Farm succession

Please contact Robyn McPhail if you intend to use this material. 

Family Meetings article

Families sometimes experience communication difficulties. When farm families do so, it impacts on their business.

Issues like inter-generational transfer of the farm, reorganisation of the farm business structure as younger generations mature, purchase or sale of land can create stress in relationships.

Communications Consultant, Lyn Sykes, is well known as a speaker on communication at seminars, and is in demand for her skills in professional supervision by people like Rural Counsellors and Ministers. She has become somewhat of a specialist in facilitating family meetings, and travels all over NSW.

The types of family situations Lyn deals with vary considerably. For example:

  • one child wanting to leave the family business;
  • parents wishing to hand over;
  • brothers wanting to dissolve a partnership;
  • a younger couple unsure about their future;
  • an in-law unsure about where they fit in.

Bringing new family members into a family business is often difficult. Sometimes, inadvertently, negative impressions and messages are given, and pain can result. These issues are often left unaddressed for many years, and therefore, for someone without sophisticated communications skills, become very difficult to broach.

As the facilitator, Lyn has the confidence to ask the questions everyone would like to ask - but nobody dares. The difference is that she has no hidden agenda or ulterior motive.

Lyn chooses not to work alone in these meetings. She insists that the family’s financial adviser - rural counsellor or accountant - or other professional adviser is also present. The blending of professional skills is crucial to the success of the meeting. Lyn believes that both good "left brain" and "right brain" skills are necessary - and she has only "right brain" skills.

It is not uncommon for gender issues to cloud other issues for daughters. Sometimes those issues date back 30 years or more. Often unintentionally, a message is given in a family that men are treated differently. Therefore, different expectations are created.

Lyn has found that, when given an opportunity, family members are very often extremely generous towards one another. But when that opportunity is denied them (by a dominating father, for example), siblings often become extraordinarily mean and materialistic.

Lyn’s first meeting with a family usually takes the whole day. It is important that the meeting provides a safe environment for ALL family members to communicate freely. It is also important to create an opportunity for set patterns to be changed. Lyn concentrates on helping all the members of the family to express their hopes and concerns, so that better understanding develops and better outcomes are created.

Her involvement with the family is usually limited to one or two meetings. The family’s financial adviser keeps the notes and continues the ongoing relationships with the family.

Lyn’s experience has given her great confidence in the process and optimism for the future. All family members are enabled to plan for the future and are able to see more options.

A family story

The story begins with a love match. Isaac’s been sad and lonely for years, ever since his mother Sarah died in fact. Abraham, his father, at last organises an expedition to get a wife for him from among the relatives back in Haran, where Abe and Sarah used to live away back before their giant journey to Canaan. Rebekah and Isaac have little choice, but it proves to be love at first sight. As verse 27 of Genesis 24 quaintly puts it... Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

However, in a bit of an echo of the previous generation, years pass and for all their endeavours Rebekah and Isaac remain childless. In fact it’s 20 years before Rebekah finally gets pregnant, but boy does she wish she hadn’t. Twins who are already fighting in the womb. When they are born the second one comes out grabbing the first one’s heel (he’s called Jacob the grasper). The one born first is larger and stronger, all red and hairy, called Esau.

And so different these two. Esau’s always out with his dad - both the macho male type, hunting their favourite past-time. Jacob’s the quieter stay-with -the-home-flocks-type, his mother’s favourite.

As the older one, Esau would by rights inherit the family land, stock and chattels and be given his father’s blessing that would make him family head when Isaac dies. Rebekah loves her husband but she knows him well, and she sees in Esau, like Isaac, an attitude to life that would not be good for the family’s long term survival. Reading between the lines we get the idea that it is Rebekah, her strength of character and decision-making, that has got them through all kinds of seasons and circumstances since Abraham died.

For Esau, like Isaac, is a kind of Homer Simpson three and a half millennia before his time with no higher goal than satisfying his hunger - "Mmm, red meat stew!" For one day Esau comes in so hungry that when Jacob, who is cooking up a superb stew, does the classic sibling taunt: I’ll only give you some if you give me your... And it’s his birthright, his right to inherit, that Esau hands over, just to fill his stomach.p>

So Rebekah is worried. Is Esau the best one to take over when Isaac gets old? She sees the needed qualities - the sharpness, perception, strength of purpose - in Jacob. She therefore encourages Jacob to go the next step and con out of his father Esau’s other entitlement - the family blessing.

And so we have the famous scene of nearly blind, aged Isaac being duped into blessing Jacob, while Esau is still out hunting for the game to cook in order to get the blessing. You see, Rebekah and Jacob get to work the moment Esau leaves: they kill a goat kid from the flock and Rebekah cooks it while Jacob covers his smooth skin with skins so he’ll feel hairy like Esau. Foolish old Isaac, his belly filled with Rebekah’s savoury stew, blesses Jacob and when Esau returns it cannot be undone.

The result? Jacob clears out for his life’s sake. Esau is raging. Jacob runs away to his mother’s people back in Haran. Indeed it’s 20 years before they meet again. Both by then have many flocks (and wives and families). Both fear the effect of the meeting. But it goes okay. No grudges, although they very wisely agree that now Jacob has returned to Canaan they will settle on farm land well separated from each other.

Farm succession

Some starter questions:

Note that the goal of the small group discussion and the full group report-back is the same as at last time. That is, it’s not so much about getting answers from experts as raising questions and expressing concerns in a supportive environment. We may suggest some strategies for group or community action, but one aim is clear - future support for one another.

  1. How did you get into farming? Tell your own story about getting started. If this does not apply to you, please take the role of "chief listener and encourager".
    Summarise each person’s story using a few key words. Choose words that can be shared with the wider group.
  2. What helped? Looking back over the stories outlined in 1.
  3. What hindered?
  4. Succession from one generation to the next in a family: what has experience taught about ensuring a fair settlement for all siblings in a family?
  5. Some ‘outside the square’ ideas for farm succession and getting keen (young) people on the land.
  6. What is available to help families in their relationships?
  7. In your opinion, what else might help?


Articles published in local newspaper

"How did you get into farming?"

When farmers get together at any time the odds are they will talk about farming and not much else, so it would seem a bit crazy to organise an evening just for farming talk. The topic of the second Family Farming Discussion Evening at St John’s Church was Farm Succession and, after an introduction including a recent report about using skilled facilitators to help families plan and make changes in farm ownership and a very old story of family succession (Esau and Jacob, twins in conflict), small groups got to work. And from the very first question "how did you get into farming?" the talk was quite different from the standard social chat.

The stories told were diverse: memories were searched for the details and interesting facts were uncovered. Looking back it was recognised that good advice, low interest rates, a good family reputation and a personal one too, by way of a track record of some farming achievement, all helped get onto the land, as did high inflation (increasing equity), access to a guarantor, tolerant bank managers and stock firms and parents with a good attitude, willing to explain their approach but not having to be in control. Other local farmers have proved good mentors, a suitable marriage partner committed to farm ownership is a bonus and you can always throw in a dose of luck and good timing.

What hinders gaining farm ownership is the reverse of many of these, plus debt, death and gift duties, advisers playing safe, adverse climatic conditions and some significant family issues. Disputes in the family over what is intended, cautious parents reluctant to hand over and a large number of siblings can all make succession difficult.

So what does experience teach about ensuring a fair settlement for all members of a family? Good communication - listening as well as talking - came out as number one. Keeping wills updated and communicated; planning ahead, but planning flexibly, open to review as aspirations change; revisiting companies or trusts set up to give a fair share for this reason and also because laws change; and the choice of trustee, with key qualities of being astute, understanding the objectives, skilled with people and (despite the law now allowing this) not being a beneficiary of the trust.

An invitation was offered to the groups to think ‘outside the square’ for ways to get keen young people onto the land. Here are some responses:

  • be forward thinking as parents;
  • do it earlier rather than later, allowing young people to make mistakes early enough in their farming career to learn well from them;
  • diversify to involve different family members in viable farm-related businesses;
  • save to buy through work in a range of contracting services;
  • use lease-to-buy arrangements;
  • develop interests and other options for retired farming parents;
  • develop skills and creative thinking through Young Farmers’ Club;
  • develop off-farm investments;
  • think hard about the importance of ownership as opposed to leasing.

Are we especially attached to land ownership in NZ? Do people hold onto land for sentimental reasons? Land ownership feels like long-term security, but recent years have tested that. Can we develop a more flexible relationship to the land, ready to put heart and soul into the current place, but willing to let go and move on when the time is right?

Once again the discussion produced too much to fit in one article alone, so more next week (editor willing) on what can be done to help farm family relationships, especially through times of transition in ownership and control. Also there will be one more Discussion Evening before the winter ends - on Monday August 2.

Successful Family Farm Succession

When farm families experience communication difficulties it impacts on their business. There is stress too with issues like inter-generational transfer of land or reorganisation of the farm business structure to include younger generations. The Family Farming discussion on Farm Succession, held recently at St John’s Church, heard about a NSW practice of using skilled facilitators to help families in times of transition. Small groups discussed the idea and drew together experience of what is available to help in this way in this district. Lyn Sykes, a facilitator in NSW, observes that "given the opportunity, siblings are extremely generous. When the opportunity is denied them by circumstances they can become extraordinarily mean."

The local group noted that a number of people are available to call on for family meetings: some agricultural consultants would do this well, Federated Farmers’ personnel, Mid-Canterbury Presbyterian Support counsellors, church ministers and appropriate friends. The main thing is that it is someone who has the family’s confidence, is not personally involved in the situation and can get the family around the table to talk and listen.

Family situations might include:

  • one child wanting to leave the family business;
  • parents wishing to hand over;
  • brothers wanting to dissolve a partnership;
  • a younger couple unsure about their future;
  • an in-law unsure about where they fit in.

What is needed in each case is a safe environment for ALL family members to communicate freely.

In response to the question what else might help, the local discussion group came up with one quick response: money! ‘Can we afford to get a facilitator?’ may be a block so it would be good to have access to lower cost services. Honesty and a positive outlook in families also makes for better outcomes, along with others in the district showing a basic respect for the privacy of the family group. The purpose of a facilitator is not to tell a family what to do but to enable them to find their own solutions in an environment of open talk and willing listening, so that the solutions are more likely to be lasting and okay for everyone involved.

It is worth considering that such a process is not something just for "problem families" (whoever they might be). How would we distinguish the problem ones? Aren’t we all just families trying to do our best together for different (and wonderfully diverse) family members? It would be great if it became a natural thing to get a facilitator in, not because "we are a family with problems", but just because "we are a family looking at change".

There is one more opportunity this winter for getting involved in a St John’s Church Family Farming Discussion - next Monday August 2. Robyn McPhail has a research topic to prepare and she is looking for good base data and practical experiences to work from. In academic terms the topic is ‘ecotheology’ which actually means all the things that go with living on the land and doing it well in a way that will be sustainable into the future.