3 Cs to protect your farm’s legacy

If anyone knows how to plan for the future, it’s a farmer.

The evidence is as clear and organized as the rows of Concord and Niagara grapes outside my farmhouse window. They represent generations of rewarding work, treasured stories, and careful planning. That’s life on the family farm where I live, and that’s life on farms and orchards across Central Washington.  

Imagine my surprise, then, when I see statistics that point to a lack of planning:
69% of family farms expect ownership to continue into the next generation, but only 23% have a plan, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.

In Washington state, 75% of farmers over age 65 lack a succession plan or identified heir, according to the American Farmland Trust.

I know several Washington state farmers. These are men and women who are already thinking of spring the second the fall harvest wraps up. Why the disconnect?

I can only speculate. For one thing, unlike the weather forecast or that needed tractor repair, retirement planning isn’t always top of mind. Delaying the important in favor of the urgent is common to all of us.

But as I work with families to preserve the legacies of their farms and orchards, I can vouch for them. The same foresight farmers employ to make a living comes in handy when making a retirement plan. Here are three Cs to guide the process.

Collaborate

Whether you will sell your farm or transition it to an heir, the best time to decide is now.

This is especially true if you plan for your farm to pass on to your family’s next generation. Most farmers I talk to prefer this option. They feel connected to the land. When they can pass it on to a loved one who shares this affinity, starting the transition immediately makes sense. That way, the inheriting generation can establish a financial footing and learn the business.

Regardless of whether an heir is apparent, the time to start planning isn’t an age — it’s an answer. Collaborate with your loved ones until you can answer this question: “When I retire, will I sell this farm or pass it on to the next generation?” Yes, it’s a difficult question. For some, it's delayed retirement planning for years and years. But it’s to the benefit of the entire family to answer it ASAP, as the next C makes clear.

Calculate

If you decide to sell your farm, maximizing value is the name of the game. But if you’re transitioning a farm to a family member, you want to do the exact opposite. It’s important to minimize the value of the farm so you can transfer with the least amount of tax.

That’s why it’s vital to calculate the path forward and seek out expertise to help. Tax, legal, and banking professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement. Like an excellent harvest, the best outcomes take time, expertise, and a lot of planning.

You can make significant strides today to mitigate the impact of inheritance and estate taxes. Without this planning, massive tax bills have a way of taking decision-making out of the hands of families. After all, farming is a land-rich business. And taxes aren't paid in land.

So here’s the bottom line. If the retirement harvest you are looking for is a sale, plant with the sale in mind. If your harvest is passing the baton to a loved one, you’re going to want to lay an entirely different type of seed.

Communicate

What’s more important than maximizing money? Preserving relationships.

A lack of communication in succession planning causes all kinds of friction. This can happen in a lot of ways, like when one child inherits the bulk of operations and his or her siblings don’t understand the arrangement. Or when a plan intended to be “equitable” leaves one sibling with the same share of inheritance but the lion’s share of work.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. I remember one family of grape and cherry farmers who identified an heir for the farm early on. The entire family sat down with an attorney, accountant, and banker to discuss the details. Every person was in every meeting. Everyone knew what was going on and why. An LLC was set up to transfer assets over time. The sibling who would operate the farm received resources and protections. And the farm’s legacy was preserved — a legacy the whole family cared about.

When this family gets together for Christmas, there’s no animosity. Why? Because long ago, they collaborated and calculated. Along the way, they communicated.

In short, they did what you might expect a farming family to do. They planned for the harvest.

As a relationship officer at Numerica Credit Union, Jeff Norem specializes on enhancing the lives and fulfilling the dreams of the agriculture community. He lives on a juice grape farm owned by his wife’s family, where he can occasionally be found repairing irrigation pipes, bringing in the harvest, and gaining newfound respect and perspective for local farmers. “I am a better banker than I am a farm laborer,” he says, “although I still find time to take the tractor another round.”

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