When I don’t know the answer to a burning question, I go hunting for it. Usually, the best answer is found by researching the topic. What do the experts say? They’re the ones with the insight and experience. We look for answers in the same way we hunt for a tasty recipe, an effective worksheet, or a lucrative bargain. When we need to know something, we will discover the path.
Recently, the agonizing question was calculating sweat equity. Each farm family, who has worked together for many years, has a different way and means for determining the value each family member brings to their business. Until I began researching the topic, I believed the contentious issue was limited to only sweat equity. I had no knowledge that slave labour was also prevalent on some Prairie farms because of unfair compensation.
Here is something I do know: Peace and harmony are achievable among family members when you begin your succession and estate planning early. Determining what your farming child brings to the business in the way of labour and management abilities may play a big part in getting your succession plan off the ground. Sweat equity is certainly an important component of the plan.
Experts Share Their Perspectives
On my discovery path, I came across an article written by Country Guide’s senior editor, Maggie Van Camp. She did her homework. She hunted down experts and shared their expertise in her article, Cleaning Up Sweat Equity. If you catch yourself awake at night because you are wrestling with the best way to treat your children fairly, you might find some comfort in her publication.
Both sweat equity and fair compensation deserve equal recognition. When your farming child decides to return to farm with you, the first question is, “Can the farm support another family?” This leads to the next question: “What is fair compensation for the child’s labour and contributions to the operation?” Don’t stop there. Because then you will need to know, “Do they deserve more based on their commitment to take on risk, unique contributions in terms of management skills, and living their dream while carrying on your legacy?”
I see a line that eventually gets crossed. Initially, a farming child may be working for Mom and Dad but eventually working with Mom and Dad. What may begin as compensation for hired labour may later be factored as a combination of compensation and sweat equity for their contribution.
One of leading experts is David Goeller, a transition specialist with the department of Agriculture Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He provides an example in his paper, Putting A Value on Sweat Equity, as a guideline to determine the successor’s contribution based on the Net Worth of the family business at two specific time periods. You can liken this to “before and after” financial snapshots of the family farm. What was the farm’s financial net worth before the farming child returned and then after his return at a specific future date? All participants, Mom and Dad and their farming child, will share in the growth of the business.
The example set forth by David Goeller is only a guide. This is a starting point which you can build upon. As he states in his paper, every operation will have different factors and likely arrive at a different percentage for the value of the successor’s contribution.
Mr. Goeller made a very profound statement when addressing non-farming children. He said, “Treating unequals equally, may be the most unfair thing you can do!”
“Sweat Equity” Vital to a Successful Succession Plan
Your succession and estate plans are important but when you can estimate sweat equity you are one step closer to finalizing these plans.
We are often reluctant to do something unless we understand the purpose of a specific activity. Diligently keeping accurate Net Worth Statements provides proof of the farm equity built up over the years as a result of your efforts and those of your farming child. This evidence may be the proof needed to convince yourself as well as other non-farming members. I fear that if there are no means of tracking, then you have no means of measuring financial success.
You may even recognize that your farming child’s contribution may be the leading factor in the expansion and profitability of the farm. Without his or her labour, management ideas, specialized knowledge, leadership abilities, and experience, your farm may not have advanced as efficiently on your time clock. Using the financial statement as an assessment tool, or job performance report, may provide evidence for delivering compensation in recognition of a job well-done. Whether your farming child is the brains-behind-the-operation and/or the grunt-labour, you have a method to measure their contribution.
The Worst Outcome
The saddest outcome for any family is to find themselves in court disputing an estate settlement. Parents are somewhat reluctant to openly discuss the decisions they have made about the division of their family farm property. Your intentions shouldn’t surprise family members. Once you have a tentative decision, then your next step is to share this with your family to avoid any future litigation in court.
Your Net Worth Statements over multiple years will provide concrete proof of the family member’s contributions. This truth allows you to justify your actions to your children while you’re alive rather than have them wonder what you were thinking once you’ve passed away. I’ve heard comments, “I’m afraid what our other son will think if we leave our home quarter to his brother.” I realize fear is often a factor that hinders people being open and honest. Having family members duke out unresolved issues in court is far worse than you facing your fears and sharing your intentions.
Information Helps You
Information educates us about issues we might normally never have considered. Arming yourself with a wealth of resources is equivalent to arming yourself with ammunition. When you do, you are prepared to set the stage for meaningful conversations with your family to determine what works for you and them.
I recognize the benefit of starting the “planning phase” early so you can measure the fair market value of your farm at pre-set increments to determine the contribution your farming child makes (or doesn’t make) to your farm business.
In the end, I value and appreciate the wisdom David Goeller shares as he wraps up his paper. The main desire is to ensure your family will all be eating Christmas dinner together for years to come.