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A Rural Perspective: Decisions, Decisions

In many ways, growing up on a farm is like being in school. It isn’t a classroom with a whiteboard and laptop (blackboard and notebook back in my school days). It’s a classroom where the teachers don’t have prepared lesson plans for the various subjects and the subjects change day to day, often hour to hour. Classes sometimes start before the sun comes up and, on occasion continue until the middle of the night.

As pupils, my brothers and I were never instructed by the teachers (commonly referred to as Mom and Dad) to take notes or pay special attention because there would be a test later. We learned, without realizing it, by listening and observing.

Long before starting first grade, we learned the simpler physical tasks, commonly referred to as chores. We cared for the chickens, gathered eggs and swept feed into the mangers for the cows. As we got older and stronger, there were calves and pigs to feed and cows to milk. Eventually, by nine or ten, we were trusted to drive the smaller tractors to rake hay or move wagons and work in the haymows in the summer heat. We learned the skills required for these jobs by watching and listening to instructions.

While we were learning and polishing the skills necessary for getting the work done, what we didn’t realize was that we were also observing how a family and a family business functions. There were many daily decisions made about errands to run, jobs to be worked, who was to handle a specific job and what tools and materials were needed.

We witnessed the principles of honesty, integrity and responsibility our parents based their decisions on. They didn’t preach it to us, we just saw it happen, time after time. If there was a bill due, whether to a local machinery dealer, the feed store or Production Credit, they found a way to make the payment. It was evident to all of us—to our mother, “Thou shalt pay your bills on time,” served as her 11th commandment.

As we gained experience and increased our responsibilities, we participated in more serious and longer-term decisions. There were times when milk prices were weak and income was tight. Decisions had to be made to trim expenses and/or delay equipment replacement plans so we learned how priorities were set. When wheat (our only cash crop) and milk prices were stronger, we were able to contribute to discussion about setting priorities to decide how to best take advantage of the opportunity this presented.

Lots of decisions were not easy. Some involved significant risk and likely an extended commitment to make it profitable. This was the case when all three of us brothers, at different stages, chose to return to the farm. Our 160-acre farm and a 30-cow dairy herd had to make some huge expansions. The numbers were analyzed and looked good in some ways and shaky in other ways. In the end, the financial prospects looked “mostly ok” and we relied on our commitment and determination to carry it through.

Eventually my brothers and I became the only decision makers. The succession of ownership was seamless and easy since our mother had sufficient income available from other sources and her three children were already involved equally in the family operation. Her decision was a simple one. She choose to distribute her share of ownership in the family corporation equally to the three of us and the succession was complete.

Two decades have passed and now my brothers and I find ourselves in a different situation. We have taken steps to prepare for the transfer of our individual shares of ownership but to date what we have in place would more correctly be considered a partial succession plan. The numbers of offspring in the next generation is not equal between us and all the members of that generation already have successful careers with little direct connection to the farm operation. The decisions to be made are not simple or easy.

We’ve read articles on the subject of succession planning, gone to a number of seminars, hired consultants and still haven’t done all that needs to be done.

This past year, the leadership of AgCredit choose to commit resources to assist members to address the problems associated with succession planning. Their sponsorship of two different member sessions held this past winter were very successful and well attended. Additionally, their endorsement and cooperation with the Ohio Farm Bureau and Nationwide Insurance and their Land as Your Legacy project connects AgCredit members with an excellent tool for working out an effective succession plan.

My brothers and I had wonderful teachers who taught us how to make sound decisions. Sometimes, however, the problems in question require outside assistance. We watched our parents put their trust in Production Credit and AgCredit financial advisors and we have done the same. We want to do our best to provide a way to keep the farm in the family and be fair and equitable to the generations following us. To that end, we are participating in the Land as Your Legacy project and strongly suggest other AgCredit members to consider doing the same.

Providing solutions to inevitable problems before they occur can be a lesson well taught, and hopefully well learned.