Farming families can avoid destructive conflict by making succession plans now

Succession planning was the focus of a discussion by a panel of experts at The Yorkshire Post in conjunction with our 2018 Rural Awards. Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of CLA North makes a point during the discussion. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Succession planning was the focus of a discussion by a panel of experts at The Yorkshire Post in conjunction with our 2018 Rural Awards. Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of CLA North makes a point during the discussion. Picture by Tony Johnson.
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Reluctance among farmers to talk about how their businesses will be passed on to the next generation can “destroy” families by storing up costly conflicts, a panel of agricultural and legal experts said as they urged people to grasp what is an ideal period to address succession.

Setting out how the farm will be inherited from one generation to the next can strengthen family bonds but by ignoring the issue, families are putting perhaps their most important decision at risk of future acrimony.

As reported in The Yorkshire Post on Monday, anecdotal evidence suggests that one in four UK farming families are not speaking to one of their own due to a fall out about who takes over the farm in the future.

But a debate staged at The Yorkshire Post in conjunction with our 2018 Rural Awards yesterday heard that the process does not have to be divisive.

Charles Mills, who farms near York and is the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s show director, believes a wise approach to initiating what can be difficult conversations is for families to understand what their next generation’s ambitions are.

“The first thing you have to do is ask the siblings do they want to see the farm business stay as it is or do they want to see it broken up,” he said. “If they have a desire to see it stay as a whole then that brings a common bond.”

Conversations around succession are not made any easier by land values which have soared over recent decades and have inflated the value of farms, Mr Mills suggested, as he urged fellow farmers to make use of professional advice.

“What you’re sat on can destroy your family,” he said. “It isn’t easy to talk about but you do have to take advice, without a doubt.”

Succession must become normalised as a topic of conversation, panel members said, with Dorothy Fairburn, northern director of the Country Land and Business Association, adding: “If you discuss the issue early enough, it becomes something you do talk about.”

Family members also have to realise that succession is not always equitable between siblings.

Margaret Simpson, a partner at Silk Family Law, explained: “You can have the issue where the farm has gone to the farming son and the other siblings have had less because the son devoted his life to the farm like his father.”

Miss Fairburn said: “Being fair doesn’t necessarily mean dividing things equally. As long as people understand that, then they know what’s likely to come and that reduces that sibling conflict.”

It is often a major life event that prompts farmers to begin discussing succession planning, said Paul Tompkins, vice chairman of the national dairy board at the National Farmers’ Union who farms near York.

Ms Simpson said her law firm often discovers a lack of succession plans when being called in to represent farmers in divorce proceedings. She believes farm accountants have a responsibility to ask farmers if they have succession plans in place.

SEIZE THIS MOMENT TO MAKE PLANS

with direct farm support payments looking set to remain in place for two years after Brexit, now is the time for farmers to seize the chance to address succession plans, the CLA’s Dorothy Fairburn said.

“Brexit is going to be a big life event and the message I think really we need to get out is for people to start having these discussions and to start thinking about their futures, prompted by the changes that are coming.

“We have had a steer on what those changes are going to be and there is a short time now that continues as normal that you should be getting your house in order and just deciding really what you want to do.

“If the end is in sight, now would be a time to get out. The expectation is the value of land will probably fall so sell now rather than hanging on. Look at things you can do and invest in with the BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payment you have at the moment.”