It’s easy to get lost in the details of different legal, financial, and tax considerations when it comes to farmland succession planning. 

A few weeks ago, Illinois FarmLink organized a succession event with American Farmland Trust in Homer, Illinois. The focus was on the intangible topics that can make or break the ability of families to work through challenging issues.

Brooke Didier Starks, the founder of Legacy Legal in the Champaign area, opened the event by highlighting five principles she has seen lead to succession planning success with less conflict. She also moderated the panel discussion which featured members of three local families who have figured out unique solutions to how farmland and farm businesses are transferred to the next generation. The family members – Eric Rademacher, Steve Stierwalt, and Darin Riggs – openly shared how each of their families communicated, managed their unique family cultures, and found practical ways to balance the different interests. 

Here are the lessons that most stood out to us from the evening: 

Create a Timeline: Brooke urged attendees to create a goal of where their family wants to be in five years with their succession plan. Then their family should work backwards to create intermediate goals. Without timelines and deadlines, it’s easy to keep letting tasks go and never get things done. 

Talk – Talk – Talk: Keep talking and communicating within your family. Put energy into being clear about what are “must haves”, what are “would like to haves”. and what are “no way in heck” items. Clear expectations can create some friction in the short term. However, those clear statements are easier to deal with than things that are strongly felt but never expressed. You can also benefit from talking to other families who have completed succession planning to learn from their experiences and to get inspiration for your farm succession journey.

Thoughtfully Build Your Team of Experts: Having a good team in place is essential for making your plan and its implementation really work. Brooke’s advice – find experts you connect with and who speak your language. Don’t be afraid to let someone go who doesn’t meet your expectations as soon as that is clear.

Know Your “Business”: By this, Brooke meant that family members should be able to paint a clear picture of the business and legal structure they currently have. She has seen many families have an inaccurate understanding of how the family’s farmland properties are actually legally owned. This is key to understanding how to make a plan moving forward.

Rally Around What You All Can Agree On: Don’t get fixated on the differences between family members when you get started on the planning process. Generate some momentum and good feelings by making progress where there is common ground. That can make the more difficult issues seem less insurmountable.

More than 40 family members joined us for these conversations, a good supper, and to talk with the service providers who were there. The words of Brooke, Darin, Steve, and Eric sparked lots of candid questions and conversations. Hats off to all of the families, including those in the room that evening, who are doing their best to work through the future of their family and their family’s farmland.