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After his start in nursery and greenhouse production and degrees in biology and rural land use planning, Jim has made agriculture development the focus of his career. He served as a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent in upstate New York for seventeen years, and was known as the “Voice of Agriculture” on Finger Lakes Radio. Transitioning to technology and farm business development, he’s seen dozens of innovative projects aimed at enhancing the capacity of farm owners and enhancing the economic power of dairy, field crop, fruit, and livestock sectors in the northeast. Granular gives him the opportunity to put his agriculture development experience to work with more than 20 Granular farms in the US and Canada.

Jim Ochterski Photo

Jim Ochterski

How do you define farm succession planning?

Farm succession planning is as important as crop planning, and in many respects it is similar. Yet, farm succession planning, which I define as cultivating growth in the capacity and accountability of a management team to take over, receives far less daily attention. Maybe it just doesn’t feel rewarding, or we don’t see it as important. Or maybe, we just don’t know how to put farm succession actions into place.

Why, and how, is farm succession planning critical to the long-term success of a farm business?
Managers who have led their farms to new levels of success are obligated to ensure that this aptitude will carry on. From accountability areas to asset ownership, farm succession planning puts in place small actions every day to cultivate the professionalism of next set of farm owners. Seriously, every day? Yes. Every day of farm management provides an opportunity to teach, to enable others, and to send a message of confidence to the succeeding team of leaders.

If you are looking for ways to start or improve your farm succession planning, here are five ideas to get you on the right track:

  • Organize your farm succession planning activities into three main categories: 1) Transferring physical asset ownership (land, buildings, equipment), 2) Establishing new account ability roles (i.e. delegating specific aspects of management), and 3) Re-assigning business relationships (e.g. updating the point of contact with customers, renters, suppliers, etc.)
  • Avoid delegating responsibility without giving authority. You can’t expect a junior manager to be responsible for crop decisions if the decisions have to be approved by a senior manager or consultant. Reward responsibility with accountability and authority. If a succeeding team member does not have the authority, do not expect them to succeed with the responsibility.
  • Record what you do. Management activities should be fully sharable and traceable. Tools like Granular can make sure that your land agreements, equipment data, inventory, field activity, regulatory and historical who-was-doing-what records are all in one centralized, secure, and disaster-proof place. The onboarding process for these tools is often a way to orient and introduce the fine details of farm management to a broader team.
  • Look beyond family members to your overall farm team as possible future leaders. Many farms have benefited from fresh blood and better perspectives in a new hire. Adopt a business structure that allows non-family employees to ascend to earned ownership and leadership roles, even while certain family employees remain in lower-level positions.
  • Every day, act to ensure the results of your sacrifices and decisions will be sustained. Do one small thing every day to cultivate growth in the skills and accountability of your younger potential management team. Make sure the next farm generation is better prepared than you were when you took over.

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The average age of the US farmer is 58, and that means lots of farms are facing the succession challenge: the successful formal transfer of management (and ownership, in many cases) from one generation to the next. While the succession process is usually not easy and takes preparation, it is definitely worth it: bringing the next generation into the farm can bring a lot of real benefits to the family business:

Enthusiasm
Do you recall your feelings as you finished high school or college? You were eager to get started, open to tackling big challenges, willing to work long hours and excited about making a positive impact. Such youthful enthusiasm infuses an organization with energy, propelling high performance, quick responses, a willingness to take risks and the initiative to meet the demands of an uncertain and unpredictable business environment.
Evaluation
If you’ve been in business by yourself or with your siblings for very many years, you are accustomed to certain expectations about how the business should be managed. Your communication patterns, decision-making techniques, compensation and human resource tendencies – your way of doing things – is well established. Bringing new, younger generation perspectives into the business raises the (sometimes uncomfortable) question: Why do we do it this way? The opportunity to explore new stakeholders’ expectations for the business offers an opportunity to re-evaluate your culture and make improvements for the future.
Education
We are clearly at the dawn of a new day as it relates to agricultural technology on the farm. From seeds in the bag to sensors in the soil, from equipment in the field to imagery from the air, new ways to improve, understand, evaluate and make decisions for your business abound. While it takes the senior generation time, energy and attention to learn new technologies, the younger crowd – whatever their level of formal education – seems to be right at home in the digital age, easily and eagerly adapting to new tools. In many cases, technology plays a role in attracting younger farmers in the first place. Just like in any other industry, younger professionals look for opportunities to work with the latest technology to keep their skills evolving. Technology then helps retain these employees when you equip them with right tools to be more successful, and when these tools helps you make the way you manage your operation its biggest strength.
The next generation has a lot to learn. But they also have a lot to contribute. Capture the benefits of a successful generational transition – after all, this is what you’ve worked for all these years.

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