Succession planning in modern agriculture

Article by the US member of InterSearch Worldwide, Charles Aris.

Traditional agricultural organizations relied on passing their business down to younger generations as the owners reached retirement. But as young people continue to pursue different careers, the talent pool has become significantly smaller for farm owners to find viable successors, a trend our Senior Associate Practice Leader Dana Mull witnessed firsthand.

Dana grew up on her family’s farm in southeastern North Carolina. Their cash crop is tobacco, but they also grow other row crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans. She always thought the business would stay in the family, but younger generations followed different paths.

“When I was a kid, we had high school students working on the farm,” Mull explained. “But new regulations and a lack of agricultural programs in education have made it more difficult for them to get involved in this industry.”

According to the most recent agricultural census data, the average age of a farmer in the United States is around 60 and Americans continued moving from rural to urban areas at a steady rate between 2010 to 2020. This means that young people aren’t as inclined to take jobs in agriculture and there are fewer people, in general, residing in rural, farming regions.

Against these odds, Dana’s father was lucky enough to develop a relationship with one young man who took a liking to agriculture and is currently slated as the farm’s successor. But to find this eligible person, he had to become more vocal about his need for farm workers in the community.

One way we’ve seen agricultural organizations successfully connect with their communities is through education. For communities that do have agricultural programs implemented in school, there are generally opportunities for career fairs, meet and greets, or even site visits to local farmers or businesses that can pique students’ interest in this field.

For communities without agricultural programs, we’ve also seen farming organizations create their own school programs to educate young people and inspire careers in agriculture. Got to be NC is one example of a program created by farmers to raise awareness of North Carolina agricultural products and educate children about the local impact of farming. Opening the gates for students to pursue agriculture should be the top priority for any organization, planning their succession strategy, and getting involved in local education is a great way to achieve this.

Dana’s father also had to widen his search parameters to find an eligible successor, which meant recruiting someone from an atypical background. According to Dana, keeping an open mind about your talent pool is essential for the modern succession plan. Young people who have gone to school for agriculture spent time in a relevant agricultural career path and express interest in farm ownership are worth considering when your organization is evaluating its future.

“Every family wants generational succession,” Dana said. “But people don’t have to come from an agricultural family to be successful farm owners. If someone has the interest and is willing to put in the work, they can be trained either by formal education or hands-on work experience.”

One thing to keep in mind if you’re the hiring authority or candidate on either side of this equation is that the best relationships are formed from a mutual stewardship of an agricultural organization’s heritage. Succession between non-family members is a relatively new concept in this industry, so both parties should be open and transparent about how they plan to honor this legacy moving forward. Having candid conversations about the transition with the senior leadership team is one way to increase understanding from all directions.

Dana also explained that outside hires, especially those in line with an organization’s succession strategy, are often successful when mitigated by a third-party advisor. Whether you employ an executive search firm, or you hire outside family members to consult on finding the right candidate, it never hurts to have multiple perspectives on big decisions.

To learn more about the Agriculture Practice of the US member of InterSearch Ww, Charles Aris, contact Eric Spell or Dana Mull.

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Succession planning in modern agriculture

3 min

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