Raising Farmers

Father Jerry McDonald and son Jon both know a thing or two about preparing the next generation for a career in ag. These days, both of them are dads.

By Deborah R. Huso

SEE THE COMPLETE SPECIAL REPORT: We asked several young farmers about their challenges and goals, then listened as each spoke of hard lessons learned, their passion for farming and hopes for the future. >>

Jerry McDonald is quick to remark that farming can be a thankless job and admits, “Until we got in the turkey business, we weren’t making a lot of money.”

Turkeys gave the McDonald family the income they needed to make farming profitable, not just for Jerry, but for his son Jon’s generation, and, hopefully, Jon’s kids too.

Jon, who has five children of his own, ages 5 to 17, has worked full time on the farm since 1996. He admits he initially had no plans to farm, but after working toward his B.S. in animal science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (aka Virginia Tech), he discovered he missed the land.

Jerry, who also has three daughters with off-farm careers, has been careful to prep both Jon and the farm itself for transfer to succeeding generations. “A lot of parents don’t prepare and don’t have a will, and the farm is left in such a mess when they die,” Jerry says.

That’s why Jerry has his estate set up so the family farm goes to Jon, while his and his wife’s life insurance policies go to their daughters. He has also placed a conservation easement on the 225-acre farm started by his own father to ensure it remains farmland. Including leased land and farmland Jon owns, the McDonalds farm around 700 acres, most of it used for hay and pasture.

What advice do these two fathers have for the next generation? Plenty …

  • Start prepping your kids early to understand what a career in agricultural operations means. Make sure they know, says Jerry, “that farming is not easy, and it requires hard work every day.”
  • Teach safety. “The biggest thing is safety with equipment,” says Jon, who is grooming at least one of his sons (and maybe eventually two) for running the farm one day. “Always have safety in your mind, and don’t do anything risky with equipment.”
  • Give your kids increasing decision-making responsibility. “Dad saw a lot of farms where the father made all the decisions,” says Jon, “and then when the dad died, the farm went downhill.” Hence,
  • Jerry has been adamant about giving his son increasing responsibility, and these days, Jon handles all the decision-making. “I’ve been doing it 10 years, but I always have Dad to consult with,” he says.
  • Have a plan for acquiring land and equipment. “It’s hard to get started farming if someone doesn’t leave you a farm with the way land and equipment prices are,” says Jerry.
  • Keep your soil healthy and fertile. The McDonalds are able to accomplish this, in part, by making use of turkey litter to fertilize pasture and hayfields, but Jon says they are careful not to over-apply because excess P levels can leach into streams. They also practice no till as much as possible and rotationally graze their livestock.
  • Make decisions for the long haul, not just the short-term. Even though it required taking on debt to start in the turkey business, Jerry knew the long-term survival of the farm depended on getting into a new and more lucrative market that could support more than one family on the farm.
  • Be honest in your dealings. “When you’re dealing with people, do what you say you’re going to do,” says Jon.

For more on succession planning, including advice on getting started, an explanation of options available to farmers and other family businesses, a case study, and resources for more information, see the special report, “Passing on the Farm.” >>