Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Succession Plan

Last week I had the privilege of organizing an event for the local farmer-owned cooperative where we welcomed Jolene Brown, a nationally known spokesperson for American agriculture and champion for teaching others how to create a succession plan for the family farm. Basically, she spent the day making us laugh and coaching us through ways to avoid an argument about land values on the way to the funeral home. 

It may sound funny, but it is not. 

Succession plans are difficult things to talk about for farm families. Partly because we are the kind of people who have a to-do list that doesn’t grant any free time for dying, so we seem to think we never will. 

But also, our roots, and even identity, are found in the ground on which we work daily. Most in agriculture are born in the same area their ancestors were, and now make a living off the same land. This land. Those barns. That farm. This house with the unlevel floors, drafty windows and seventh stair that creaks: It isn’t something we want to let go of. So, we tend to have a hard time doing so. 

The event was certainly eye-opening for me. Though we’re in our thirties and hope to live another 70 years, I learned that now is the time to get to work on a succession plan. Of course, it’s easy to give all your stuff away when you don’t have much. The most expensive things we own are eating hay just south of the house as I pen this. 

Nonetheless, would the kids know what we want to be done with things should something happen? Would they know what cows their grandpa in Kansas might want on his ranch, compared to what could be sold? What about the hot-tempered cow with the split ear, 18A, would they know what sale barn to call first to haul her away? More importantly, what would they do with the 12 antique doors I’ve collected and stored in the barn for “rainy day projects?” Probably the burn pile. 

A succession plan will take higher priority as the children grow and we learn their personalities. Today, they love the farm life so much, I have to bribe them out of the barn and into the house with popsicles, even on 15-degree days. But will they still want this lifestyle in twenty-five years? Or will they prefer we sell the farm, the land, and the cattle and they take an inheritance check so they can invest in a condo in New York City or Nashville? It isn’t a question we’ll ask lightly when the time comes. 

But for now, we can only focus on building strong kids who are able to make that choice when the time comes. 

Two weeks ago, I had a really trying day on the farm, while Cody worked in Montana. I found a sick calf that needed attention because of the swing in the weather. I had two active kids at my side, without lunch or naps. And our vet was running terribly late – at no fault of her own. She was dealing with a prolapse on another farm (What’s the old saying? If everyone threw our problems into a pile, we’d be quick to grab our own back). After being outside in the wet February snow for two hours, we got our calf work done and I let the vet know I’d handle the rest, which included getting the pair off pasture for the night and into the barn. Our amazing vet had more stops to make.

I was tired. I had mud down in my boots and my socks were soaked. My gloves were lost somewhere between the barn lot and the north calf shed. The kids and I got into the house at 4:00 PM and I still hadn’t fed my children lunch. But our kids watched us work until the cattle were taken care of and saw that we did what was right for our farm, our cattle, their future. 

I hope they never forget that. I hope they do the same in thirty years. I hope they are an example for the next generation. I hope they work hard, whatever they’re working at. I hope they are stewards and stockmen. 

I also hope they forget the day that mom never fed them, but spent two hours bedding calving pens and treating a sick calf.

Perhaps our succession plan should be more about raising good kids who value work, rather than the current market values of beef cattle. Perhaps I should worry more about if they understand the importance of please and thank you, rather than the price per acre of pasture in Indiana. Perhaps I should not think about who will want what when we’re gone, and focus more on what we’re giving our children today: Patience? Affection? Days spent exploring in the sunshine?

What about you? Do you have a plan for your family should life go on without you? But more importantly, are you passing on the values today that will afford them success in days and years to come, whether you’re here or not?

I left the succession plan event feeling pride in how the day went and with a to-do list a mile long. For instance, has our will been updated since Cyrus was born? Good question. Do our children understand that the greatest thing we want to pass on to them is love for people, life and Jesus? 

I think I’ll wrap this up here and go get to work on that. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Of Soap and Shells

My grandma passed away more than two months ago, and I still find myself waking and wondering if I can fit a trip across the state line to see her on that day. She left a void that will never be filled. 

Throughout the years Grandma gave me many things that I’ll forever hold close to my heart. Her cowboy boots, Granddad’s cowboy boots, and old love letters between the two of them written in the 1940s. Since her passing, our large family has worked to clean out her homestead, each family combing through years of memories, collectibles and “stuff”. 

Three generations have gone through closets, looked under beds and cleaned off bookshelves. We’ve taken oak dressers, beloved toys from our childhood, photos of champion Holstein heifers from the 1960s and record players with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys still in the play position.

I took shells and soap. 

One day the kids and I drove to Grandma’s and began sorting through things that we might want to keep forever. In Granddad’s old room, Caroline dug eagerly (we were on a treasure hunt of sorts) through a filing cabinet and found a bag of seashells. She was elated; I was confused. 

My grandparents were not regular vacationers because they had livestock. When hundreds of animals depend on you for their food (or, their milking twice a day), you do not often leave. You can’t often leave. But there were occasions when Granddad would come in from the barn and tell Grandma to pack a bag, they were going on a trip tomorrow. Sometimes they went to Virginia to visit Charlie Potter, a man they ran cattle with on the rolling green hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Once they drove to western Nebraska and showed up on the ranch house steps of a college friend of mine, only because they wanted to see how farming was different in Nebraska compared to Ohio. And apparently, at least once they went to a beach.

I was surprised to find seashells amongst farm paperwork in a filing cabinet, but I was relieved. 

Because seashells meant he – and grandma – took a break from the work of the farm to enjoy themselves. Seashells meant that he traveled far enough to see new land and meet new people that would become a part of his life’s story. Seashells meant that at some point he rested in between the hundreds of decisions it takes to operate a farm, and maybe even put his feet in the ocean. I hope he at least took off his boots. 

That afternoon, I also took soap. 

I have a habit of taking the unopened hotel soaps (lotions, shampoos, coffee…..what is wrong with me?) home with me when I travel. I figure if the Wagon Wheel Inn outside Lusk, Wyoming offered the goodies, I might as well return home with a souvenir. I get this habit honestly, and while cleaning out Grandma’s house I also found a bathroom drawer (maybe two) full of hotel soaps. Pony Soldier Motor Inn, Urbana-Lincoln Hotel, and one bar that didn’t have a name, but did advertise “wall to wall carpet” and a “24 hour switchboard” – whatever that is. Each ancient bar represents places she’d been, while out on a great voyage off the farm. She kept those soaps, and now I will, too. 

To me, these petite hotel soaps represent the exploration of unfamiliar places where she need not cook for the family and hired help or wash milkers. She simply had to be open to the road, likely interpreting the map, and ready for the next adventure. At some point in her 89 years, these soaps represent her courage to leave the farm – and trust me, it takes courage to leave the care of your livestock up to someone else – and see another part of this beautiful country. Even if they did sleep at the Pony Soldier Motor Inn.

Grandma and Granddad left many legacies, but today I think about the lesson they’ve taught in soap and shells. 

No matter how hard you work, how little quit you have in you, or how hard you find it to disconnect – everyone deserves to rest. To step away. To take a break. To explore. Maybe it is a morning walk in the fresh snow when you can’t seem to focus on graduate school studies. Maybe it is a Sunday afternoon drive to see someone you miss. Maybe it is getting back to a hobby you’ve abandoned because life keeps you too busy. Or perhaps, it’s a cross-country adventure just to discover new land and unfamiliar faces. 


The work will be here when you get back, but experiences don’t wait.

And if you do find a place that has something worth packing home, do so. You never when those tokens will serve an entirely new purpose. 

In writing this, our daughter asked what the tiny bars of soap were. I told her they were part of her inheritance. She appeared confused, but hopefully one day she'll get it.