If there’s one area where Garrett Riekhof and Paige Pratt agree, it’s that communication is the secret to successfully farming with family members.
Garrett and Cara Riekhof grow white corn and soybeans near Higginsville, Missouri. They employ Cara’s brother Chad Copenhaver, and Cara’s cousin’s husband Justin Thompson.
“I work with a great team, but managing employees is the hardest part of running the business,” Garrett said. “It takes constant communication to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction on the rope.”
Paige and her husband Jason partner with Paige’s brother, Jace Johnson, Jace’s wife Amy, and Paige’s and Jace’s parents Gary and Jody Johnson. Together, they operate an Angus ranch near Dwight, Kansas.
“We work on communicating as a family every day, and run the place on consensus,” Paige said. “There’s no ramming your agenda through.”
With the Riekhofs and the Pratts, the older generation relinquished farm leadership, leaving the younger generation in charge. They agree, this helped make the transitions work. Their stories diverge from there.
Garrett’s employees work as a team
Garrett and Cara Riekhof are in their fifth year of taking over the farm. Garrett’s parents, Gary and Glenda Riekhof, were busy with their crop insurance business and gave up the farm’s management in 2011.
“Dad was ready to slow down and let me make my own mistakes,” Garrett said. “Cara and I are proud to be the fourth generation on the farm.”
Garrett worked with his dad full-time beginning in 2003 when Garrett graduated from the University of Missouri in agricultural economics. Over time, Gary slowly gave up bits of responsibility. “When Dad asked me if I was ready to take over, he caught me by surprise,” Garrett said. “I appreciate the way he stepped away financially and physically, but still offers constructive criticism.”
Mom and Dad didn’t foot the bill. Garrett obtained financing through U.S. Bank in Higginsville as well as FCS Financial. When it comes to equipment, he shops for the best financing, which often comes from the dealer.
Cara’s brother, Chad Copenhaver, worked as a herdsman on another farm before he joined the Riekhof team. Today he spends a third of his time at the Riekhofs, and his other hours working for his and Cara’s parents, Gary and Barb Copenhaver, on their cattle operation.
Justin Thompson, Cara’s cousin’s husband, specializes in spraying. Garrett’s high-school buddy, Brett Wahn, fills out the employee roster, handling equipment maintenance and earthwork, including tile trenching and terracing.
“Employing friends and family comes with more risk but more reward,” Garrett said. “All our employees have a sense of ownership and respect for what we’re trying to do.”
Garrett focuses on growing crops. He rents 1,400 acres on his own—half from his parents and the other half from his dad’s former landlords. “I’ve been able to continue working with most of them,” Garrett said, explaining that many renters worry about losing landlords. “In this time of high land sale prices, renting is the only path to making money.”
Garrett’s responsibility expands when you count the land he farms with two neighboring partners. Working with these partners also requires selflessness, trust and communication, he adds.
On any given day, Garrett’s team might work miles apart. One’s in the office, two work on separate farms, and a fourth repairs machinery. Cell phones keep them in touch, but Garrett tries to stay off the phone each evening when he gets home to the family.
Garrett and Cara keep nine head of cattle—enough so their children can show livestock. They’re raising Annika, 10, Makenna, six and the baby, Garrison. “At the end of every day possible, we go for a Gator ride to feed the cows or throw rocks in the creek,” Garrett said. “I love bringing legislators and consumers here for tours so they can see how we store grain and use equipment to operate our farm.
Garrett reviews his employees at least once a year, and asks the employees’ wives to attend. “Working Monday through Friday is a pipe dream,” he said. “The wife may not understand why I need her husband to work Sunday afternoon during a soccer game. I want her to know that if he works his tail off now, he’ll get four-day weekends later. I pride myself on being flexible and taking empathy into the equation when considering those who help me.”
The Riekhofs didn’t hire a transition facilitator, but Garrett is pleased that his parents shared their estate plan with him and his sister. Garrett continues to work with an accountant, a financial planner and an attorney.
While Garrett appreciates the progress made by previous generations on the farm, technology and precision farming drive his future. “I want the acres I have now to operate at peak efficiency,” he said. “That takes good communication with landlords about what we’re both willing to spend to improve the land.”
Paige’s family hires a facilitator
More than two years ago, Paige’s parents offered her and Jason the opportunity to move their Angus operation from Jason’s family farm in Virginia to the Johnson farm in Kansas. Gary and Jody hired a family farm transition facilitator, and the entire family met with her several times over 10 months.
“We wanted to make sure this was the right opportunity for us before we moved,” Paige said. In the end, Jace and Amy, Paige and Jason, and Gary and Jody formed Johnson Farms LLC. An older brother, Chad, opted to farm on his own.
Paige and Jason purchased the cattle and equipment from Jason’s parents in 2011. “Jason and his father negotiated a price and we took out a note to pay them,” Paige said. The couple owned and operated Echo Ridge Farm in Virginia until they moved to Kansas with their cattle and equipment more than a year ago.
“The facilitator taught us the importance of communication,” Paige said. “Amy and I have off-the-farm jobs which don’t allow us to participate in the operation on a daily basis; that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested. We have family meetings regularly and make big decisions together.” They share a family calendar listing things like soccer games for Jace and Amy’s son Jhet, and try to make sure the parents can attend.
The family raises feeder cattle and purchases stocker calves—high-risk animals that may have been mismanaged and sell at a lower price. “We give the stockers vaccinations and antibiotics if needed, and feed them for 45 to 60 days,” Paige explained. The family also grows some feed—they grind hay, shell corn and chop sorghum for silage. They shop for the best price and quality on distiller’s grains.
While they do things like put up hay together, everyone has a specialty. Jason enjoys raising the cow/calf pairs with Gary. Jace likes working with stocker cattle, raising crops and maintaining equipment. The guys feed the cattle each morning while Paige goes to work as district administrator with the Kansas Farm Bureau, where she covers the northeastern corner of the state. She attended Kansas State and earned a Ph.D. in cattle genetics from Texas Tech.
The Pratts love raising their children on the farm—Elizabeth, age two and Garrett, who’s almost one. “We want to leave a legacy for them,” Paige said. “But we earned the right to be involved in the farm, and we want our children to do the same.”
Paige encourages older farmers to develop estate plans that seem fair to the younger generation, whose members work long hours with little pay. “For example, my brother could make good money as a mechanic,” Paige said. “He needs to know what he’ll earn down the road.”
In addition, Paige thinks parents must bring up the estate plan first—it won’t work if the children prompt the discussion. “If the parents don’t develop and share their plan and there’s a fight over the farm, the young people can lose everything in a heartbeat,” she said. “The only winners in those cases are the attorneys. Our parents had the foresight to give us the best shot to be successful and carry on our farming tradition.”
Val Farmer offers his secrets
Psychologist Val Farmer has spent his life helping farm families. For years, his syndicated advice column appeared in local newspapers throughout the Midwest. Today he’s semi-retired and living in Wildwood, Mo., but continues to mediate with farm families, helping them manage the transition to the next generation.
Before leading a mediation session, Farmer speaks to each family member by phone to learn of any sore points. Then he meets with the entire family in person for a day and a half, teaching listening skills while using the sore points as topics.
- Everyone is given the chance to speak.
- The speaker may express any feelings, but must control nonverbal communication such as tone of voice.
- Listeners cannot interrupt.
- The listener then summarizes what he/she heard from the speaker. He may not agree, but demonstrates that he understands the point of view. “As a coach, if I catch the listener giving an opinion, I remind him that it’s his job to show understanding,” Farmer said.
- The listener asks open-ended questions to draw out the speaker’s feelings. “Some people ask questions like a lawyer, waiting to smuggle in their opinion,” Farmer said. “I want the listener to be curious about what the speaker says.”
- All sides should minimize details and focus on the big issues.
- The speaker can transfer the floor when he’s done. Or the listener, after echoing the speaker’s points, can ask to speak.
- Once ground rules are set and the meeting starts, no one can walk out.
“The key to negotiation is to understand both sides,” Farmer said. “You can’t solve problems until you do that. It may take a lot of pain, but then you can brainstorm solutions together.”
In addition, Farmer said, the older generation should develop a game plan long before they’re 65; their health could break down, or the spouse’s interests may extend beyond the farm. “The worst-case situation comes when an older farmer doesn’t develop an estate plan, making the next generation doubt what will happen next.”
Family farm mediators may be in short supply, Farmer reports, but they’re available.