Farm succession planning – where to start

Farm succession planning – where to start

By the time they contacted me, this well-intended couple was nearly to the end of their patience. They’d been to attorneys, asked their accountant and talked to the banker, but they couldn’t get any definitive suggestions about where to start planning for succession. They felt like they were running in circles, asking a variety of questions and getting an even bigger range of expert opinions — often about topics completely unrelated to their concerns.

Kevin Spafford
Kevin Spafford

What they really wanted to know was, “Based on our situation:

• Do the owners, the family, and the operation have the justification for succession planning?

• Do members of the family share common goals? If so, what are they?

• Are there any concerns that will unduly inhibit the family’s ability to implement a plan?

I suggested we start with a family meeting or a retreat. Either way, the act of convening a formal gathering announces to all concerned that succession is important and “we want your participation.”

A meeting allows plenty of discussion time to get things on the table and explore some of the tough issues. It promotes communication and encourages attendees to fully participate in the conversations. When supported by a written agenda and followed up by an action agreement, a formal meeting is the best starting point for succession planning.

Family meetings are relatively easy to plan. We suggest you follow an agenda and meet in a neutral location. Everyone, from grandparents to sons/daughters-in-law, should be invited to attend. Someone should keep notes and if possible record the entire event. Reading the “minutes” of a previous meeting will save time, short-cut potential arguments, and encourage clarity. A family meeting allows all to hear what’s said, when it’s said, how it’s said and in context.

The logistics of a family retreat, on the other hand, will be a bit more complex but may be worth the effort, given the additional time for meetings, combined with a variety of recreational and social activities. A retreat setting allows for more in-depth conversations about the topics that are important in succession planning. The foundation for a constructive family retreat may use the following outline:


As a run-up to the retreat, consider using an assessment tool to learn more about each attendee. Assessment tools can be used to define the motivations, personality, work character, abilities, etc., of a participant. The information can be used for discussion, for a variety of activities, as a way to form work teams, and/or to assign job responsibilities. The organization can use an assessment to measure the leadership culture.


Using the results from the assessments above, compare and contrast the current leadership culture with the desired leadership culture of the organization and then explore opportunities to improve the culture, based on the clearly defined objectives. Create teams of like and opposite personality types and design activities that test abilities to work through a variety of challenging activities. Results, in and of themselves, can be revealing. Applied to team events, participants can learn a lot about themselves, others and their reaction to situations.


From there you can devise action plans that may improve the culture, promote communication around common objectives, and grow understanding throughout the family. In a recent consultation, we convened a two-day leadership retreat designed to:

• Build trust across the leadership team.

• Promote open communication and shared responsibility.

• Pull the team together around a shared experience.


Using the retreat setting, develop communication and create opportunities that build on learning activities. Allow time for each person to write a professional development/personal improvement action plan. Make sure to have each participant share their plan and commit to achievement in front of the group.


Then encourage attendees to become accountable to each other. Invite them to follow up from time-to-time and add a bit of peer pressure to the commitment. Most people respond well to shared commitment and mutual follow-up.

Following our last retreat, the client family enjoyed the interaction and the shared experience has helped them to come together as a team, committed to preserving the family farming operation and creating a lasting legacy.

Kevin Spafford and his firm Legacy by Design ( serve the succession planning needs of farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness owners. Reach Kevin by email ([email protected]) or phone (877) 523-7411.

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