Top 3 Regrets of Retired Farmers

Powerful lessons learned the hard way

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In life, there’s an easy way or a hard way to do most things.  There are countless examples of this in agriculture, and farmers are resilient as the result of facing challenges and overcoming unexpected obstacles the only way they can:  the hard way.

Farm life is not a checklist.  It’s a practice.  Farmers must be agile, proficient, and always forward-thinking in order to succeed.

Why then, is it so hard for farmers to use these strengths to secure their farm’s legacy and its next generation of business and ownership?

The human tendency is to learn from failure, not from success

A whopping 80 percent of farmers fail to plan for their transition and retirement.  We know the primary reason why: because farmers are focused on managing each day’s operations and challenges, and therefore it never becomes a top priority to tackle longevity ‘today.’

What exactly are its effects?  Perhaps only through the wisdom of retired farmers themselves, can we provide proper perspective on how detrimental a lack of planning can be to your lifeblood.

Top 3 regrets shared by retired farmers

By definition, your lifeblood is the indispensable factor that gives your Ag business its strength and vitality.  Without it, operations cease.  Whether you intend to pass it on to family, transition to new ownership, or stay on working the farm as long as you are able, it still takes a plan to be successful and survive unintended consequences.

Here are some of the most important regrets farmers have learned through experience:

1. Regret:  “Putting off doing this resulted in losses for both my family and our farm.” Jeanne Bernick, Certified Family Business Advisor with K·Coe Isom confirms that’s one of the biggest regrets of clients going through succession – they always wish they had started the process earlier.

Consequences: Bernick recently sat around a kitchen table with the family of a 74-year-old, third-generation farmer in Iowa.  An unexpected health scare prompted the family to meet and discuss succession and retirement options.  “It often takes a significant life event, such as a death or divorce, for farm families to work on their transition plan,” explains Bernick.  “Many times, farmers just don’t know how to start.” This puts family relations, farm legacies, and retirement options at risk.

Lesson Learned:  Enlist an advisor early to keep you on track and navigate the transition – whether you think it might be 3, 5, 15 or 20 years away.  They can map out your budget and cash allocation ahead of retirement so that you’re positioned to retire when you want or need to.

Bernick adds, “Getting started with the transition navigation process should never feel intimidating, as it starts with a basic assessment of all the parties involved to help develop a timeline and plan forward. Advisors can facilitate the process and monitor progress so that you can focus on daily operations.”

2. Regret: “We thought our will would take care of everything and be enough.” According to Jim Rein, K·Coe’s Next Gen advisor and estate planning expert, “The most common regret we see with farm families is not having a comprehensive estate plan.  Many folks will complete some form of estate planning (having a will or living trusts for example), but think once that’s in place they are done with estate planning for their entire lives, and that’s often not the case.”

Consequences: During a tour of a family operation in the Midwest recently, a K·Coe client pointed out a neighboring operation that was adjacent to theirs.  He said, “You should have seen that place 10 years ago.  It was beautiful….well run, well-maintained equipment, and just a really great operation.”  He continued to share that the patriarch passed away and the operation fell into disarray, adding that the surviving family members were fighting over the estate.  “I heard he did some estate planning like a will or something, but it obviously wasn’t enough to keep the thing going the way he wanted….what a shame.” Then he added, “That’s why we’re taking this drive….I don’t want my operation to end up like that.”

Lesson Learned:  It’s crucial that you make sure your planning fits with your desires and dovetails in with current and future situations that arise.

Estate planning is a process and should be reviewed and “tweaked” from time to time, especially in conjunction with altered family circumstances, economic changes, and tax law revisions.

3. Regret: “We assumed our kids would buy and run the farm, and that would take care of our retirement.” Lance Woodbury, K·Coe’s Next Gen advisor and family business expert, describes a recent family meeting between retirement-age parents and their on-farm adult children, where all family members had the chance to share their expectations of the impending transition. “As discussions progressed, it became clear that the younger generation expected most of the business assets would come to them in the form of a gift, recognizing their two decades of investment and sweat equity. The parents, however, anticipated they would sell a significant portion of those assets to their on-farm children, in order to equalize their estate plan with off-farm heirs.”

Consequences: The lack of group discussion created disappointment all around the table, with one younger generation member feeling as if they had wasted valuable career-building time for something they would have gotten regardless of their return. Pain and stress now overshadow family gatherings and everyday conversations. People are angry, and the transition is in jeopardy – not from prices or weather or factors outside of their control – but from a discussion they failed to have. Woodbury adds, “If they had talked about their goals and intentions 10 or 15 years ago, family relationships might be better instead of worse. Strategies could have been developed to meet everyone’s needs. They could have focused on celebrating; now they face a setback.”

Lesson Learned:  Get help with family matters, and be proactive – rather than reactive to events we know will happen.  An advisor can create a Next Gen farm legacy plan that facilitates family business succession discussions with family members and key players who have dedicated their lives to the business.

While farmers pride themselves as natural stewards of the land, and often have generations of success as backing – the only guarantee toward the future is taking a thoughtful step into it.  Those who focus solely on today are taking on a huge risk for themselves, their family, and their legacy.  This is one lesson on the farm you don’t want to learn the hard way.

K·Coe’s Next Gen experts are dedicated to the food and agriculture industry, and understand what matters most to you. By developing a long-term strategy that is reflective of your business and personal goals, together we will generate, assure, and enrich your legacy.

Our experts can help to develop your next gen plan, facilitate important conversations, navigate the transition, and protect the asset base you’ve worked so hard to build.

For questions or to get started, contact our Next Gen team:

Jim Rein at jim.rein@kcoe.com,

Jeanne Bernick at jeanne.bernick@kcoe.com, or

Lance Woodbury at lance.woodbury@kcoe.com.

For more information on K·Coe Isom’s Next Gen services, visit https://www.kcoe.com/services/next-gen/

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