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Back to the Farm

11:31AM Jul 22, 2008

During a recent visit to my college alma mater, a professor asked me to speak to his class and answer a few questions. The students were attentive and inquisitive. Succession planning is a multigenerational puzzle. Young adults in the family often feel the burden of risk without the corresponding sense of control.   

Q  This spring I will graduate from college with an agricultural management degree. My dad says, "Come home, and we'll talk about working together.” But, every time the subject is brought up he seems hesitant and a bit guarded. How do I approach the conversation so that we understand each other's concerns?

A  Straightforward, honest communication is the key to a successful working relationship. It is important for each of you to separately establish a defined objective. What do you want from your career, and what does Dad need from a working partner?

The best starting point for a fruitful discussion is for your father to create a written job description for your position. He needs to include his expectations, your responsi- bilities and the tools he will use to determine progress. This exercise will help him clarify his needs, it will provide a starting point for negotiation and it will serve as a written record for potential disagreements. Your dad should also include the salary and benefits provided.   

This may sound too structured and a bit corporate, but companies of all sizes develop job descriptions, wage scales, employee handbooks, vacation/sick day policies and other written guidelines so that the employee and the employer enter into an informed arrangement. Both parties can then make their decisions based on their fully disclosed expectations of each other.      

This is an excellent time for you to do some serious soul searching and decide what you want in your career. Make sure that the opportunity on the farm provides the experience necessary to achieve your long-term goals. Measure your expectations against the job description your dad provides, the pay he is offering and the benefits he may provide.

Don't stand back and wonder where life will take you; be accountable for your own growth.


  • Make leadership development one of your personal goals.
  • Establish a clear vision for the person you want to become.
  • Honestly evaluate the skills and abilities you have.
  • Think about the demands of the position you desire.  
  • Write a plan, and take action.  

Q  I want to work on my family's farm, but my dad insists that there isn't room for two full-time farmers. He says to me, "The work load is just right for one, and the current income will not satisfy the needs of an additional family.” What do you recommend in this situation?

A  Have you considered establishing a subsidiary operation or the possibility of providing custom work? Numerous farm operations will hire someone to custom spray, for example, because they don't have the means or desire to buy equipment and/or the time and manpower to get the job done. There is a good chance that other neighboring operations may welcome similar help.  

A custom business may be an ideal opportunity for you to learn the intricacies of farming, learn how to manage money and establish good customer service skills. Establishing a custom operation in the sphere of your father's influence allows you to learn under his watchful eye and from his years of experience.

Running your own business is an excellent time to develop the leadership skills you may need when you assume a management position in the family operation. Most families underestimate the value of off-farm experience. The opportunity to work for yourself or serve as an employee under a nonfamily member's tutelage will better prepare you to work within the family operation.  

Kevin Spafford is the author of Legacy by  Design: Succession Planning for Agribusiness Owners and is a certified financial planner whose firm guides farmers and agribusiness owners through the succession planning process. Mail questions to Legacy by Design, 901 Bruce Road, Suite 160, Chico, CA 95928,
send an e-mail to or call (877) 523-7411.