Farming families are at a higher risk than other businesses from losing the very land asset that they have been fighting so hard to preserve during difficult times, due to landmines that they themselves planted over many years. These landmines are the product of unspoken conversations, unmet expectations and incorrect assumptions.
During of May and June of this year, I was asked by the Queensland Dairyfarmers' Organisation to talk about the importance of communication when it comes to succession planning for farming families.
My talk was part of two workshops, including presentations on finance, retirement and other succession-related advice, and I was the last person to present.
Listening to the earlier presenters, I couldn't help but notice how perfectly placed my presentation was, as every person highlighted the importance of the decisions that needed to be made by a farming family to ensure that succession runs smoothly and reflects what is in the best interest of each member of the family.
As with QDO's recollection of the day, many attendees shared that they were good at talking about operational farming decisions, including decisions that needed to be made about feed, how to deal with staff or other practical day-to-day farm management topics. However, when it comes to conversations about the future of the family and the farm, they openly admitted they struggled to start probably the most important conversation to ensure that the family farm will be managed sustainably for generations to come.
The feedback shared by these dairyfarming families is not dissimilar to the experience I have had with beef farmers in Central Queensland or families in NSW. I have listened to families who were torn apart by the conflict between generations because they did not know how to overcome the chasm that has been created by the silence on this topic.
How many times have I heard from parents who feel the responsibility to carry on the family legacy and keep valuable land assets and the family homestead safe? Or from their children, who are worried that they have been investing their life into the family farm without any guarantee that their expectations to own this asset will be met one day?
There is no quick fix to help farming families who find themselves in this situation. No one-day workshop can help families to articulate, reflect and decide on how to best build a foundation for the entire family to move forward from.
Rebuilding communication, which includes important decisions for each individual family member as well as the entire family, and creating a foundation of renewed trust takes time, positive intent and a long-term commitment to make decisions that have the best interest of every generation at heart, including the generations to come.
Succession planning decisions regarding future ownership, how this should be structured, how the overall estate should be split to be fair to various family members or how to deal with tax consequences are certainly important but should not be the starting point. These decisions are outcomes of a good communication foundation that allows an equal voice to all, even those family members who are not actively involved in the farming operation.
Anybody in the family who has grown up on the family property will have an emotional attachment to the land and will be impacted by the decisions made. Not allowing their perspective to be heard might lead to a decision that could cause an irreparable family rift.
What the outcome of any finalised succession plan looks like might be different for each farming family ù however, the need to be inclusive and open with communication that has an impact on so many family members is the same for every farming family. Family decisions cannot and should not be made by one generation or one person alone.
Matthew Trace's words in closing his QDO summary of the workshops say it perfectly: "The best advice I can give any farmer, regardless of whether they are in dairy or another type of farming where there is a very valuable land asset that's integral to the success of the business, is to start the conversation now. These issues are not going to go away without a conversation."
Don't let the lack of communication be the landmine that sees your farming family legacy destroyed and leaves only pain and frustration, rather than joint family assets, for future generations.
*Susanne Bransgrove is the director of Liquid Gold Consultants and has a long history working with farming families across regional Australia. To find out more, visit her website www.liquidgoldconsultants.com.au.