Brandon McHugh crosses quickly and lightly over the frost-covered pasture toward a newborn calf. The steam is still roiling off the calf's wet hair and the sight of its attentive mother nudging it to life draws him up short. "Dad would have loved this," McHugh says, the brisk Iowa morning catching in his throat.
It's been four years since a lung condition unexpectedly took the life of McHugh's father, Warren. Each new farm season brings vivid memories of how they worked side by side on the family's 2,400-acre crop and cattle operation near Dunlap, Iowa. "I never realized how much I relied on Dad's farming experience until he was gone," says the 36-year-old McHugh. "It's been real hard."
No one is ready to say goodbye to their father, but it's twice as tough when your father is your partner. Fathers and children (whether sons or daughters) farming together is as timeless as the profession itself. In the best relationships, a father serves as a trusted mentor, shares in daily farm decisions and offers seasoned guidance to the younger generation.
Carrying the Farm. McHugh has a passion for cows. He spent his formative farm years building a prize-winning registered Red Angus herd while his dad managed the cropping operation.
After his father passed, the entire business fell under the younger McHugh's direction—the cows, the crops, the equipment, the accounting, the paperwork and two employees old enough to be his uncles. He is in partnership with his mother, who has helped with the book work but who is emotionally exhausted from dealing with her grief.
"The whole operation just dropped in my lap. I'd lay awake at night worrying that I didn't have the management skills to keep the farm going at its full potential," McHugh says.
Lon Frahm well remembers that feeling of uncertainty, too. He was 28 when his dad and farming partner died suddenly of a heart condition the day before wheat harvest began.
"I didn't have time to think or grieve," says Frahm, who grows wheat and corn near Colby, Kan. "One day I was at his funeral and the next day the combines had to roll. In a flash, everything was on my shoulders."
Purdue University farm business management specialist Alan Miller has encountered many similar situations in 30 years of counseling farm families. Often, the heirs work twice as hard after their father's death to keep the farm running without a hiccup, but they don't take time to mourn.
"It's important to grieve and not be too critical of performance when stepping into Dad's shoes," Miller says. "Heirs should expect to make mistakes in the beginning. Making mistakes is part of business."
Human Resources. The best help in these situations is often from those employees who worked beside the father, says Joe Kluender, a farm business management specialist with LarsonAllen, an accounting and consulting firm in New Ulm, Minn. "It's important early on to take stock of human resources. Find those critical advisers who Dad used and call on them," Kluender says.
The father's friends are also great help, Kluender adds. "When I've worked with families who have gone through the loss of a father, it's the friends who pull the kids through," he says. "They are close to the heirs, but removed enough from the situation to give counsel."
Seeking a mentor relationship with a trusted farmer in the area may also be an option (see "Seek a Mentor" below).
No one wants to dwell on death, but it is a fact of life, Miller adds. Any well-managed business needs to have contingency plans for situations like this. Fathers who work with their sons need to communicate often about a strategic business plan.
There should be detailed documentation regarding normal operating procedures, Miller says, including a list of names and contacts for people the farm does business with and a list of trusted advisers.
Watch for Sharks. After his father's death, Frahm recalls, everyone's role on the farm suddenly changed. Not all were at ease with the younger Frahm moving into a leadership role. Some people in the community tried to manipulate him because he was young and relatively inexperienced.
Making any changes to the operation was difficult, Frahm says, and he often would hear how that was not the way his dad did things. "The inference was that if I didn't act exactly like Dad, I wasn't honoring his memory," Frahm says.
This difficult reality is one of the reasons that documentation is so important, Miller says. "Why should everyone know more about how Dad did things than you? Fathers should always leave some kind of blueprint for their heirs," he says.
Another threat during the loss of a father–son partnership is rental agreements, Miller says. Rented land is at risk because often it is the dad who established the relationship with the landlord. "It's sad to say, but after a few months, other producers in the area will start visiting these landlords," he says.
Miller cautions that fathers with children in a partnership situation should begin to include their heirs in landlord negotiations. Producers who have an operation that relies on rented land must make landlord relationships a top priority in the wake of a partnership loss.
In retrospect, Frahm says, the fact that he was forced into a management position may have helped the farm expand more quickly. "Once I got confidence, I made a lot of changes Dad would never have tried," he says.
McHugh says his father's passing forced him to innovate and adopt new technologies his father would not have embraced. In recent years, McHugh has computerized his record keeping and adopted management accounting practices. He uses GPS and yield maps for variable-rate manure applications, which have improved crop yields and saved 50% in fertilizer costs.
As the seasons pass, McHugh's pain from the loss of his father diminishes. He believes the best way to honor his dad's memory is by making the family farm as successful as possible.
By the Numbers I Demographics suggest an increase in forced management turnover
22% Change in number of farmers 65 or older from 2002 to 2007
-14% Change in number of farmers under age 45, from 2002 to 2007
50% Principal operators, ages 25–34 involved in farm with more than one generation
71% Iowa farmers who have not identified a successor for their farm
Seek a Mentor
Kansas producer Lon Frahm lost his friend and partner in 1986 when his father passed away of a heart attack. The then-28-year-old Frahm was thrust into maintaining a large, successful Kansas farming operation.
Over the years, Frahm grieved for the loss of farming with his dad, but in particular he missed the encouragement only a father can give. "What I craved most was a simple pat on the back," Frahm says.
No one can replace a father, but a good mentor can provide feedback that so many young farmers need, says Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal succession expert and founder of Legacy by Design, a succession planning firm. "Farmers who have lost a father or business partner should seek a mentor to help develop the skills necessary to deal with the challenges they face as primary decision maker," Spafford says.
What Makes a Mentor? Though young producers may learn lessons from other farmers, not everyone can be a good mentor, Spafford says. A good mentor:
• has a successful track record, weathered challenges and recovered from failure;
• is caring, empathetic and readily available; and
• recognizes the importance of growing independence and self-reliance.
A constructive mentor is not a cheerleader. "A mentor should challenge, home in on and reinforce the lessons necessary for long-term success," Spafford says.
In a mentor relationship, discussions should be challenging and substance-based, Spafford says. Meetings should be scheduled regularly and debrief sessions should follow major milestones and big decisions.
On the flip side, a good protégé will utilize the relationship for coaching, reflection and development. "The farmer as protégé should not be looking for a boss or parental figure who can substitute as a decision maker," Spafford says.
Support through Loss
> In 25 years of Top Producer magazine, we have told countless stories of young producers who have lost their fathers and farming partners. Now, Top Producer is offering a place for farmers who have lost a business partner to network with others and to develop helpful mentoring relationships in a noncompetitive atmosphere.
If you would like to join this online network of producers, go to http://tpyoungfarmers.ning.com.
> Lon Frahm and Kevin Spafford will share their experiences at the 2010 Top Producer Young Farmer Program. Spafford will speak on "How to Talk to Dad about Succession Planning" and Frahm will share how "Cultivating a Life outside of Work" has helped him hone his management skills.
To learn more about the program, go to www.TopProducerSeminar.com.
Top Producer, December 2009