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Transition Planning for Farmers: Third-Party Facilitators

Last updated: Apr. 14, 2022 

Bringing the outsider in

Transition planning is one of the biggest decisions a farm family will ever go through. It’s for that primary reason that it is done right the first time. Conversations will be continuous and a constant flow of information between the incoming and outgoing generation are imperative. However, we recognize that emotions may run high and miscommunication may occur in such a lengthy and involved process. One of the most important decisions a farm family may make besides transitioning the farm is to hire a trusted and qualified third-party facilitator or farm family coach.

Who are these people?

Third party facilitators, farm family coaches or business trainers, are typically certified in group work and, if they are working primarily with farm families, generally come from a farming background themselves or at least understand the unique nature of Canadian agriculture. These are the people who we rely upon to guide us through this complicated, sometimes messy, and extensive process.

Why should my family and I enlist a third party?

According to Craig Manness, president of the Impact Group – a consultancy focused on the success of individuals and groups – the reason a farm family often requires an outside facilitator is that objectives may be cloudy and there is a high need for someone to put all the conversations and discussions together in a coherent and proper context. If that person is absent, the process can become considerably more difficult, especially when it comes to ensuring everyone has their voice heard.

The incoming generation want to be engaged in this process, but it’s often seen as the responsibility of the outgoing generation to begin it. For different reasons, there are delays and this can create unnecessary tension between generations. Putting the responsibility into a third party’s hands takes pressure off mom and dad and lowers the temperature on situations that may be getting heated.

Process

There are many ways to achieve unity as a farm family during your transition process, and Manness offers a few general ideas of what goes into a smooth changeover to the incoming generation.

Pre-work: Answering pre-set questions from a facilitator ahead of time gives every family member time to reflect, work through their thoughts and clearly write them down. Later, those same thoughts and opinions are reviewed prior to beginning in a group with a facilitator.

Meetings: A set number of meetings, often two full day sessions, are important to work through every single family members’ thoughts, including spouses who have married into the family, and beliefs about where to take the farm and any peripheral businesses. Naturally, some members have a dominant voice while others pull back. All voices are important and all voices must be heard to consider this process complete.

Equally important is that when one person speaks, there are no interruptions. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with someone, respect and decorum must be shown. An adept facilitator easily manages this small but important detail of the transition.

Hierarchy: Every farm family needs a business structure, especially the incoming generation who are moving into leadership roles. Whether the outgoing generation will stay on as advisors or exit more rapidly, it’s important that new faces, and existing employees, all understand the new direction. A third party is trained to spot efficiencies and opportunities while they create a new or modified hierarchy of roles and responsibilities for a farm family. Many families often label this the most valuable part of the entire transition planning exercise.

Followup: Once initial sessions conclude, facilitators often send out meeting minutes, important objectives, action items and any other key details that a family may require.

Upon request, facilitators will often continue to work with a farm family well after the initial set of meetings conclude. That can include individual sessions working through specific issues that necessitate additional dialogue. Likewise, a third party could act as the administrative person for a farm family’s transition, setting due dates for check-ins regarding specific action items.

Certain families move faster than others for a variety of reasons. There is no set time for a transition plan to conclude or set a plan in motion.

Benefits of a third party

A critical, and easily understood benefit of a third party is that this person is coming in detached from your farm business. Having a person with a distance to the farm, both emotionally and in a business sense, helps the farm family see things from an informed outsider’s perspective. There are a few key areas where a third party proves vital during the transition process.

Tell the truth: One reason farm families engage with a third party is that they sometimes know the farm may need improvement in one of more areas. If the farm is transitioning and there is talk of a secondary income stream through a diversified business, a third party is a natural choice to respectfully, but firmly, push the family members on important questions related to finance, structure, roles and other relevant issues. Nobody hires a third party to be told everything is rosy if the reality is that the farm is mired in one or more serious problems. There may be tough moments in the session, but ultimately no fruit will come to bear if those difficult conversations are not had in a healthy, trusting setting with all family members present.

Emotion management: Transition brings out a range of feelings, which is normal and healthy, but it’s important to have a person with zero emotional attachment to the farm guide the conversation. With no vested interest or “emotional baggage” to check at the door, it becomes much simpler to interpret and understand feelings. A third party hits the ground running, which makes the process more streamlined with greater clarity.

One-time success: If you want to know the value of a talented third party, go through the process without one. When farm families enlist qualified outsiders, be mindful that they are specifically hired to help you complete this process. They won’t rest until it’s done. Families often start eager and quickly fizzle out because the farm gets busy, people take holidays and interest wanes. A third-party facilitator ensures success because that is why they were brought in in the first place.

Industry connections: Depending on what a farm family’s goals are, third party facilitators who work throughout the Canadian agriculture industry are well-connected and may be able to make suitable recommendations to other qualified people such as lawyers, accountants or business advisors with niche understandings.

For a comprehensive listing of Canadian farm advisors, including third party facilitators that can help you and your family through a transition or addition of a diversified business, visit the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors, a coast-to-coast network of agricultural experts for your family’s needs.

Now, let’s learn about a real case study from a Manitoba farm family and how they used a third-party facilitator to ensure transition success.

Click here to read the previous week’s introduction to Transition Planning post.

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