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Split The Farm Or Split The Family?

Updated: May 28


Adapted from the March-April 2023 Issue of Forest Landowner Magazine


Bill Yeager had warm memories of his grandfather’s farm. His fondest recollections of Christmas and other holidays with uncles, aunts, cousins, and family friends were there. Hunting, fishing, and retreats with family and friends on the farm filled him with treasured memories.

As an orthodontist, straightening and fixing teeth kept Bill busy. But when the opportunity to buy a neglected farm with a few hundred acres of timberland came available, the dream of giving his family the same gift his grandfather had given him inspired Bill to buy it.

He dreamed of giving his children and their children’s children the same gift his grandfather had given him. For Bill, maintaining and developing the land was a treasured gift he would give to great-great grandchildren he would never see.

Leaving the forestland as a legacy became his all-consuming passion. Bill loved the land. Under his stewardship, he produced abundant timber, phenomenal wildlife, cherished times with friends, and fabulous wealth creation.

At Bill’s death, his heirs split into two ways of thinking. One group has discovered Bill’s love for the land and desire for a continued legacy. The other camp lives in the city and wants cash.

Unable to agree, the dispute splits the family. In the end, they sell the farm to the highest bidder.


One year after Bill’s death, his dream and legacy are dead.

Bill’s story gets repeated all the time. The legacy of stewardship is broken. What provided priceless good times and family bonding for generations is reduced to an asset with a price tag.

What could have been done?


It begins with communication. Bill could have started conversations with family members about his dream. These discussions would center on how his vision might play out after his passing. How would the land be governed? Two-way communication allows heirs the opportunity to learn about the dream and buy-in. Bill and his heirs must agree on the values and purpose of continuing the forestland.

Landowners/family leaders should put these conversations in writing and review them each year with family members. This annual meeting should start with the topic of “Why?” Why are we bothering to have this property and working to steward it in succeeding generations?

Bill could have consulted with an attorney to make the land a separate entity. Being its own business entity allows the farm to have a unique bank account and accounting. Bill would have shared the accounting reports with heirs to heighten buy-in.

It is doubtful that Bill’s heirs would want to put their own money into its upkeep, so the farm must be self-sufficient. Practicing profitability before Bill passed should have been an annual goal.

No one gets to drive forever. You give up your keys, or you have them taken from you. Bill needed to involve family members in running and administrating the farm while he was alive.


With all continuity planning, each generation of leadership must steep the next generation in the family’s values. Bill could have created a team with interested family members to help him manage the farm. In this way, they will earn the right to participate in decision-making and ownership. An annual plan and a quarterly call will also facilitate this.

At Bill’s passing, those who were not interested could have received other assets of comparable value or parts of the farm could have been sold to buy their interests and keep the farm balance for engaged family members. This could provide for a happy ending.

THE LYLE FAMILY

Unlike Bill, the Lyle family did the hard work of continuity planning. They hold over 10,000 acres and execute a plan that involves six generations with a two-hundred-year perspective. The family members enjoy the property while maximizing every acre for financial sustainability. Family Christmas get-togethers are lively with hunting, horseback activities, and air rifle contests. The family legacy they continue bonds generations together.

The Lyle family transfers their farm to the next generation using an estate tax credit, and the adult children owners get involved in decision-making in their twenties. The property, now held by an LLC, includes a valuation process for any member who desires to exit. The land provides never-ending generational bonding opportunities. It is impressive to witness.

Family forestlands should have a three-pronged approach for success: positive cash flow, effective communication with all stakeholders, and enjoyment. This process works with properties of hundreds of acres or tens of thousands.


THE ROBERTS FAMILY

Consider the Roberts family. Their family forestry business employs hundreds of people and, over time, acquires more than 50,000 acres of land, virtually all purchased by the founder. But the third generation of cousins struggles with harmony as they have conflicting views of dividends and enjoyment. They no longer celebrate holidays together. As the fourth generation gets involved in ownership, the pieces of the pie get smaller. When the timber market fluctuates, intermittent timing of timber sales causes a cash crunch and brings the situation to a head. The family leadership addressed liquidity and exits for disgruntled owners in four financial decisions:

  • Sell 6,000 acres to provide some liquidity for operating between timber harvests

  • Redeem ownership of urban cousins

  • Convert 1,000 acres of timberland to irrigated farmland for substantial annual income for maintaining the property. This allows stamina to wait for more robust timber markets to harvest for maximum income rather than selling just in time to cover operating expenses.

  • Convert the partnership to an LLC with a manager and operating committee with representation from each of the five second-generation families

The Roberts family now holds an annual meeting in which members receive a financial report and an update on the stewardship of the land entrusted to them. These changes continue the purpose of the founder to love the land and continue their purpose as stewards.

DREW

A non-family leader I admire is Drew. His career includes twenty-five years managing a family’s timberland and acreage holdings of several hundred thousand acres. The family patriarch is a wise investor and trader of land. The four children now own their parcels and membership interests in entities with ownership of more extensive tracts.

Through dozens of transactions over 50 years by the patriarch, there is little connection between family members and the land. Drew convinces the patriarch, now 80, to keep the one tract with the fondest memories and make this property the family’s “forever farm.” This property is held in perpetuity and developed to provide enjoyment for each family member. Hunting, fishing, horseback riding, horseshoes, boating, and nature trails are established. The property includes four cabins and a main house, so each family has a separate place, and there is a central location for meals and overflow accommodations. The patriarch and Drew’s dream will live beyond them.

Here’s an effective model for continuing the purpose of stewardship, whether there are 100 or 100,000 acres:

A) Provide something for everyone to enjoy. B) Generate annual income to keep the property maintained between timber sales. C) Provide an exit strategy for any owner desiring to leave, with a discount from valuation and installment payments over time to allow the entity to remain healthy and sustainable. D) Quarterly communication, annual members meetings, and stories to share.

Communication and teamwork make the dream work. Such dreams are so worth it.


Don’t split the farm or the family; leave a legacy.


Harry T. Jones

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