Meet the Farmers in the Dell

July 5, 2009 03:16 PM

The farmer takes a wife. The wife takes a child… The nursery rhyme is tailor-made for the farmers in the Dell family. Four generations currently depend on the Westminster, Md., family farm that is, believe it or not, located in a dell about 30 miles west of Baltimore.

The family's 2,300 acres of rolling farmland spills over into a 160-cow dairy located in a dip of a valley that is as picturesque as it is historic. An occasional Civil War relic still turns up in the soil here.

Now this family is engaged in an attempt to make sure their own farming history continues. The Dell family applied and was selected to be included in Farm Journal's Legacy Project, an effort that is part therapy, part analysis and ultimately all about planning and implementing a farm transition plan that spans six separate families.

Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal columnist and founder of Legacy by Design, a farm succession planning firm, recently met with the entire Dell clan to begin a customized process of transition and succession. In the coming months, and even years, you'll find reports on the process and witness the progress made as the Dells explore the visions and goals for their farm and families.

"Every farm family has their own story, but the Dells' complex family makeup is not unlike many farm families that are great at going to work each day. They've been terrific at transferring the love of farming to multiple family members, but, as often happens, they found themselves faltering when planning for what comes next,” Spafford says. "The thing that instantly impressed me about them is how united they are in their willingness to tackle this chore. That is a huge first step.”

Meet the family. Greg Dell's application letter to Farm Journal tells the tale: "My brother and I are the owners of the business corporation, but my father and mother are still part of an older corporation that owns the home farm. I have three sons involved in the operation that are not owners yet.

"We have talked to lawyers and financial experts, trying to come up with a succession plan. We have never gotten any concrete directions. They always seem to just stall out.”

Donald (age 83) and Leona (age 80) Dell are the farm founders. Leona serves as secretary/treasurer of the business. They would like to pass on their shares, but they still need income to live comfortably.

Their sons are Roger (age 59) and Greg (age 57) Dell. Both of their wives are supportive, but they are not active in the daily management of the farm.

Greg would like to take over the operation and come up with a plan for his sons to become more financially involved. Roger wants to retire and sell his business assets to Greg. Roger's two sons have no active interest in the farm.

The third generation of farmers is made up of Greg's children. Gary and his wife, Crystal, operate the dairy and are interested in buying the cows and renting the barns and equipment. The middle son, Tommy, manages the crop operation. He's not interested in the dairy, but he raises a few beef cattle on the side and is interested in selling seed corn.

The youngest, Douglas, once worked full-time on the farm, but as the economy tightened and opportunity presented itself, he took the steps to become a full-time firefighter. He still works on the farm on an hourly basis on his days off and still has a passionate interest in what happens to the farm.

"All of us want the operation to continue, we just don't know how or where to start,” Greg writes. "Because of the complicated setup, we have found it is hard to find help that isn't as confused as we are. Oh, yeah … we have nine grandchildren (six of them grandsons) that are already very interested in farming.”

Sitting down. While the family frequently eats together and even plays together, they found themselves a bit chagrined to realize they have never taken the time to sit down as a group to honestly express their hopes and dreams for themselves and the farm.

"We really like each other,” Tommy says. "Our kids go to school together, and we've always been able to put the work aside to enjoy each other in the off hours.”

Still, underneath, currents of concern about the future have been eating away at this resilient family.

Main Issues Facing the Dells

Kevin Spafford sees these five issues facing the Dell family as they move forward toward transition:

  1. Is the next generation (Gary, Tommy, Douglas) prepared for the responsibilities of ownership? Do they have the skills and abilities to grow the operation?
  2. Is the operation viable and in a position that will enable it to continue to grow?
  3. Families are composites of many individuals and succession is predicated on common goals and objectives. Can they define and agree on common family goals and objectives?
  4. Will the operation support the income needs of retiring family members (Donald, Leona and Roger) and provide capital for growth and financial security for the remaining active family members?
  5. Can they manage change in the face of a challenging and dynamic economy?
"If we have a fight, it might last five minutes,” Roger says of his relationship with his brother, Greg. "But now, we have a lot more people with a lot of different personalities, coupled with urban encroachment and a dicey economy. I'll admit I was dreading this part of the process. I wasn't sure I wanted to open the wound because I feared how bloody it might get.”

With Spafford's encouragement, pent-up emotions came tumbling forth—both in the group setting and in private individual sessions. "This has to happen,” Spafford says. "The more things we get on the table, the better we can plan. Hope is not a plan.”

In the Dells' case, the dairy stands alone as the most contentious issue. Not only is the enterprise bleeding red during this tumultuous period of milk surpluses, but it also turns out that of the current active partners, only Gary and Crystal genuinely like working with the cows. Like true dairymen, they know their cows as well as their own children and the thought of letting them go is wrenching. They've worked hard to build the genetics of this herd into one of the best in the nation.

No one slept well the night following the venting, Greg admits. Armed with the necessary homework, which asks each family member to provide financial numbers and personal data, the family is now preparing for their next work session with Spafford.

"The thing the Dells must remember is not to get trapped by what they can't do. They have to start with what they can do,” Spafford says.

"There will have to be sacrifices by all concerned,” he adds. "I'm not sure what they will look like yet, but we always plan using three basic assumptions:

"The family operation must remain a viable business. We cannot compromise the integrity of the operation. Succession planning must enhance the family's financial security, and the operation must continue to grow and develop as the next generation assumes an ownership role.”

Spafford says the next step is to do a thorough assessment from the "soft” interviews and the "hard” facts. Then, he will research alternatives to meet the family's succession objectives, design preliminary recommendations and evaluate the consequences of each recommendation.
Stay tuned.

Watch for coverage of the Dell family on "U.S. Farm Report” the weekend of Aug. 1 and on "AgDay” the week of Aug. 3. You can also watch segments on


You can e-mail Pam Smith at

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