Determining the future of a family farm is not an easy process.

Determining the future of a family farm is not an easy process.

As opposed to a standard businesses, these operations integrate personal opinions, perspectives and feelings that can complicate decision making. With the right approach, families can reach a shared and positive outlook.

Lance Woodbury is a consultant and author who has worked with many agriculture families in this process. During the annual McPherson County Farm Forum Wednesday, he spoke to local producers and business people about how to properly “Plant the Seeds of Succession.”

“Family businesses are an important resource,” he said. “I think a good question for you is, ‘Is your family willing to talk about the tough stuff?’”

Wearing many hats

He first began by identifying three hats producers wear as the operators of their businesses.

The first is management, which is measured in compensation. The second is owner, which is measured in return. The third is family, which is measured in relationships.

The conflict and confusion between these three roles, especially in the third area, creates personal conflict in decision making.

At the same time, there also is a stair-step process that these businesses go through over time. On the first level is survival mode, followed by a stable mode. Further down the process lies a professional level, and then finally an institutional level.

These levels are affected by the dynamics of the business’ operation.

Three useful approaches

With all these factors in mind, Woodbury said it is important to have the right approach to succession, which is creating certainty, developing a shared perspective and fostering forgiveness.

To create certainty, families need to be committed to working together to develop common values and be ready to discuss plans for assets.

“More certainty leads to a stronger legacy,” he said.

Developing a shared perspective also is important for families, especially as each individual comes with their own expectations. Woodbury said the key is changing “I” knowledge to “we” knowledge.

“The process is not easy,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet to having that conversation. You often think hard work is outside and physical labor or slugging through financial information. Communication is hard work, and it’s some of the hardest work you’ll do in your family.”

For effective communication, all parties must work through a cycle involving reflection, mutual education, planning and action.

The last valuable step in succession planning is forgiveness.

“In any organization in which you work together, conflict is unavoidable,” he said. “The choice you make is how you’re going to deal with it.”

Conflict can prevent forward motion and can lead to permanent damage for relationships or the business itself.

“Forgiveness changes everything,” he said. “The family that understands the rewards of forgiveness creates the foundation for their legacy and plants the seeds of a successful succession process.”

With these three approaches in mind, Woodbury says families can have a successful future.

“Once you take care to do that, your next tears — and it often is an emotional process — may come from certainty, a shared perspective and forgiveness,” he said. “You will find those tears water the family with as much sustenance as the rain that waters your crops.”

Contact Jenae Pauls at and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSentinel.