Talk from the –T–

Talk from the –T–

by Judy Prosser

Who is going to take over the family ranch?

Judy and Bob Prosser
(Credit: Julie Murphree, AZ Farm Bureau)

Now there's a subject to make you quake in your boots. It's also one the Prossers have been wrestling with for over a decade. Every birthday cake reminds me that Bob and I are no longer “middle-aged."

About ten years ago, when our boys were in college, and we couldn't sleep at night, we thought we had better come up with Succession Plan B in the event they didn't want to come home once they graduated and be ‘slave labor’ anymore. After much discussion, Bob (being the creative one) developed this plan that in the event he and I died together, a board of directors would take over, and hire a manager. We named the board and it included our kids, some past and present employees, and some brilliant minds from assorted backgrounds and professions. They would continue to manage the ranch into perpetuity unless it was just no longer feasible, and then they would have the option to sell it. But it clearly was a goal of ours to maintain it as a working cattle ranch for as long as possible.

Fast forward 10 years, and we no longer move nor think as fast. Suddenly we are not quite as excited about working 12 to 14-hour days! And although we aren't dead yet, we see no light at the end of the tunnel – yikes! Meanwhile, our kids are married, have great jobs in distant places, and seem to be fairly settled. They have no intention of fulfilling the old tradition of coming home and picking up where they left off as slaves to learn the finer points of management. It seems to happen in most families as a logical evolution: the next generation tends to not be as interested in doing the physical work themselves, when they can outsource it. A challenge this concept generates, however, is to find employees with management expertise that are affordable, because now we are adding one more family to feed and clothe.

Periodically our sons have suggestions about new ventures we could undertake that would add to the bottom line. In fact, it is a serious concern of theirs that the business expand enough to provide some economic incentive for them, as well as their children, to be involved. They do not want to be strapped with a business that cannot support more than one family.

This brings us to the question asked by farmers and ranchers for many years: How do you support the next generation?

The answer has often been to sell the land off one piece at a time, or all at once. One has to look at the reasons why. The agricultural model in the U.S. was based on inexpensive labor. There is a higher standard of living today and people demand more . . . what used to be a "want" is now a “need.”

Ranching has reached a point where labor has become very expensive.

Typically we ranchers and farmers have our value primarily tied up in land, so as costs increase and commodity values don't, expansion becomes more elusive and selling out is an easier fix for the generation that wants to pass on something to their heirs.

So – if we have established that selling the ranchland we all value as open space is a last resort, what are the alternatives?

What about conservation easements? In this part of the world, there is a low value for them, as so much of our land is leased, and what we do have does not typically have riparian areas or endangered species.

Transfer of development rights: that sounds good, and we are open to it, but there are no examples in this neck of the woods.

I tend to think in black and white, and even after hours of frustration, seldom come up with much in the "gray area.” And of course being asked the perpetual question by everyone, "Is one of the boys coming home to run the ranch?,” does not improve the comfort level.

Now they are technically Millennials, so are prone to think differently. One of them voiced a profound thought recently. He said, "Someone told me that you can't go home and live out your parents' dream for them; you need to have your own." He followed with his own opinion, "It is not meant as a criticism to the previous generation, it is about getting up in the morning and doing something you love and want to build." (Of course the fundamental problem I have is I cannot understand for the life of me why they don't absolutely love what we do every day.)

Perhaps you are thinking, "maybe she should get out more often..."?

I cannot tell you where this is headed, but I can tell you that Bob and I are trying to remain open-minded. This is a very hard thing to do! I am hoping that soon we will have some heart-to-heart discussions about everyone's needs, wants, and goals, and can find some common ground. It is inherently important to solve this transition problem.

We will keep you posted about this work in progress, but it would be helpful if you would pray for the parents that we may have patience, be open to new and creative solutions, be able to recall what it was like to be that age, and learn to think in the gray.

Judy Prosser, Bar T Bar Ranch
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