May 17 2016 07:00 AM

Make time to sit down with family and talk succession planning.

Raise your hand if you have an up-to-date, written, signed, notarized personal will? Keep your hand raised if that also contains a succession plan for the farm.

We were asked this question last month at our young cooperatives meeting in Seattle by Elaine Froese ( who is a farm family succession planning coach.

I will be honest that my hand was not among the few that were raised. It's one of those items that seems to be a perpetual resident of my to-do list with no clear plan on how to proceed. I left Elaine's session feeling like I had tools to start tackling succession planning.

The first step is having the right strategy to make those hard discussions around farm succession planning as easy as possible.

1. Have regular family meetings
I know this can be tough with farming schedules, but having regular meetings actually makes your farm more profitable. Put it on the schedule, make it a priority and make it happen. Meet at a neutral and comfortable location for all members. Make sure everyone is well rested and fed. All family members who have a stake should have a seat at the table including those who don't hold on-farm positions.

2. Make an agenda and stick to it
Clearly state your goals for the meeting ahead of time. Stay on topic; long-term planning meetings should not be a time for daily management discussions. Make sure each person has a chance to talk, Elaine even suggests a "talking stick" to pass around to each member who would like to speak. The person holding the item gets to share without interruption. Truly listen to the person talking.

3. Clear the air
Family farming is difficult. Often personal and business matters are closely mixed, and it can be a tangled mess. Elaine encourages discussing the undiscussable. Lay it all on table and take the time to clear up those issues that might be speed bumps in long-term planning. Each farm family's undiscussables look different, but some topics might include business growth and debt, nonfarming siblings, and power of attorney. Don't be afraid to ask for outside help to mediate if some topics are just too difficult to navigate.

We are not immortal, and facing some of those tough discussions now as a family can save a lot of grief and heartache later. I think one of the main reasons we put off having these discussions as farm families is because it's tough!

Balancing personal and business relationships is a daily struggle when you work 365 days a year together. No one likes to bring up the tough topics at the table and know you still have to work at the barn together that afternoon.

I encourage you to carve out the time and move that item to a place on the to-do list where it can be accomplished. Six months or a year from now, I hope if I asked the same question we would all be able to raise our hand. Or at least know we were taking the steps to having a personal will and farm succession plan in place.

Darleen Sichley

The author is a third-generation dairy farmer from Oregon where she farms in partnership with her husband and parents. As a mother of two young boys who round out the family run operation as micro managers, Darleen blogs about the three generations of her family working together at Guernsey Dairy Mama. Abiqua Acres Mann's Guernsey Dairy is currently home to 90 registered Guernseys and is in the process of transitioning to a robotic milking system.