“The toughest thing anyone is going to have to do is go to their parents and say: You’re going to die one day and, can we talk about it?” This is Tim Koopmann’s signature quote, learned the hard way—both Tim’s grandfather and father died suddenly with limited estate planning in place.
Koopmann Ranch will stay in the family for the fifth generation because Tim and his wife, Melinda, are not just talking about succession planning, they are doing it. In communication with family members, no matter how hard the conversations, they’ve put clear business and estate plans in place—which include a pair of conservation easements and two kids who share a deep love of ranching.
Koopmann Ranch was established in 1918. Today, it is a cow-calf operation with a home base on 900 acres just south of Pleasanton, in the heart of the burgeoning Bay Area. “In 1968 my grandfather passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack,” Tim says. “He had no estate planning whatsoever, just a simple will.”
Yet, Tim waited to talk to his father, because these are hard conversations, and they were dealing with his father getting physically ill. “But in 1990, I started to talk to my dad about real estate, property, urged that we go together to do some estate planning. We established a family trust and in April 1991 we signed all the documents. In July 1991, he dropped dead of a sudden heart attack. After just step one of the estate planning. We ended up with a tax liability that was astounding.”
Encroaching development turned out to be a blessing to keep the ranch. A nearby housing development and new golf course were required by law to mitigate for their development impacts on endangered species habitat. The Koopmanns were able to sell the development rights to 107 acres on the ranch in exchange for an agreement to continue to provide good habitat for endangered species. The cash helped pay off the over $700,000 tax bill. These mitigation easements are held and monitored by the California Rangeland Trust.
“The California tiger salamander and the viola (or Johnny Jump Up) wildflowers are the most lucrative livestock I’ve ever raised,” says Tim.
The next generation of Koopmanns, Carissa and Clayton, are well-poised to continue the family legacy of conservation and ranching. Both are building up their own cow herds on leased land while, as partners in the family LCC, they help make the big decisions. They also have full-time agriculture jobs off the ranch focused on grazing. Clayton is the range manager for the local water utility, the SFPUC, and has a grazing management consulting business. Carissa is a livestock and natural resources advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension in Siskiyou County. Both Carissa and Clayton emphasize how hard it is to make a living ranching alone, even with all the advantages of the family ranch. But getting out on the land, despite the hard work, is a place of relaxation for both of them.
For others considering succession planning, Carissa says, “Get started early and don’t ever make assumptions. It’s vital to know what everybody truly wants. Ultimately, the end goal that is that you’re still a family, regardless of what happens.”
Tim says, “Make sure that all interested parties and heirs are sitting at the table, so there are no surprises.” For Clayton, “the biggest thing is having the tough family conversations, know where everybody stands, and having a plan in place.” For Melinda the reward of succession planning is “knowing that everything will be in order when you’re gone, and your family will not have to go through the hell that so many do.”
Both Carissa and Clayton also note that successful transfers to the next generation of ranchers require mentorship and practical learning experience. “Without any experience it is impossible to get a lease, offer to work with or for a mentor,” Clayton says. “Then, be aggressive about lease opportunities but maintain your integrity.”
“Educate yourself,” Carissa says. “Bring something new home, and always continue learning. You need practical experience – if your family can spare you, it’s great to go somewhere else to learn more. The more diverse your experience, the better off you are in dealing with challenges on your own family farm.”
For all the Koopmanns, it’s the hard work and the love of being on the land that makes it worthwhile. As Carissa says, “it’s everything.”