by Nat Power
Planning for the future of any business or title is referred to as succession planning. Farming succession is exactly that, a plan for future management whereby the farm owner is obliged to enact wishes and practical solutions for what happens next; after retirement, death or a change in circumstances.
ORICoop is determined to bridge the gap of succession with certified organic farmland across
Australia. We are working hard to enable management and/or potential acquisition of good quality certified organic farmland in partnership with upcoming farm managers looking for long term farming options and security.
There are a few how-to documents available from various media channels that give blow by blow advice on creating a strategy, communicating needs and creating a succession plan, James Benson from Next Rural has a website with comprehensive, tailored guides for succession planning. These guides ultimately spruik the same motto, ‘start early and engage outside help’.
I started to think about succession planning in much the same way a teacher described the benefits of having a plan for an essay, the alternative of quickly churning words and meanings with time limitations meant my work was lacklustre. It was the ‘start early’ motto, finally absorbed at university, that directed my attention to the task at hand and helped deliver the work as succinct prose or a well formed argument that ultimately led to better marks and an understanding of the topic. Obviously, farming succession is much more complex than writing an essay, it can take years and it demands the co-operation of all stakeholders to develop and plan for a common goal, plus there are familial bonds to consider, old school traditions to battle and years of historic, identity politics at stake. However, starting early means that problems can be dutifully ironed and circumstantial change can be navigated effectively and if anyone needs some time out, that can also be afforded. The process can be emotionally difficult, time consuming and costly but without a succession plan, farmland can fall into management that care less about regenerative, ethical farming than the predecessors or worse case scenario, the family farm is divided or sold off without the agreement of all involved parties.
Jackie grew up in a farming family in the Hunter Valley. She was one of 2 kids and developed a keen sense of farming and a connection to the land she was raised. She had great expectations that her Dad would teach her the art of farming and in concert with some formal training she would eventually take over the farm, giving him a well deserved break for his retirement. Her older brother, who would have normally been first in line to inherit the land, had no interest in farming and grew up to work in investment banking and raise a family in the inner city.
As time passed Jackie realised that her dream of owning a 5th generation family farm on 100ha was slipping away, despite raising her hand repeatedly for the opportunity. Direct communication with her parents is painful and dismissive. She purchased land she could afford in another jurisdiction while she watches her parents painstakingly manage a farm and farmhouse that they are too old to run as the years pass by. Her Dad continues to avoid succession for his daughter as a possibility, his ambivalence towards the farm’s future almost farcical, a dissipating opportunity to maintain familial connections to the land and carry on good farming practices. Jackie gave her parents options for her to lease a parcel of land at the back so that they would all have somewhere to live without stepping on toes, and to slowly enable her parents to step back as they desired. Then she could learn the lay of the land and the processes of farming while her Dad was still in the box seat. This story is to be continued as there is still an awkward stalemate between her sibling and her parents. The division of assets between siblings is already a tumultuous innings, add a farm into the mix and the distribution of wealth and sentimental land becomes a classic family fallout. These conversations are not easy, despite inevitable mortality but, they are harder and less controlled when the benefactors are passed.
There is also a much broader issue in relation to gender politics and the way women are unfairly treated on family farms, especially in regards to succession. According to a recent article in The Age farm inheritance is still a very testy topic, the estimates for women taking over farms is at 10%. Not much has changed in land management since 1960. Education is changing however and one agricultural college has a 50/50 ratio of men and women learning farm and business skills. Older male farmers have been slow to take passion over gender when making succession decisions. A positive story of how younger generations of potential farmers can add value to farms and upskill while existing farmers oversee management can be read here.
As to the land itself, organic farming adds a new layer of complexity. It takes 3 years for land to be ‘certified organic’ and succession and long term planning become critical to the long term supply of organic food across Australia. The sale and division of family farms does not need to the be only option for quality organic farmland and ORICoop is stepping in to give organic farming the attention and priority it deserves.