The farmer is dead, long live the farmer: succession is rarely so easy

Dad with the dairy under construction

Dad missed out on his dairy

The royal wedding got me thinking about succession. Nobody maps it out more clearly than the Windsors. From the moment they are born, everyone knows exactly where they stand. Not so for many Australian farming families, including ours.

Dad and I loved each other but there just wasn’t enough room for both of us on the farm: financially, emotionally or in terms of management style. Although immensely proud of his university-trained daughter, I think he felt the farm was no place for a “girl” and, besides, this was his domain.

As Dad aged and grew more tired, it was great to have his daughter on hand to milk, feed calves, fix fences, drive tractors and so on but the subject of succession planning was taboo. He would tell anyone who cared to listen that he wanted to be “found dead in the dairy at 97”.

The dairy itself ended up being a rather poignant reminder of Dad’s determination and, ultimately, frustration. The dairy farmer who prided himself on always milking alone built a new 16-aside double-up herringbone in 2005/06. Sadly, he only milked in it a few times. Prostate cancer claimed Dad, aged “just” 77, in December 2006.

His last year was difficult. Dad did not want to admit defeat, so struggled on farming for many months despite being incredibly weak. Finally, the tipping point came when he fell off a tractor and had to be rushed into hospital unconscious.

In the weeks leading up to Dad’s death, the will was able to be discussed. He had remarried only five years earlier and the assumption was made that his wife would sell the farm. I was desperate to keep the farm and it became a bitter battle. In the last two or three weeks before his death, Dad decided that if he did die, I should be given the chance to pay her out and try my hand at farming.

It was almost too late and the indescribable stress was unfair on everyone. Tragically, this scenario is not unique and gets even more complicated when siblings are involved. Don’t let it happen to your family. Get everyone involved early and take advantage of all the resources and expert advice you can find.

Would love to hear how your family has approached this sometimes tricky topic.