A Publication of WTVP

Handing the tractor keys to the next generation

by Rob Sharkey |
William and Rob Sharkey
William and Rob Sharkey

“It’s not easy to hand things over to the next generation.”

Usually this is followed up by conversations about succession planning and how to draw up a proper will. Those are the conversations that farmers are used to and somewhat comfortable with.

What about handing over day-to-day operational duties on the farm? Rarely do you see a breakout seminar at any farm meeting about how to let the next generation run the combine, or how to let the next generation choose what hybrids to plant.

Now, I know that there are countless exceptions, but having jobs on the farm that only the patriarch does is a fairly common situation. For instance, my dad was the only one that sold grain. It was his grain, so honestly, I never expected to have anything to do with it. I was his son, but at that point, I was a hired hand.

Eventually, I was able to rent my own 80 acres, over which I had 100% control. It was fantastic, pretty much a dream come true. But it did bring to the surface all the things I hadn’t done myself on our family farm.

I was way too proud to ask Dad for marketing advice. I mean, honestly, how hard could it be?

I didn’t really see a need to sell anything ahead of time because that would be dumb. It was a wet year, with flooding, so that obviously meant prices would go up once those knuckleheads in Chicago figured it out.

Turned out that we had near-record yields instead.

Still, I was optimistic because I could just wait until things trended upwards. I locked in my loan deficiency payments and just needed the markets to do the right thing.

Now remember, these were my early days of farming. There was a lot of borrowing. Actually, everything I farmed with was on borrowed money. Back then, I was so happy to be approved for loans, I did not think very far ahead. The seed and fertilizer companies — pretty much every input — wanted their money by November/December. That meant I had no choice but to sell my grain at the low prices to pay off my loans.

It’s important to note that if I would have asked for advice, I would have known about being able to seal my crop. That would have been really nice to know.

Now that my son, William, has come back to the farm, I want to avoid making the same mistakes. My plan is to make steps every year that will put him in a situation where he is challenged to do something that has always been my job.

Right off the bat, I found out that I was going to be a problem

This year, the plan was to have him take over the soybean planting, the spraying, and the deer plots. It didn’t seem like a lot when we came up with the plan. I was really looking forward to having someone else I trusted being able to completely understand these jobs.

Right off the bat, I found out that I was going to be a problem. I was being a helicopter farmer, constantly hovering around him, constantly calling because he might do something wrong, bothering him. He had to constantly stop the seeder and talk to me.

As usual, it was my wife who gently reminded me to knock it off.

I truly was not trying to nitpick, I just didn’t want him to make mistakes. However, you truly learn by making those mistakes.

I saw him learning without me even saying anything. He asked how he could make the corners cleaner next year. He wants to know how he can improve the stand. (I told him rain).

Did he make mistakes? Of course, but so did I.

I do have to remind myself that I have a few skips in the crops when planting. I have to realize that things break no matter who is running the tractor.

It has been fun working with my son. I realize that, in order for that fun to continue, I need to trust him more every year with new responsibilities. I hope he becomes a better farmer than me. I hope he realizes what a gift it is to be a farmer.

So, if you’re a farmer and haven’t already, hand off that thing on your farm that only you know how to do. Let the kid run the combine, or choose what chemicals to spray. It might not be perfect, but it will help your farm’s next generation.

I am looking forward to my son taking over the deer plots. It’s the driest year we’ve ever planted them.


Rob Sharkey

aka “The Shark Farmer,” tills the land at his fifth-generation farm in the Bradford area, where he lives with wife Emily. He hosts “A Shot of Ag” on WTVP PBS, among other media endeavors