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Farm transition lessons from cowboys

Elaine Froese for Progressive Dairy Published on 28 July 2022
Putting the pieces together

In the Black Hills of Deadwood, South Dakota, young farmers and ranchers asked many questions during my presentation to them last January.

When I asked the group of cowboys in their black Stetsons what was the one thing they grasped after four hours of interaction, it was “importance of communication.” It is easy to say, but how do you put it into practice?

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Here’s a random sampling of their questions to me and my responses to help improve communication. See what lands for you on your farm or ranch.

What are your thoughts about my father listening to and understanding my wife, but not me?

Everyone has a different communication style. Some are very direct, brief and action-oriented. Some are geared to relationships first, then get down to business. Some need all the details in a logical order and like to process things before they give a response. Others just want time to explore lots of ideas without interruption or judgement. Perhaps you need to figure out how your father likes to receive messages. Also check in with him by using his phrases and words when you respond. “Dad, I don’t feel like you really heard what I was trying to communicate. Can you repeat back to me what you thought I said? I’ll let you know if we have an understanding.” Also, does your wife’s communication style match your father’s style? Look for cues around his preferences and keep asking questions to confirm your message has landed.

How do you deal with your grandma and mother who act like their children don’t know their net worth and don’t want to talk about their will before they die?

All successful farms and ranches need financial transparency between the generations. Gone are the days of keeping your will secret from your business partners. Have some facilitated conversation with the older generation in the accountant or financial planner’s office. Say “I am just curious; why is it so hard for you to talk about your will? I cannot live with uncertainty, and I wonder if some of the assets can be transferred with a warm hand, not a cold one. I need to understand how much debt is ahead to manage.”

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How do you deal with a stepparent who refuses to work but still wants all the benefits from the ranch?

We get the behaviour we accept. Your stepparent is allowed access to ranch resources without expectation of payment for feed, labour, etc. Figure out the dollar cost and put the numbers on the table for open discussion. Ask your parent, “What does fairness look like to you? As a potential business partner, I expect people to pay for resources that help make them money. All the financial transactions need to be accounted for; we want clean accounting on this ranch.” We cannot change what we cannot measure.

My son ranches with me and owns his own cattle (about half our joint herd). He owns none of the land and only a small portion of the equipment. I’m able now to gift him some of the land for his sweat equity in the ranch. Is this a good idea?

Yes, especially as a 72-year-old dad, you could live off your personal non-ranch wealth and give the opportunity for equity to your son, who I suspect has been with you for over a decade.

My parents still have not come together as a couple and agreed on when or what their retirement looks like. We have discussed transition plans, but they keep changing their goals and time frame.

Time for a family meeting to create certainty of timelines.

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What bugs you?

Micro-management from older generation on how to do even little tasks.

What should we do with a ranch that is in a corporation with seven brothers as the shareholders?

Hire a coach to facilitate a large group of people with different visions for the future.

One of our biggest barriers is conflicting vision with family. I need to know when my brother is going to make some decisions on his business, because it affects ours. We have separate businesses, but he uses all
our stuff, lives in our extra house, etc.

Gather your data of the cost of doing business with your brother, put the numbers on the table and get clear about payment and deadlines. Remember, if you continue to let your brother have a “free ride,” he is going to continue freeloading.

What do you recommend I put in play so my wife would know what to do with the business if something were to happen to me? She doesn’t deal with any of the legal paperwork and so forth, but I want to make it easy on her if something were to happen.

Fill out the “Because I love you list” and take your spouse to a financial planner and accountant to start developing those relationships before death or disability happens to you.

What are the exact documents needed for transition of a small ranch from mom and dad to the son and his wife? Does it start with a will?

No, a transition plan is a succession plan which is the transfer of labour, management and ownership while you are alive. A will is part of an estate plan for when you are dead. Both plans need to start with coming to the table to discuss expectations, create certainty of timelines and well-written agreements. Communication is the first step.

How do you communicate with in-laws that are not communicators?

They are not communicators yet; you are going to model expansive questions, attentive listening and keep showing them the importance of sharing how they think, feel and what they want.

What do you do when your father says he’s going to sell out and not hand anything down?

He’s the sixth generation and I would be the seventh. Tell dad you are not willing to continue being emotionally blackmailed with his threats. Ask him why he is so angry. Is he hurt, afraid or frustrated? Is he embarrassed he has so much debt at his age and doesn’t see a way to save the ranch?

How do we involve my daughter-in-law in the transition process?

I encourage people to openly share their vision, dreams and expectations. Make no assumptions. Everyone’s voice at the decision-making table is important, especially keeping all family members in the loop of ranch goals. Remember, a different approach is not wrong; it is just different.  end mark

Getty Images.

Elaine Froese helps families find harmony through understanding. Visit Ealine Froese and find out what her team can do for your transition success.

Elaine Froese
  • Elaine Froese

  • Certified Farm Family Coach
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