Farm consultant Siân Bushell has spent years guiding families through issues of succession and was brought up on a farm herself. Here’s her take on Becca’s dilemma.
Becca Watkins is right. There is a need for intelligent, energetic people in agriculture otherwise the future is bleak.
The days when the least academic member of the family stayed home to farm are long gone and farming has become a highly skilled profession. But are the opportunities there for both genders equally? Or are we endangering the future of agriculture by limiting opportunities to 50% of the population?
“If you want to farm, marry a farmer.” That was the advice many young women were given in the past. Although you don’t hear it so much these days it often still rings true – the son has the farm, the daughter has to find her own path. This is a hangover from the system of primogeniture where the entire estate was automatically inherited by the eldest son.
Interestingly, a recent survey of family businesses revealed that those in France and the UK lagged considerably behind those in the USA and Germany. Most of those in the UK and France were run by the eldest son, so choosing a successor purely on the basis of age or gender could even result in an under-performing business.
SET EXPECTATIONS EARLY
In my experience very little considered thought is given to succession until it is about to happen. It isn’t planned – it just seems to happen accidentally.
The key is to think about succession early, when the children are still young. Talk about it openly in the household so it isn’t the taboo subject or afterthought it has become in many farming families.
It’s not always an easy line to tread, but it is essential to inform children what would be expected of a successor without piling on the pressure to stay on the farm if they don’t wish to.
What sort of education and knowledge should they have? What sort of experiences? Should they have worked for someone else, or travelled abroad?
Asking these questions and giving this sort of information to children – sons and daughters – leaves the opportunity open because it is completely gender neutral.
I have found that daughters who are overlooked as successors often push themselves very hard to succeed in life, as if to prove their worth to their parents. This can become quite a burden so if I could give one piece of advice to farmers’ daughters it would be this – be direct.
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Many daughters keep quiet to avoid arguments but the resentment and feeling of lack of worth will rear its head in the future and will often be far more destructive to family relationships.
Of course many young women choose not to stay on the farm. I have seen many girls opt for a career that is financially rewarding and then spend their weekends on the farm or with rural pursuits.
For some this is the perfect balance, but others are just living for the weekend because their heart is in the countryside. I have met scores of people in my line of work who have compromised along the way and they regret it bitterly.
It takes great determination for women to succeed in agriculture and yes, they often have to be better than their male counterparts. However, there are always opportunities for those who have a passion for what they do.
If in doubt remember the quotation from Henry Ford: “If you think that you can or that you can’t, you are usually right”.
A couple with a large, successful farming business had three children – one daughter of 15 and 21-year-old twins, one boy and one girl. The twins both wanted to finish their education and travel and had no plans to return to the farm in the immediate future.
When they were asked about their wills in a family meeting the parents became very uncomfortable. The paperwork stated that if anything happened to both of them the son would get three-quarters of the family’s assets and the girls one-eighth each. The daughters couldn’t understand why they were represented in this way, when their parents had brought them up to believe they were all equal.
The parents were mortified and immediately set about changing the will to one-third for each child. When the children were asked if they would like to farm in the future the only one who showed any interest was the twin daughter, and she had never been asked before.
“This example shows how even the most caring and enlightened parents can sometimes assume they know what their children want and how they can be influenced by tradition without really being aware of it,” says Siân. “It is very sobering to think about the effect this could have had on the family should the original will have been enacted.”
About Siân Bushell
Siân Bushell comes from a long line of west Wales farmers.
In 2006 she set up Siân Bushell Associates after training to become a family farm business facilitator. This followed a Masters Degree in Business Administration.
Before that she was partner and then director of a successful dairy farm. She has also been a director and chairman of two dairy farm-related businesses.