How to pass the farm on to the next generation is a puzzle as old as time itself. Inevitably, the question will be asked...who’s next? According to Michigan State University, discussing and planning for the evolution of the family farm should include a close look at the five D’s – death, disability, disaster, divorce and disagreements. The idea of discussing these important topics can foil the best laid plans.
And as Mike Tobias of Nebraska N.E.T. News and Harvest Public Media found out, sometimes the best way to pass on the family farm may be no more complex than a handshake, a hug or a parental nod.
“Hang on a minute…what do we got in here?”
It was the summer of 2000. Kelly and Riley Skrdlant had a lot on their minds. At this moment, whether a skunk was hiding inside irrigation pipe. But long term they were both thinking about the future of the Skrdlant family farm.
Riley was 18…fresh out of high school with a passion for working with cattle…and desire to do something different than most of his classmates, and that’s stay in agriculture.
Riley Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska (2000): “A lot of people tell you if they could sit in an office and make money they would, but I’d rather work from sun up to sun down for it and sweat it out.”
Kelly, Riley’s dad, wanted this to happen, just like he took over the farm from his father. But Kelly had concerns. Running a farm was getting expensive. Fuel, fertilizer and equipment costs were going up.
Kelly Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska (2000) “I think he’d make a very good farmer. But it’s tougher and tougher all the time for these young guys.”
There was a lot of uncertainty for Riley…and the Skrdlant farm.
Flash forward 13 years. Riley is farming with his dad. After high school he took community college classes and had a series of full-time jobs, all ag related, most fairly close to home. Most recently he was working with a fertilizer plant in Bladen. In one way or another he also stayed involved with the farm, gradually starting to make more management decisions, especially involving livestock.
The Skrdlant family farm became his full-time job at the beginning of 2013…taking a role he describes as primary operator and secondary manager.
Riley Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska: “Dad finally decided he was getting too old to do a lot of it and wanted to slow down just a little bit, so. I think the last couple of years I’ve been planting a lot for him and a lot of hours at night after I’d worked all day over there I’d come home and plant half the night for him and I think he could see it was getting kind of worn down on me and my family and everyone else. So he just—I think it was time that we did something different.”
Kelly Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska: “Certainly having him back on the farm - really, literally back on the farm - is a big difference. And although we are at times in conflict about management, and probably not as much conflict as he thinks, but it’s just amazing to have him here.”
Kelly, in his early 60s, calls this an evolution of the Skrdlant farm, similar to the way he took over the operation from his father. It’s a typical way farms change hands and the typical way young people enter agriculture.
Dave Goeller, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Without a parent or a child or a relationship or a grandparent or an uncle or a neighbor or someone to help get going it’s really difficult to jump into this.”
Goeller’s been helping young farmers get started for several decades - a time during which there’s been a trend toward fewer young people entering agriculture. In 1982, 38 percent of principal farm operators had less than 10 years’ experience. By 2007, that number was down to 26 percent. But Goeller has a feeling that trend may be changing.
Dave Goeller, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “I have a hunch that we will see an increase or at least a stabilizing of the younger people coming back in....I think a lot of it has to do with economics of the whole situation where especially in the crop side of things profits have really returned to agriculture in a way that they haven’t in the last, you know, 30 or 40 years.”
Kelly Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska: “I think in this area there are probably more younger guys Riley’s age in that 30 to 35 range that are staying in ag.”
At a workshop for beginning farmers and ranchers, Angie Miller is talking about leasing pasture land. With rapidly rising ag land values, access to land is one the big barriers for beginning farmers. Miller, an attorney who works with a beginning farmer program, says that’s why it’s important to have programs that help.
Angie Miller, Legal Aid of Nebraska: “Nebraska is the first state to pioneer what’s called The Beginning Farmer Tax Credit, which allows for a beginning farmer to have a three-year lease with an established producer generally. The established producer gets a three-year tax credit. The beginning farmer gets a three-year lease and a foot in the door.”
Dave Goeller, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “When I started farming the thing to do was to go out and buy some ground. You buy the land and maybe share some machinery for a while and, you know, maybe rent a quarter or two of ground to go with that. Today that buy the land thing looks like it’s coming 5, 10, 15 years down the road before they’re able to generate enough capital to come up with that down payment so they can cash flow that land purchase.”
Land isn’t an issue for Riley Skrdlant. The family has about 1800 acres. That’s large for a family farm in the United States. Here they grow corn, soybeans and wheat, and run about 150 head of cattle. Now the challenge is the transition or evolution as Kelly Skrdlant calls it.
Angie Miller, Legal Aid of Nebraska: ‘“I think it’s the lack of communication that really is when we see transitions begin to fail.”
Dave Goeller, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Whether you’re family relation or even if you aren’t family related, you need to figure out a way to talk about a lot of things. Expectations in the generations tend to be quite a bit different.”
Transitions can be formal….or informal. The latter, common in family operations, would probably best describe how Riley and Kelly are doing business.
Riley Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska: “There’s a lot of old ways of thinking and new ways of thinking kind of coming together that don’t really like to agree a lot of times.”
Kelly Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska: “When you work together in this kind of an operation, I think you’re gonna have differences.”
Riley Skrdlant Bladen, Nebraska:“We’re both not the best of communicators. It’s gonna be kind of flying by the seat of our pants I think, really. It’s probably the most wrong plan you could have in place, but that’s kind of the way we’re gonna go with it I think.”
Kelly Skrdlant, Bladen, Nebraska: ”We probably both have a quick trigger. But things never last very long between us. It’s done and over and then we go on and get the job done, so. That’s probably not the way you would have someone write it out on a piece of paper for you to do this, but I think it’s gonna work for us.”
For Market to Market, I’m Mike Tobias.