Farming, retirement, and transitions

Wisconsin State Farmer
Bob Panzer

Recently I received calls from two farmers in Wisconsin. One caller was upset about many things in her life that centered around their farm and the family members they must farm with. The other caller was upset about the family her husband had decided to farm with a few years back. Both callers had some not so kind things to say about partners, lack of trust, lack of respect, and business practices.

Farming and farmers are like many other small businesses in the United States. Individuals farm for many reasons, and some are more successful than others. Goals vary by farm and farm owners. Some want to make as much money as possible. Some want to be the largest farm in the area. Others want to have the farm that most people in the local community talk about. Others just want to make a living and enjoy a lifestyle. The definition of success varies with each farm and farmer.

As farmers age, there comes a time for decisions to be made about the future of the farm. Past goals may really impact those decisions, and past decisions really impact what the future will be for the farmer and the farm. Some farmers will retire from the farm, some farmers retire to farming, and some retire from farming. Sometimes long-term goals may not be met.

Planning to bring on the next generation needs to start long before the decision to bring a partner into the farm operation. Too often the next generation wants to jump into the farm operation when the farmer and the farm are not ready for a next generation. There needs to be enough income to support those that want to take financial resources to live off the farm along with those on the farm.

Farm size can be a major factor, farm debt load is a major factor, retirement income sources may also be another factor. Planning for the older partner to live off Social Security may be a plan but may not be realistic. I have met farmers that have not paid into Social Security or paid in very little and find the monthly checks to be less than hoped for. Many older partners will need an income stream that includes many sources such as land rent, non-farm investments, and off-farm employment.

Decision-making and how it is carried out is another major point of transition. What decisions can be done jointly? What decisions are left to the older members, and what decisions can be moved to the next generation of leaders? Are younger members ready to make decisions?

I have been on farms and worked with families that had partners in the farm well past the age of 50 that did not make decisions and in some cases, had not been given the experiences needed to make sound decisions. I have also worked with farms that had elderly members that no longer were on top of the game when it came to make decisions on the farm. Each farm is unique and each person that makes up the farm is unique. Earnings can be impacted negatively if good decision-making is not practiced.

Emotions are a major factor in decisions on the farm. It is easy to say all decisions are business based, but in family and non-family arrangements for farm business structures I have witnessed and experienced how emotions can really impact the future of a farm and those that make up the farm. It takes hard work to keep emotions from being a destructive part of the farm operation. It is hard for some to let go of control and just as hard to let someone know when they are not prepared to take control.

Before carrying out a plan to farm business transition, there are few major things to consider. One is the idea of being able to let go of control of the farm. This is really an issue with some individuals. Another issue is being willing to respect others. Some individuals cannot accept the viewpoint of others if it differs from their view of things.

How to resolve conflict is another topic to be addressed. Some individuals believe they are always correct and others are always in the wrong. Work to have facts and not emotions drive the future of the farm business. Finally realize it may take several outside resources to make for success in your future.

Bob Panzer lives and farms in Chippewa County, WI. He serves as a Land Manager for Pifer's Auction and Realty, Eau Claire, WI. He may be contacted at