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Grunt to CEO: Plan A Thoughtful Path For Your Farm’s Future Leader

Sara Schafer


November 12, 2021



In most farms, young people start out as grunts. As an adult, they are promoted to what Wesley Tucker, University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist, refers to as “Grunt Level II.” You take on more labor, but no management duties. When the head of the family dies, that person is thrust into the role of CEO. This path is stressful. Instead, Tucker suggests you plan for these phases:


PHASE 1: AWAY FROM HOME

This is when you gain education experiences. “Managing a farm is complex and requires business management acumen,” says Danny Klinefelter, Texas A&M University professor emeritus. “If you’re a young person who would like to farm, there are many benefits to attending college first.” Also, consider working off the farm for three to five years before you return — or long enough to earn at least one promotion in terms of responsibility. “A few years away from the farm will give you the opportunity to be sure farming is what you want to do,” he says. “Working with and under someone who is not family will expose you to different management styles.”


PHASE 2: TRIAL WORK PERIOD

When a successor returns, have them spend one to two years as a salaried employee, Tucker says. “This lets you see if you can work together. It ends with an evaluation by all parties.”


PHASE 3: PATH TO MANAGEMENT AND OWNERSHIP

This phase is when the successor earns decision-making authority. “You teach them the business and find areas where they can specialize,” Tucker says. “They start making decisions and building wealth. You may have to be creative with compensation plans, such as earning small percentages of assets.”


PHASE 4: CONTINUE THE PATH

Put your successor in charge of at least one area of the business — not just on the production side. “This is where most operations fail,” Tucker says. “Finances tend to be the last part of the business shared with successors.”


PHASE 5: BECOME MAJORITY MANAGER AND OWNER

Finally, the reins are handed over. This doesn’t mean the senior generation completely withdraws from the farm, Tucker notes. “That person can move out of that role of CEO and become a mentor,” he says. “This is a road map — not a treasure map — for your successors.”


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