When we designed The Regenerator: A Year of Farm Succession Planning course, we knew it needed to be timed for families and business partners entering new kinds of discussions together. Over the years we have seen “planning intensives” cover the fundamental elements of succession and estate planning, but it’s often too much information in a short period of time. Too often the effort falls short without a clear path to act on new knowledge with a deliberate planning process.
Our goal was to produce a tangible result: an actionable succession plan that farm families co-create with their successors. To realize that goal, The Regenerator, which launches this fall, doubles each family’s $800 course fee. As each family team meets certain milestones in the course, they receive $1600 toward professional services such as accountants and attorneys to structure and establish their succession plan. We aim to give greater peace of mind about the future of clients’ farms or ranches. Annie Main completed the Regenerator with her family in late 2022, and says, “Wherever you are on this path, I wouldn't wait.”
A small farm journey
Since 1976, Annie and her husband Jeff Main have been farming in Yolo County as Good Humus Produce. Like many small-scale farms in California, in the early years they assembled their farm from various small parcels. They started on ¾ acre near Woodland, and eventually they were able to lease a 20-acre farm. Jeff reflected, “What we did was use everything we had, every talent we had, to stay in business.” The owner of the land wanted to support their success. Jeff reported, “We were paying rent but we planted orchards, we put up fences, we built a barn. We did everything that you would do if you owned a place. And we were very, very lucky to have that opportunity.” After ten years of renting and making improvements they were able to purchase the property in 1993.
Not long after purchasing the land, Annie recounted a trip to England that Jeff made with his father and brother to see where their dad had served in World War II. She recalled how Jeff came back with an epiphany: It takes hundreds of years, building houses, outbuildings, drystone walls, hedgerows and more, to create a mature farm. “This is just the first generation of this farm,” Annie remembers him saying, “We were at ground level.”
“Then you realize that's a huge expectation to have for a career, to think that you can have this beautiful, successful, idyllic vision of a farm. And that was the turning point of my thought process, that we're building a farm for the next generation…that was the biggest shift, I think, in my career.”
One day the farm will be in the hands of three children: Daughters Alison and Claire are both involved in its day-to-day operations, marketing, and business management, and son Zach is a local firefighter who regularly works on the farm. Alison reflected how, “They started talking about retirement and how that works for them…nothing that we didn't already know, but it just [started] shifting our head space with the whole relationship and responsibility.” Claire added, “There are people and businesses relying on us, as our parents have had for the last 40 years…It's hard to be at that level without a lot of help.”
Looking toward succession
“Our perspective is that it's really challenging to figure out how to enter [into] running a business that your parents have run your entire life,” Alison said. “And in the Regenerator, what was so useful was that it created a space to come together and start figuring out how we're going to tackle the problem of transition.”
When Annie suggested the course to the family, most felt that it was something they could do themselves. She responded, “Yes, we can do it ourselves, but we won’t.” Everyone agreed that they could ultimately figure out a plan, but given the demands of the farm, the task would likely be set aside. The course provided a once-monthly occasion to work on communicating and planning together alongside other farm families and successors.
Reflecting on what was important in the Regenerator, Jeff said, “Having face-to-face contact with people who were willing to participate in a program for small farmers in need, and that had expertise in the field,” and he added, “We no longer had to hunt them out but there were people that were not only well versed …that was a huge thing for me: Access to willing and empathetic expertise.” The Regenerator became a safe place where their family and business relationships could evolve.
The course experience
“It elevated my sister, brother and I from a parent-child relationship to a partnership relationship,” Alison reported in a January 2023 EcoFarm workshop. The siblings shared that at times new ideas could contradict the way things had been done, and that had been another challenge. Day-to-day business decisions are not the focus of the course, but rather, for the Mains, it created a forum where the transition really started happening.
The Regenerator’s initial focus is on family and successor communication to support the collaborative decision-making that follows. Annie shared, “It became very clear to me that if our family cannot communicate, how are we going to do anything?” The course progresses toward outlining family and successor’s needs, reviewing business structures, and tax treatment and estate planning – all to make a sound plan. The families are given homework between meetings. “It was…a place, that for eight hours a month,” Claire said, “We were showing up, sitting down and dealing with it, and learning and progressing and moving.”
By meeting the course’s milestone, the Mains and other families were eligible to receive a cash stipend of up to $1600 for attorneys’ or other professional fees to assemble the necessary documents and codify their plans. Alison reflected, “I feel like it opened the door for us…’It's okay. Here are some good people.’ That's the other hardship is in this day and age, there's a thousand [options]. And the Regenerator presented us with people who are bought into what we're doing, they're bought into this community."
The course’s planning journey has created good momentum for the Mains’ planning. Claire summarized, “One of my hopes and dreams is that me and Allison can morph the farm a little bit and add our own ideas and artistic touches, or just our own little bit of personality to the farm. It'll never not be what our parents created. I just hope that we can add our own touches.”
“Claire and I can continue this as a working farm,” Alison added, “feeding our community, whether it's only to Esparto or all the way to Sacramento. Putting food on the table for people is part of our success story.”
In order to indicate your interest or to apply for The Regenerator: A Year of Farm Succession Planning, click here.