So you want your kids to take over the ranch? When are you going to show them how?

Back when I was a television reporter for the Canadian Broadcast Corp., I got a phone call about a farm foreclosure occuring the next day. The group sought coverage on the farmer's victimization by evil bankers, and how neighbors were mobilizing to do something about it.

It was one of the saddest stories I ever covered. Not because the man was losing his farm to the bank, but because he never learned how to manage a farm in the first place. When I interviewed this unfortunate couple, the real story unfolded.

The man's father had died four years earlier. Besides the farm, he'd owned a small construction company and made all decisions for both operations. The “boy” worked the farm, but never managed it. When the old man died, the “boy,” now in his 50s, finally got the chance to try some of the things he had always wanted.

The farm was debt-free when he inherited it but, within a few years, he had run up a large debt he couldn't repay.

There were a lot of city media types there who dutifully told the “victim farmer, evil banker” story. I didn't.

Another scenario

I've seen and heard of similar situations over the years. The old man dies, and leaves the “kid,” who is usually in his 50s or even 60s, in charge of a farm or ranch he's never made a significant management decision on. Invariably, he goes bankrupt.

Contrast that with my friends, Don and Bev Campbell, who ranch near Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan.

When Scott, the oldest of the Campbell's four children, turned 16, Don had him help do the annual financial plan for the ranch. Scott and his brother had complained good-naturedly about how their dad sat in a cool office every summer doing the financial plan, while they worked in the heat putting up hay and moving cattle.

After the first day in the office pouring over the books, Scott wondered whether he might be allowed go back out and work in the heat! The other children, when their turn came, had to learn how to do the planning, too.

Don and Bev had a goal of doing other things with their lives before they got too old. They knew if they wanted their kids to take over the ranch, they had to teach them how to run it.

By the time Scott was in his early 20s, he had taken over from his parents, and they were free to pursue other interests.

Priming your successors

When we hit our 50s, we go through some physical and psychological changes that make us better suited to passing our knowledge on to the next generation, and making greater contributions to the larger community, rather than keeping on with the same old routine. If you're hoping one of your kids will want to take over the farm or ranch, you must do a few things:

  • Start by handing over control of at least one enterprise. When someone such as a feed salesman or buyer calls, you tell them to talk to your son or daughter.

  • Have regular business meetings — weekly is best — and do more listening than talking.

  • Make a working agreement and succession plan, in writing, with dates for when you will turn over full control of the operation.

You may need some professional help working through the details, including having an outside facilitator help your family talk to each other about what each person wants. And for sure, you'll need professional advice in drawing up the legal succession plans. Get it.

Then get on with helping your son or daughter become a successful manager. And don't wait until they're 50 and you're old and decrepit.

If you simply have to be in charge all the time, pray none of your kids will be dumb enough to try ranching with you, and get some therapy.

Edmonton-based Noel McNaughton lectures to groups on “Farming/Ranching at Midlife — Strategies for a Successful Second Age.” For more information, call 780/432-5492, e-mail noel@midlife-men.com, or visit www.midlife-men.com.