Succession Planning … don’t let it be the elephant in the room

This topic will be discussed as part of our online bonfire on August 11 at 7:30pm, “Planning for Success(ion).”

It isn’t easy, bringing up the topic of succession, but it’s much harder to work on farm when there’s uncertainty about the future. Melissa and Aaron, had left jobs in Melbourne to come back to the family dairy – but not knowing whether they would one day own the farm, was starting to affect their mental health.

As a farmer, have you ever worked out your hourly rate?

Melissa has…. and the numbers didn’t look very good. She did it to prove a point, to her husband Aaron, that despite the long hours worked on his family’s farm – it mightn’t be worth it.

The couple moved back to the farm in Colac in south-west Victoria from Melbourne four years ago. They like the work and love the lifestyle – but there had never been any certainty over who would own the dairy in the future.

Melissa, 29, said this was making her feel very anxious, especially since having her first child a year ago.  She just wanted some certainty about her family’s future. The lack of communication and avoidance in talking about the decisions and changes to the business that had to be made was causing stress and impacting both Melissa and Aaron’s mental health.

“Aaron and I both left good, well-paying jobs in the city. And we came back to the farm, thinking that there would be a succession plan,” she said.

“Because, if at the end of the day, the dairy was just going to be sold off and split between Aaron and his two siblings – then we would have been much better off staying in Melbourne.”

Melissa was beginning to feel resentful about making such a big move, but as the daughter-in-law, felt uncomfortable about raising the issue with Aaron’s mother.  

Aaron’s father had died unexpectedly two years ago, but again, the issue of ownership was never raised.

“Aaron felt like he couldn’t bring it up with his mother, when she was grieving, which I absolutely understand,” Melissa said.

“But Aaron had really stepped up into the leadership role since his Dad died – managing the team of four and lifting our number of cows from 400 to 600,” she said.

But Melissa said this had never really been acknowledged – they were still earning the same wage they had, when they first came back to the farm. She wanted Aaron’s efforts to be recognised; not just financially, but also by family.

Mike Krause, a succession planner with P2P Agri, says the issue of succession can often be the elephant in the room – no one wants to talk about it, but it affects everything.

He says succession planning is really part of risk management.

“If it’s not handled well the risk could be – we don’t have a business next year,” Mike told the Mallee Sustainable Farming Podcast.

“It is tough but the emotional benefits of having that plan succeed at the end of the tunnel is worth the effort of getting in the tunnel and going through the process.”

Melissa convinced Aaron to start the conversation with his mother and they brought in a facilitator to help them work out the succession.

Melissa said it was the best thing they could have done. It gave everyone the opportunity to participate in the change process as well as practical support throughout.

“Aaron’s Mum didn’t really know how we felt. Aaron’s Dad had looked after the farm and the business and so she felt like she didn’t have all the answers. Bringing in an expert helped to clarify the process for everyone involved, and helped to preserve family relationships”

Succession planner, Isobel Knight says you don’t need to have all the answers to be able to start the process.

“The starting point is where you are today,” she said in the Mentor of the Month podcast by the Future Farmers Network.

“Sometimes people are scared that someone is going to tell them what to do,” she said.

“When really what we’re doing is enabling communication effectively so that families don’t blow themselves up in the first instance, so they can have those difficult conversations.”

For Melissa and Aaron, they now have a management plan as well as a gradual ownership plan, which incorporates financially supporting their mother as well as a Will that leaves an equitable share of the family’s other assets to Aaron’s two siblings (who aren’t interested in working on the farm).

Melissa is feeling much happier and less stressed and anxious about their future, now that she knows what they are working for.

“I’m relieved we have a plan and that everyone in the family is supportive. Having clarity about our respective roles in the day-to-day operations as well as the ‘big picture’ of the family business has given as a fresh perspective. It’s also had such a positive flow-on effect. We’re now a lot more comfortable in having some of these challenging conversations. It’s become part of our routine to meet regularly as a team. We’ve set some new strategies in place for continuing farm business planning and we’ve also set up structures to support our whole team—including our relief milkers. As a family, I feel like we can start making longer-term decisions and planning for our future now, which I’m pleased to say is here, on the farm.”

Worksafe has information on how poor organisational change management and low role clarity can lead to mental health problems and workplace stress. It advises that communication and seeking all parties’ participation in the change process can help ease feelings around a lack of control. When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and staff, but it’s good for business too. The NCFH is supporting farmers just like you to manage and respond to work-related risks that impact on workplace mental health – these are factors in your work that can affect an employee’s mental health and include high job demands, low job control, low role clarity and more. Managing these factors, means decreasing the risk of work-related stress, which can prevent physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time.

Find out more about being mentally safe on the farm at

This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

Join the online bonfire session, “Planning for Success(ion)” on August 11 to hear more from Mike Krause about his recommendations and strategies for a mentally healthy succession process, and how it can prevent work-related stress.

*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health