Idaho Ag Summit

Dick Wittman of Wittman Consulting presents on farm succession alternatives at the Larry Branen Idaho Ag Summit, Feb. 18.

BOISE -- Drew Eggers retired after 41 years of mint farming near Meridian about five years ago. His grown children didn’t want to stick around and run the farm, so he considered some alternate pathways before deciding to sell his mint still and pack up for good—he even had a carefully researched list of neighbors and budding farmers he wanted to take over. The longtime foreman of Eggers’s operation wanted to stay on the farm, but he didn’t like the risk involved.

“I remember once, we had this huge shipment of chemical unloaded in the shop—probably $150, 250,000 worth,” Eggers said. “And he was just terrified at the thought of if something went wrong with it, too much money on the line. So, we knew we had to keep looking.”

Eventually, he found a young family who was just getting into the farming business. They bought his land and the mint still, kept his three full-time employees on staff, and Eggers is satisfied with the outcome. He even plans to mentor the new family and help them get started in his old business. But he described a lingering uneasy feeling about his own good fortunes.

“I feel a little guilty—can I tell you about the guilt?” Eggers said. “I’m really counting our blessings that we had such a smooth ride, but I feel awful for the other families that don’t.”

Eggers said he feels like his family “gave up” on the farming tradition, and that makes the relief of having everything handled smoothly a little bit bittersweet. But his children are happy and successful in their chosen fields, and he and his wife are satisfied with retirement, so he’s made his peace. Eggers thinks his family has been pretty successful in their own way.

But in western Ada County, where development out of Boise and Meridian is ever-expanding, Eggers said he feels some remorse for his success when he looks at his old neighbors who aren’t so lucky. Not everyone is able to pass on their farmland to someone who will keep farming it, Eggers said, and sometimes the only option is to sell to developers who will farm concrete instead.

Even if developers aren’t breathing down your neck, planning early and considering all your options is crucial to achieving your goals when you retire from farming. Succession planning for family farms is an uncomfortable topic on the minds of many Idaho farmers—and if it’s not on your mind, it probably should be, according to Dick Wittman.

Wittman, who runs an agricultural consulting firm and once managed his family’s 20,000-acre farming operation in North Idaho, was one of the featured speakers at the Larry Branen Idaho Ag Summit in Boise on Feb. 18.

The summit—named for Dr. Larry Branen, former dean of University of Idaho’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences—drew attendees from all arenas of agriculture and all corners of the state for panels and speeches on the theme of “Rural Resilience – Surviving Growth.”

A self-proclaimed “firm believer in the preservation of the family farm,” Wittman spoke to that theme with an optimistic outlook despite the discomfort that often surrounds the idea of farm succession planning.  The average age for an Idaho farmer is 56, Wittman said, citing statistics from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. And while it’s not always pleasant to think about the inevitable, farmers need to consider their plans for retirement before it’s too late.

In years past, the tradition has often been to pass the family farm to the oldest child—often the oldest son. But more and more farm kids are finding options outside the family acreage, Wittman said, leaving aging farmers with no clear line of succession when it’s time to retire.

Even when they have a passion for agriculture, many of those now-adult farm kids find some parts of modern farming unappealing and that may lead them to think following in their parents’ footsteps is a path closed to them.

“Maybe they want to drive tractors or chase cows, but they’re scared of the risk and financial hurdles that come along with farming,” Wittman said. “Or maybe they don’t have the passion for the labor of ag, but they have a desire to own or manage the farm to its best potential…there should be a spot for them too.”

Wittman suggested that the current ideal of success among family farmers—expecting kids will grow into adults with a passion for farming and a desire to carry on family tradition—shouldn’t always be taken for granted.

Rather, families should start planning before the inevitable becomes a reality, Wittman suggested. He said everyone should gather around for a serious discussion, without the expectation of making decisions then and there, to get thoughts, feelings and goals out in the open.

Once the whole family is on the same page, it’s easier to see the path ahead, Wittman said. Arrangements can be made, and plans drawn up without the threat of miscommunications and failed expectations blowing things up in the long run.

And kids aren’t the only option for passing down a family farm legacy, according to Wittman.

He suggested farmers consider other lines of succession, like trusted employees, neighbors or extended family. Many states even have land-matching programs that link farmers looking to get out of the business with budding farmers looking to get in.

Idaho doesn’t have one of those programs yet, but Wittman mentioned the state Department of Agriculture’s planned Farm Forward program, which will serve as a “clearinghouse of information” in linking farmers with any information they need for succession planning.

Eggers said he thought the Farm Forward program, along with other alternatives like land trusts and conservation easements, might have the potential to help some of his old neighbors settle into well-deserved retirement like he has. These options essentially buy farmers out of their agricultural lands—whether for conserving wildlife and natural resources, or simply to keep it out of the hands of developers—and often let those farmers continue to operate how they want to.

Wittman encouraged attendees to consider these routes as alternatives to “selling out” when other lines of succession prove inviable.  Though they don’t offer the bountiful payday that selling to developers might, trusts ensure that working lands stay working, and that’s often more valuable to farmers than any amount of money.

“We don’t get into this for the money, you know—because truth is, we aren’t making a ton of money,” Eggers said. “We do it for the love of it, for the heritage, for the rural values, and we want to see that stick around even when we quit.”

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