunion draws nearly 50 family members to the ranch from across the nation. A monthly newsletter and semi-annual business meetings help communicate the farm’s policy of full disclosure of finances and management decisions.
Family members wishing to work on the ranch are required to obtain a college degree in agriculture or a related field and have three years' work experience.