Farm Team: Preparing the ground for the next crop of farmers

story by Shaun Brady | photos by Albert Yee. Roy Brubaker, patriarch of Village Acres Farm and his daughter Debra have recently become 50/50 partners in a Limited Liability Company to begin a more formalized succession processSeveral minutes after his family had gathered at a round table in their large, timber frame FoodShed, the patriarch of Village Acres Farm finally arrives. He offers his hand along with what turns out to be a characteristically droll introduction. “Hi, I’m the late Roy Brubaker.” 

At 71, Roy Brubaker is, in fact, alive and well (if not always perfectly punctual). But he is a few years past what people in most professions consider retirement age. Brubaker and his wife Hope have recognized this and begun to think about passing Village Acres on to the next generation.

The romantic ideal of the family farm is a vision of several generations working the fields side by side, children growing and assuming the mantle from their parents. Such isn’t always the case in the contemporary world, where financial viability is a serious issue for any farm, and the prospects of a college education and more lucrative careers lure younger generations away. While there is no single way to go about it, succession planning has become vital for modern farmers hoping to see their work carried on.

Easements Can Make It Easier

“It’s been a struggle,” says Al Granger. “There aren’t that many young people that have an interest in that type of work.”

Roy and Hannah Smith-Brubaker, Debra's partner who helps with chickens, eggs, and marketing the farmGranger, 80, owns Glasbern Inn, a Lehigh Valley bed and breakfast with an adjacent 130-acre farm. He’s been hunting for successors to the inn and the farm for five years, to little avail. A young farmer recently responded to the call and is in the midst of his first season at Glasbern, an arrangment Granger hopes will become more permanent.

Chip Planck and his wife Susan had better luck with their Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Northern Virginia. In 2002, the couple took advantage of a “Rural Hamlet” provision in their county’s zoning ordinance. Ten of their 60 acres were subdivided to become a small rural community for those desiring to live adjacent to farmland. The remaining 50 acres were put under easement (meaning legally protected from future development) and divided into two parcels: one 40-acre plot which has all the farm infrastructure, including greenhouses, a worker kitchen and irrigation system, and a second 10-acre piece with a small house and farmland but no infrastructure.

“It was more an effort to do what we thought of as appropriate rural planning than it was a succession plan,” Planck says. “We wanted to save the land, and if you’re saving the land you’re presumably assuming that somebody is going to be on it, but that wasn’t an overt goal.”

Knowing their two children had no interest in farming the land, the Plancks began to look for buyers within their local community. A young farmer whose parents and grandparents had been the Plancks’ neighbors bought the 40-acre farm in 2011; and a writer involved in DC-area farmers markets bought the 10-acre piece a year later.

“One of the problems with retirement is that one day you count and the next day you’re home and you don’t count,” Planck says. “We were fortunate to be able to gradually disengage ourselves but not disengage ourselves completely. We have no interest in going anyplace else in the world and yet we had no interest in picking squash and peppers all day long anymore either.” Now 72 and essentially retired since 2010, the Plancks still live on land neighboring their former farm and occasionally still do work for their successors.

Raise Your Hands

A key component of the Plancks’ succession plan was investment; for 15 to 20 years they made the maximum contribution to a self-employment account. “We can be retired on those investments without having sold a bit of this land,” Planck explains. “So we weren’t forced into decisions that were unattractive but necessary from a financial point of view. We didn’t have to sell the farmland to someone to put 50 ugly houses on in order to retire.”

The Village Acres family (from left to right): Debra Brubaker, Hannah Smith-Brubaker, Roy Brubaker and Julie Hurst, wife of Debra's brother and manager of the FoodShed and community eventsJim Crawford and his wife Moie of New Morning Farm in South Central Pennsylvania were in the process of renovating their home when a financial advisor warned them that investing too much money could increase the property’s resale value to the point where it was too expensive to remain a farmhouse.

“You go through your thirties and forties and you never consider the fact that you’re ever going to get old,” says Crawford, now 68. “I’d never considered the fact that I was going to have to think about these assets being saleable to someone else who we hope would farm. As I got older I realized more and more that I didn’t want to be the last generation to farm this land. That was a huge revelation to me.”

Knowing that their children wouldn’t take over the farm, the Crawfords focused on making New Morning economically viable in a way that would be attractive to a potential buyer. “Your kids are a lot more likely to put up with whatever idiosyncrasies you’ve got built into your operation,” Crawford says. “Whereas somebody who’s not in your family is going to look at it from more of a cold, hard business perspective: Is this going to be a way for me to make a living and support a family in the long term? So that attitude is the beginning part of having a good succession plan.”

Hire Power

Hiring good employees and giving them enough responsibility to breed loyalty and dedication was also important to Crawford’s plan. He assumed that his successor might come from his pool of workers; what he didn’t expect was that it might be more than one of them.

For eight years, Crawford attempted a “farm-to-own” process; several farmers lasted one season before both sides realized the arrangement wasn’t a good fit. “The whole process demonstrated how difficult it is to find someone who can really step into your life,” he says. “Every farm is unique and structured on the personality and values of the farmer. It’s so much the opposite of generic that I couldn’t conceive of these people stepping in and living my life.”

A few years ago, however, two members of Crawford’s crew formed a partnership and stepped forward with a plan to take on the farm. At first skeptical, Crawford came around and last season stepped completely away from production, giving the partnership, since grown to include five employees, a “dress rehearsal” that has so far proved successful.

Helping Your Children Succeed

At Village Acres, a more traditional family succession has been underway, albeit in a particularly modern guise. The current plan for the Brubakers’ 30-acre farm in Juniata County, 40 miles outside of State College, involves their 31-year-old daughter Debra, the youngest of their four children. After leaving home for college and living in New Mexico for several years, Debra returned to the area in 2009.

“I don’t know how my parents did it, but all of us kids ended up somehow enjoying the work of the farm,” Debra says. “We come from a Mennonite heritage, so it was always very much in my upbringing that being a farmer is a calling. We have a responsibility to be stewards, to care for the land, to care for the ecosystem.”

However, it wasn’t always clear that the Brubakers would pass the farm on to one of their children. In 1997, their oldest daughter Angela began several seasons working alongside her father, but ultimately left to become a nurse practitioner in Austin, TX. “After a few rough years with a lot of bad weather and minimal profits, she decided to go on and get further education, which I was encouraging her to do,” Roy recalls. “She’s still interested in the farm and may cycle back to be a part of it someday. But when she left, I began to think that maybe some of our apprentices could become partners with us.”

Village Acres’ apprenticeship program began in 1992, when the Brubakers’ son came home from college for the summer with a friend in tow. The program became more formalized over the years, with three or four interns now working at the farm most years, many of whom have gone on to work their own land. As an early adopter of organic practices, Roy also serves as a mentor to many of the region’s farmers. Village Acres officially became certified organic in 1991, though many of those practices had been in place since the farm’s inception in 1982, inspired by Roy’s father’s own interest in organic growing methods.

Debra’s homecoming was at first tentative. She and her partner, Hannah Smith-Brubaker, are working to devise a work-life balance, while facing the sometimes daunting prospect of being a same-sex couple in a rural community — or even simply being female in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“For me,” Debra says, “being a woman or being gay, it’s about being confident that you have an equal right to speak up. I have a long legacy of Roy Brubakers in my family to be in the shadow of. It’s just about finding your voice, which is a common female problem in rural America and beyond.”

In 2012, Debra and her father became 50/50 partners in a Limited Liability Company (LLC) in order to begin a more formalized transition process. Both father and daughter say the LLC leaves open the prospect of further involvement from the other siblings, whose perspectives are still taken into account. Physical evidence of their cooperative efforts can be seen in their newly-built FoodShed, a space where they host monthly breakfasts and occasional live music events, and which they envision as a multi-purpose community gathering place. Roy scoffs slightly at the building’s pristine aesthetics, a requirement from his more image-minded children.

Roy has long incorporated his family’s vision for the farm into his own, even when they conflict. “In 1998, Angela wanted to start a CSA, which she was very keen about and I was not,” he says. “She won the battle and it was a good decision. That wasn’t part of my dream, but I guess my dream was to follow the stream and see where it would take us.”

This willingness to adapt new practices and strategies has made Roy — and farmers like Granger, Planck and Crawford — able to see a future for their farms, even after they have stopped farming. While this future may not be what Roy initially imagined when he started farming, it’s proof that farm succession is a fluid process, one that requires flexibility, innovation and perhaps most importantly, planning. Or as Chip Plank sums it up, “You have to think way ahead.”