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Farm transition coach helps guide families through transition

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 03/31/2014 2:39 PM

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GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — Negotiating a farm transition can be a difficult task, and sometimes, it helps to have a coach along the way.

Lou Anne Kling has been a farm transition coach in many ways since the 1980s, when she first developed the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program.

She worked with struggling farmers in the 1980s on ways to save their farms. Sometimes, she'd be working with couples in their mid- to late-50s and ask them if they'd thought about transitioning.

In 1992, she left the farm and became the state director of the Farmers Home Administration. After eight months at the post, she was asked to go to Washington, where she ran the administration from 1993 until it was abolished in 1996. From 1996 to 2000, she developed and implemented the Farm Service Agency's outreach program.

Kling returned to Granite Falls in 2000. Her youngest son, Mitch, took over the farm when she and her husband, Wayne, moved to Washington. Mitch remains on the farm.

Looking back, Kling said she wishes she would have done more pre-planning for their farm business transition before she and her husband moved.

Now, with her feet firmly back on Minnesota soil, Kling is back to work helping farm families. Two years ago, she started training as a Land Stewardship Project farm transitions coach. She has worked with about 10 families. Some of the families she worked with in the 1980s are calling her to see if she can help their transition planning.

The names of the families and all the details of their transitions are strictly confidential, she said. Kling said she talks about trust with families and spends the time necessary to build a trusting relationship.

Farm transitions are much more complicated today than they once were, she said. It used to be that the farm went to whichever son showed the aptitude for farming. It happened that way in her family; the farm went to her brother even though she and her husband indicated a desire to buy it.

Today, there are more female farmers and farming operations are different. It's not just corn and soybean farms, but vegetable farms and livestock operations, Kling said. Young farmers seem intent on forming communities of farmers and the favoritism of always selling to the son is changing.

The Land Stewardship Project has done a lot of work with mentoring, linking experienced and beginning farmers, Kling said. Now, it's the job of coaches to help move the businesses from the experienced farmers to the beginning farmers.

The process of working with a LSP farm transitions coach starts with a call to Karen Stettler at the Lewiston office, Kling said. She starts the file and gathers information on the family.

Families must make the first step of asking for help.

"You never want to tell somebody they need help because it will never work; they have to make the first step," Kling said.

After Kling is called, she arranges to meet with the family. She prefers to meet at their home, but if that is impractical, she has met at locations halfway between their home and hers.

It may take one visit, or it may take 10, to guide families as they decide their next steps.

The first step is to develop goals, Kling said. She talks about how the couple got started farming and what farming means to them before working into if they are ready to retire and what they want to do with their business. Some want to stay on the building site. Some want to rent out their land. Others want to sell. Some want to do both.

"It can be a real long process, or it can be very short," she said. It depends on how much the farm couple has talked about their plans.

Kling uses a book put out by University of Minnesota Extension on farm transitions and farm estate planning as a guide: "It's a super good book."

As a coach, she will go to meetings with professionals if the farm family asks her to.

"It's super interesting, and each farm family is unique," Kling said.

"Always take your time and think it through because what you think today could change tomorrow," she said.

She receives a small stipend from LSP for her work, but she works with families more out of a desire to help than to be paid.

LSP has two farm transition coaches, Kling in western Minnesota and another in southeast Minnesota. In the past, the service was grant funded. Now, LSP is in the process of evaluating the next steps for the farm transition coach program.

Kling and her husband have taken steps to make sure their farm stays in their family.

"We've set up ours (transition plan), but I'm going to make changes," Kling said.

As life goes on, things have changed, she said. The good thing is it's there and it's done; it just needs to be updated because everything doesn't stay exactly the same.

She suggests reviewing a farm transition plan annually.