With so many families struggling to have the all-important succession conversation, Abi Kay spoke to one young farmer who has gone through the process to find out how he handled things.
Twenty-six year-old Doug Fleming is one cog of four in the Winfield Farm enterprise, based in the Scottish border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Doug’s mother, father and brother are all partners in the core business, which covers 223 hectares (550 acres) of mostly arable land, while he separately rents 89 hectares (220 acres) next door. The family have also invested in a 100-strong herd of suckler cows, as well as a biomass boiler and two on-farm holiday lets.
Asked why he had chosen not to become a partner in the main business, Doug explains: “I did engineering at university and worked elsewhere, so I was not really focused on coming back to the farm. Then my brother expanded a bit and was thinking of taking someone on, which drew me back.
“My brother was already a partner before I came home, but we thought there were more opportunities if I started my own business rather than just coming into the main one.”
After Doug’s return, the two brothers began discussing succession between themselves, but never brought it up with their parents.
“We just did not have an outlet or a good opportunity to do it," he recalls.
“We were our own downfall, because we did not create the opportunity, we were just letting things keep going and everyone was probably thinking about it, they were just letting it keep going without anything being said.”
The thought of making his mum and dad feel pushed out was what Doug feared the most about talking to his parents.
“I did not want them to think ‘he has just come home and he is going to take over and shove us out the way’."
“That is really not what you want to achieve, but it is difficult to go around saying it.”
Don’t be your own downfall, create the opportunity to start a conversation
Farming and the life attached to it is emotional; understand those emotions and work with them
Make sure any succession plan takes account of what everyone wants – not just one person or one generation. Parents still need a wage during retirement
Why would you hold back from having a conversation with your children about the future you have spent years trying to create on farm?
These sensitivities exist in succession discussions for any family-run business, but Doug is convinced things are harder for those working in farming enterprises.
“There is too much emotion involved,” he says. “Growing up as a farmer, you are told it is a lifestyle and it is fantastic.
“You are brought up around it. Compare this to somebody who owns a factory; their kids do not get involved as much.
“You are always there – you have got so much emotional attachment to this bit of land. It is difficult to get the emotion removed and look at it in a business-like way.
“I think it is super-difficult, especially for somebody who has worked really hard all their life.
“To see somebody coming in to take it away from them, I know it is not quite like this, but it can feel this way if they have put their blood and sweat into the thing.
“It can be difficult to accept when your time is done.”
With so much emotion surrounding the farm, it is easy to see why Doug brought the topic up slowly.
“It was getting on top of me. I do not know if it was getting on top of anyone else. I think in his heart of hearts it was probably getting on top of dad a bit, but he will never admit it.”
In the end, it was a Young Farmers leadership course which gave Doug the opportunity he was looking for to talk to his parents.
“The woman who ran the course was very hot on succession and what you need to be working out and what you need to be looking at. So coming home after doing it opened the dialogue up, just from ‘what have you learned?’
“I brought up a few points, only for mum and dad to say ‘we have sorted this’. Because it had never been discussed, we did not know what the situation was and it was surprising how much they had actually done for us.”
Doug happily admits he found himself in a fortunate place thanks to the forward-planning of his parents.
“Everything had been covered without me realising it, so there was nothing we actually had to do, it was just finding out all the information which helped," he says.
“You hear a lot of stories of things going wrong and people not having a clue what is happening.
“We have been through it as a family and I would never go through it again, I would sooner walk away.
“What were they fighting over? Something which loses money? I just do not see the point in it. It is just greed.”
One way to avoid a bitter family feud is to make sure any succession plan takes account of what everyone wants – not just one person or one generation.
But Doug acknowledges he had not considered how this would work in practice.
“Mum and dad going forward would still need a wage from the farm in retirement whether they were here or not. “This was one thing I had not really thought about, I just thought about how to set everything up.”
Fortunately, Doug’s parents had accounted for this, and opened up the holiday lets to provide themselves with a wage when they take a step back from the farm.
It is at this point when Doug hopes to become a partner in the core business, but nothing is set in stone and the brothers are keen to take advantage of any other opportunities which come their way.
“We have not put a timeframe on it, timeframes are stupid."
“You could get hit by a bus tomorrow and then your timeframe is out the window, but I do not know why anyone would not sort out a plan.
“Families should start talking about succession as early as possible.
“As soon as you have kids you need to start thinking about what you are going to do, whether you are not going to give them anything or give them everything.
“You need to have something in place even if it is just a plan of ‘in 20 years’ time we are going to sell this’.
“You just need to start thinking about it and communicate it as soon as your kids are old enough to realise.”
Despite the ongoing push for farmers to talk succession, the reality is these vital conversations often do not take place.
For those who have not yet had the courage to have the talk, Doug has some advice.
“I think they will get a good enough response if they say ‘we need to go for a cup of coffee, go in the house and sit down and talk about this’.
“It is probably bugging everybody if it is not being discussed at all. It does not need to be anything fancy, even just a coffee break and a sit down with everyone.
“That is all we have ever done, we have never had a fancy meeting about it, we have even talked just standing in the yard.
“Just bring it up, what have you got to lose?”