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The leaving in legacy
Jackie Mundt

The saying, “farmers never retire, they farm until they die,” is accurate for my paternal grandfather.

Grandpa turned 95 this winter and outside a short Navy deployment at the end of World War II, he has farmed all his life. He is the picture of work ethic and steadfastness: employed full-time at a paper mill while milking cows every day for 40-plus years of his life. In the early 2000s, grandma decided it was time for them to retire and sell milking herd, but grandpa continued as a crop farmer to fill time.

Last fall grandpa made the somewhat surprising decision to take a step back from farming due to his declining mobility. He has had less ability for physical work over the last 10 years, spending most of the time making management decisions and then “supervising” my dad’s and uncles’ work.

The irony of grandpa passing management to the next generation is that my 60+ year old dad is starting to farm after having retired from a 35-plus-year career at paper mill himself.  

My family’s situation is a fairly typical farm transition. Our farm population is aging, with the average at 57.5 years old and steadily climbing and the average age of a beginning farmer is 46.5 years old.

When farmers never retire, they run the risk of their family and business suffering through turmoil when they die. This potential has made estate and succession planning a common topic for workshops at just about every farm conference in the last decade or two.

Thankfully many farmers have heard these messages and taken steps to plan for how their assets will be protected through this transition. Even though my grandpa is still farming, he has had his estate affairs settled for more than a decade.

But assets are only part of a farm’s ability to succeed and thrive. Knowledge, judgement and the experience required to run a successful business can be the hardest things to pass to a successor. The real power of succession planning comes in knowing how people and businesses will thrive without you.

A driver for Marc and my decision to join his family’s farming operation was legacy. We want to work with his family to grow and safeguard the farm and one day pass it on to future generations. Transitioning to the farm has revealed a pivotal paradigm shift for me about how plan and support succession.

Apprenticeship is a common succession approach with observation, assigned tasks and discussions with the current manager. There is value in this approach but it falls short when people spend too long in this phase.

Marc doesn’t work for his family, he works with them. His dad has intentionally stepped back from management responsibilities to provide space for Marc to run the business. His dad is an on-site mentor coaching and giving advice. There is no question about will Marc be ready, he has the responsibility now.

Marc’s dad isn’t just showing faith and support, he is displaying love for his family and legacy by doing everything in his power to ensure they are prepared and protected for a future without him. It sounds so simple but it feels radical.

Powerful emotions are tied to uncertainty of what the future holds for what we have lovingly built with blood, sweat and tears. A powerful succession plan requires caring enough about something to overcome these fears and build so strong that it won’t fail without you.

Leaving a legacy requires leaving. Take time now to plan, support and build the things you love for a future beyond you.

Jackie Mundt is a Pratt County farmer and rancher. “Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service.