Changing Hands story Series
Beginning in January 2019, Rogue Farm Corps is curating compelling stories of how transitioning land from one generation to the next is possible. The Changing Hands Story Series will highlight a variety of agricultural operations from the Pacific Northwest.
The stories we often hear are about families who lose the farm after the elder farmer passes away. But there are farmers and ranchers who have found creative ways to pass their legacies to the next generation. There are also many resources designed to help farmers with succession and business planning.
Here, we share inspirational stories of farmland transition within families and to non-family members alike. These stories will touch on the use of innovative tools like working lands easements and conservation incentives as part of the solution. And we’ll shine a light on skilled aspiring farmers and ranchers who are ready and able to take over a business.
These stories are also running in the Capital Press - the west's most prominent agricultural publication, with circulation to California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
If you have a story to share, please get in touch.
“All you want for your life is meaningful work and meaningful relationships,” says Steve Horning. “and we are lucky to have that.” Steve is the third generation on his family’s 1300-acre farm in the Willamette Valley. While Steve now runs most of the day-to-day operations, full retirement isn’t on his dad’s bucket list: “I looked at older farmers when I was growing up and I thought, they’ve been retired their whole lives,” says Gary Horning. “That’s what it means to do what you love.”
“In 1995, when I was 15 and my sister was 14, the large family ranch was splitting up. We had a family meeting and our parents asked if we wanted to sell the ranch or keep it,” says Toni Meacham, “We didn’t want to leave, we wanted to stay.”
“There was never a time where I knew a farm was going to be offered to me,” says Lisa Perry of Odell, Oregon, the heart of orchard country, “But I was willing to put in the sweat equity into operating a farm anyway.” Today, you can’t point to just one farm or business that Perry is involved in. From making plans to carry on her family’s farm stand, Cody Orchards Farm Stand, to planting trees with her husband Ricardo on his uncle’s farm to tending to their newly purchased acreage and helping out with her stepdad’s orchard business, Perry lives and breathes the orchard life.
“Sometimes we think, as the dad or grandfather, we need to come up with all the answers,” says Paul Dolan, patriarch and fourth generation of a family vineyard and winemaking legacy. “But the reality is having the conversation with your children or siblings and coming up with choices together.” The successful transfer of the Dolan legacy is the result of Paul’s unique leadership, a balanced business partnership with his son Heath, and a shared-responsibility to the land.
“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?” 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.
“When I turned 30, I had the conversation with my wife that I wanted to move home and try to make a go of it,” says Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch. “If we never tried, I would always wonder what could’ve happened.” Loren and his wife Lisa are now the fourth generation running the family ranch in the coastal hills of Northern California. Their farm transfer’s success rests on reinventing the ranch as a business and a commitment to working in sync with Mother Nature.
We meet Antonio and Alan in the middle of their story, in the middle of transitioning Riverhill Farm. Antonio, “I was attracted to the beauty of the place, the thoughtfulness of Alan and Jo, the quality of the produce, and the community.” As the new operator at Riverhill Farm, Antonio Garza is already showing a deep understanding of what Alan Haight and Jo McProud worked so hard to create.
“In 2014, my son Andy called me and said, ‘I want to come home and farm,’” says Dave Baldus. For Dave, it was essential that Andy kept his day job until they had a plan. “I needed Andy to know what he was coming home to.” Since that pivotal phone call, the Balduses have embraced one-on-one transition planning sessions, learned to communicate better as a family, and created a working partnership to set up B4 Sunrise for the future.
“When it comes to transferring a farm to the next generation, success is temporary, but failure is permanent,” says Ryan McCarthey of Dungeness Creamery. Their ongoing success is the result of a creative shift in their business model, a cash infusion from selling the property’s development rights, training, and a little bit of fate.
“We are constantly asking ourselves—how can we do our best?” says Jana McClelland. Constant evolution, learning, and care for the land are at the heart of success for McClelland Dairy. It is reflected in day-to-day operations, as well as the transition of the farm from father to daughter through partnership.
The root cellar at Wild Hare Organic Farm is finally full this year. After two years, “we could grow through winter with confidence and load up the root cellar without worry, because it was fully ours,” says Katie Green. In 2017, Mark and Katie Green purchased a 21-acre farm just outside of Tacoma from local sustainable farming leaders, Dick and Terry Carkner—and the deal they struck ensured it will stay a farm forever.
Even if you’re ready to retire, it can be difficult to identify a successor. And no matter who the next generation is, it can be emotionally, logistically, and financially challenging to transfer the land and business to the next generation.
“It’s the ultimate compliment to have your child take over the family farm,” says Warren Harper, of Harper Farms in Junction City, Oregon, the heart of the Willamette Valley. Bryan Harper has done just that—he’s stepped up to be the fifth generation at the helm of Harper Farms.
“I remember when we finalized the conservation easement on our farm, friends said, ‘are you crazy, do you know what that property would be worth if it was subdivided?’ Our response is, and has always been, money isn’t everything, they don’t make land any more, and we wanted to protect the legacy of the natural open space, and resources that are here.”