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  • Writer's pictureSteve Hancox

Talking Turkey - A Christmas article on Family Farm Succession Planning

Originally published 8th December 2014

Are you going to plan your family farm succession over Christmas?

Accountants Saffery Champness suggest that "farmers and landowners should take the opportunity to discuss succession planning with family members during the festive period". According to partner Mike Harrison "Communication about such subjects is vital, and opportunities for families to get together are at a premium, so why not grasp the moment?"

At the risk of sounding like Bob Hoskins, it is certainly good to talk. If you were able to have such a conversation while maintaining the Christmas spirit of peace and goodwill to all men, that’s great. But these are deep issues, and emotions often run high. If you find it impossible to imagine having a friendly planning session over the turkey you’re not alone. Here are some comments made in response to a Farmer’s Weekly article on succession planning a couple of years ago: “My father's a farmer. I left 35 years ago… My brother remains on the farm. My observation is that the whole farming "succession" aspect is a mess. It's mixing up family and business…. Any level of discussion with my family are difficult.”

So what is the way forward? Here are some tips which might help:

1. Recognise that many families are struggling with similar problems. They are common issues which can be resolved.

2. Be aware of the “attribution error”. This is a psychological phenomenon which causes people to attribute bad motives to others. (If you trip over a rock I assume you are clumsy; if I trip over a rock I am likely to blame the rock.)

3. Try to externalise the problem as a common enemy which may cause all of you unhappiness. Get on the same side and try to resolve it together.

4. Think about your objectives beforehand. What do you want to achieve?

5. Don’t speak without a purpose. What points do you need to get across? Why? How will they help achieve your objective?

6. Listen to everyone else. Really listen. Reflect back to them what they have said so they know you have heard and understood. Sometimes that is all they need.

7. Know your triggers. How do you know when you are experiencing a negative emotional response? What physical signs (sweating, dry mouth, change in your voice) do you experience?

8. Go to the balcony. If things get difficult, take some time out. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk. Don’t be pressed into saying something (or even agreeing something) you may regret later.

9. Brainstorm solutions together. Make sure you have thought of all the possibilities and don’t overlook a solution which might be better for everyone.

10. To stick with the Christmas theme, here is a story from the Middle East. A man died leaving 17 camels to his 3 children. To one child he left half of the camels, to another one third, and to the last one ninth of the camels. 17 doesn’t divide into 2, 3, or 9 so the children became embroiled in a lengthy and bitter dispute. Eventually they sought the advice of a wise old woman who lived in the village. After giving the matter some thought she told them that she couldn’t give them an answer to their problem, but that they could have her camel if it would help. That meant they had 18 camels. 18 divides into 2 so one child had 9 camels, into 3 so one child had 6 camels, and into 9 so one child had 2 camels. 9 plus 6 plus 2 equals 17, so they had 1 camel left over. After some discussion they decided to give it back to the old woman. Sometimes it is difficult to solve family disputes without external help.

© 2014 Steve Hancox

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