Workshop aims to help students, farm families compromise
November 16, 2006
It has always been UW-River Falls senior Jeffrey McNeely’s dream to take over his family’s dairy farm in Brooklyn, Wis.
The dairy science major said his desire is part and parcel of a farm upbringing.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “You grew up that way, and that’s the way you want your kids to grow up.”
However, the potential that McNeely and his father will have a difference of opinion regarding the farm’s operation is a prospect the 21-year-old said worries him.
“It’s the [possible] disagreement there that’s a concern that I have, and it’s gotta be worked out,” he said.
That is where the UW-Extension and Center for Dairy Profitability’s Returning to the Farm workshop comes in.
McNeely and 12 other UWRF students are participating in the four-day program.
Its purpose is to assist students and families who hope to enter a multigenerational farm venture.
Spread out over two separate sessions in November and February, Returning to the Farm is held annually at different agricultural degree-granting four-year schools in the UW System.
Hosted this year by UWRF, the first session of the workshop took place Nov. 3 and 4.
“[Returning to the Farm] is designed to help [students] and the farm owners to start planning and talk about all of the issues involved with the students returning to the home farm,” said Gregg Hadley, UWRF assistant professor of agricultural economics and UW-Extension farm management specialist. “By sitting down and going through as many of the issues that you can beforehand, it just greatly increases the chance of success.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin is one of the top 10 agricultural producing states in the nation.
“Wisconsin farmers are extremely good at producing things,” Hadley said. “They’re extremely good at producing a lot of milk, a lot of corn ... whatever they produce, they tend to be good at.”
However, Hadley said changes in the farming industry mean that Wisconsin family farmers have to develop good fiscal management skills in addition to production skills.
“The old adage was that to make it in farming, you either have to be good at producing stuff or good on the business side of things,” he said. “And now we’ve reached a time where you have to be good at both.”
The goal of the workshop is for families to develop a sound economic plan that will support the student’s return to, and eventual ownership of, the farm.
“[The hope is] that we have begun to get them to talk about it, and to give them some tools to manage their way through this,” Hadley said.
To reach that objective, he said, families have to determine whether the student’s return to the farm as a business partner is a financially feasible option. To pay that decent wage, family farms often have to expand operations, Hadley said.
“Lots of times that may mean that they have to become productive so that they can generate enough profits to pay the person,” he said. “It may mean that they have to get a little larger [or] take on a new farm business enterprise.”
Hadley said students are sometimes treated like “hired hands” upon their return to the farm, and they shouldn’t be.
“That’s one of the things that this program tries to instill early,” he said. “This isn’t your son or daughter, even though it is your son or daughter. This is your business partner, and they need to be treated as such.”
Hadley said effective farm succession, the transferring of the family farm business to the next generation, is dependent upon an open exchange of ideas that is encouraged.
“A lot of it has to do with interpersonal relations,” he said. “Where these intergenerational transfers fail is when there’s not enough communication and not enough frank conversation.”
To promote honest dialogue, Returning to the Farm participants are given the chance to share ideas and concerns about the farm succession process with their families.
McNeely said he appreciates this facet of the workshop.
“I really like the idea how it [gives] you a chance to sit down and talk with your family ... to actually sit down and meet,” he said.
It was this aspect of the program that UWRF senior Nathan Wilber said he finds most informative.
“I learned to make sure to get everything out in the open and know what everybody’s goals are for the operation so you can kind of be on the same page when making decisions for the operation,” he said.
The agricultural business major from Trempealeau, Wis., said keeping the farm that has been in his family for “six or seven generations” is important to him. The 22-year-old said he worries about farm succession and hopes the workshop gives him the tools to make the transfer successful.
“That’s kind of one of the big things I’m worried about is how [farm succession is] going to work so we can be prepared,” Wilber said.
To some, it may appear that the family farm is in a state of distress. The 2002 Census of Agriculture found that Wisconsin has seen a 75.3 percent increase in corporate farming since 1978.
But according to Hadley, many of the corporate farms are still family-owned.
“That whole, ‘What’s a company farm and what’s a family farm,’ is pretty hazy,” Hadley said. “A lot of the corporate farms ... are families or neighbors that have come together to farm.”
Hadley said he believes any type of farm can be financially successful. McNeely said the benefits of farming outweighed any negatives.
“It’s just a good honest living,” he said.
The second session of the Returning to the Farm workshop will be held Feb. 9-10.