Taboo subject of succession to be addressed in clinics
Published 27/08/2014 | 02:30
'Did he have a will?" or "Who did he/she leave the place to?" Some version of these questions will still be discussed on country lanes or even whispered about at the back of the church when a farmer dies in Ireland.
The issue of succession is not unique to farming but they are long associated. Is it because many farmers die in their boots, as it were, so the successor is not always known even to themselves?
Or is it because of our obsession with land (this topic even got an airing on TV last week on the Rose of Tralee!); a farm can be a substantial asset which rarely changes hands. Or could it just be little more than curiosity about who their new neighbour is going to be?
Over the next couple of months, farmers will have a host of opportunities to learn about succession and get the ball rolling as it were thanks to a conference plus a series of Teagasc clinics on the subject.
"Things are changing but only slowly," according to Catherine Guest, chairperson of the New Futures farmers group which is running its farm succession conference on October 1 in the Abbey Court Hotel, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (8pm).
The speakers will include agricultural solicitor Aisling Meehan and farmers Seamus Quigley and Paidí Kelly.
"Farmers readily talk about practical problems on the farm, say the price of cattle, or even a shortage of fodder but succession remains a taboo subject," explains Catherine. "Most farmers do not have hobbies. So retirement does not sit well with them, especially if there is not an obvious successor.
"This is often even the case where the farmer has children. Maybe none of them seems interested in taking over the farm and they keep putting off the inevitable in the hope that one will change their mind. But you can't push the can down the road forever.
"We want to progress the conversation around succession; to raise awareness about options including farm partnerships, either with a family member or someone else."
This can ensure a transition period for both parties.
Meanwhile, Teagasc is running a series of 11 clinics during September and October entitled 'Transferring the Family Farm' which addresses the financial, operational and emotional aspects of succession.
Teagasc's James Mc Donnell, Farm Financial Adviser at Teagasc Oakpark points out that a key issue for many farmers is that they need to talk to more than one professional and may not know in which order to do it.
"When families start to look at succession they might go to their solicitor who may recommend that they need to talk to their accountant or Teagasc adviser," says James.
"So it means they will have to make an appointment with the accountant or Teagasc advisor and after that they probably will have to go back to the solicitor which can make it a long, drawn out process," he added.
Thus, each clinic will have four solicitors and four accountants as well as a mediator on hand; also Teagasc advisers to discuss options such as collaborative farming. So farmers can meet all the professionals they need to meet in the one venue.
The format will consist of a brief overview of the issue by either James McDonnell or Kevin Connolly, based in Teagasc's Cavan office.
This may answer some questions but they also want to get people thinking about what questions they need to ask on their own behalf. Farmers will then have the opportunity to speak on an individual basis with the relevant professionals.
"At a very minimum we would hope that no one leaves without an appointment to make a will if they don't have one already," said James, pointing out, for example, that one area farmers are not fully aware of is the need to ensure that SFP entitlements are included in a will.
Clinics will be run in each of Teagasc's regional units and the venues are Cootehill, Tralee, Navan, Ennis, Dungarvan, Mallow, Dunmanway, Clonmel, Castlebar, Bundoran and Roscommon. This series follows on from the success of a pilot clinic run earlier this year in Wexford which catered for 350 farm families.
Each venue will have two sessions, morning and afternoon. Admission is free but pre-booking, at local Teagasc offices, is advised.
Succession is often a complex and highly sensitive area encompassing so many issues that it can be difficult to find a starting point. For example, while identifying a successor is an issue for many, others are concerned about how to leave a farm to more than one person and what provisions need to be made for other children.
"Some siblings are fine if they get an education but, for others, a site is not enough," as James McDonnell puts it.
However, calculating 'need' is in itself subjective and, regardless of their financial security, a 'jilted' child can feel resentment towards a parent if they receive nothing. Many's the family war that was sparked by a will.
Even though the majority of farm transfers occur without any tax implication, James points out that people still worry about it.
Other issues include providing an income for more than one generation and delayed succession. While farmers who inherit young themselves are more likely to pass it on in a similar fashion this does not always happen. James McDonnell said he had recently come across a case involving a family with four generations all living on the farm.
While the grandfather had received the farm from his own father at quite a young age, he had not transferred it onto his children yet and was now in his seventies.
Gender is also often a major obstacle. I know personally of a situation where a son has no interest in the farm and reluctantly turns up to help out at harvest while his sister is mad to farm but the father won't hear of it and the mother supports his stance. This is partly because farming is still seen by many as man's work. There is also an element of patriarchy because of the desire that the family surname, which may have been attached to the farm for generations, would not be lost on the family's watch.