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Bollingers feel duty to provide smooth farm transition

Amie Howes Published on 11 June 2014

Tom and Sue Bollinger

Going through any transition can bring about emotions that may not have existed prior to the transition. A family business transition is time-consuming and requires a careful and thoughtful planning process because so many of these emotions come to the forefront.

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Not accounting for those emotions and overlooking the softer side of the transition process can lead to feelings of loss, hurt and bitterness, creating a rift that can last a lifetime.

Tom and Sue Bollinger of Meadow Spring Farm, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, decided early in their career that they wanted the next generation to experience a smoother transition than they experienced when they were younger.

In the 1940s, Tom’s family milked 20 cows in a tiestall barn but had mainly a beef and crop farm. “My father grew up in the World War ll and Depression eras, which made him hold onto his material possessions very tightly,” Tom says.

Eventually, Tom and Sue started their own family and found their oldest child, Andy, was very passionate about one day becoming a farmer. “He couldn’t wait for Tom to head to the barn so he could be with him helping with chores,” Sue says.

In 1986, a partnership was formed between Tom and his dad, but it was only because of financial hardship his father was enduring from the farm and other issues that created it.

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However, at 14 years old, Andy’s dream of becoming a farmer almost came to a crashing halt. At the time, Tom wanted to buy the farm, but his father was not yet ready to give up control. So Tom decided to drive truck at night and farm during the day, which proved to his dad that other options were available outside of farming.

Sue says, “I was very upset with the whole situation because I had a boy who wanted to be a farmer like his daddy.”

“That was a very hard time, and I worked very long hours,” Tom says. “At one point, I had to threaten to leave the farm because he still wouldn’t budge on his decision. That day we had a very emotional teenaged son.

“Dad wanted to do the transition process as cheaply as possible and just hired a lawyer,” Tom says. “He should have used other professional resources equipped to handle such planning.”

There were numerous expansion projects that occurred since then.

“In 1996, after Andy graduated high school and from a nine-month dairy management program in Minnesota, we did our first major improvement to the farm: a freestall barn and a step-up flat-barn milking parlor,” Sue says.

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In 2002, a second freestall barn was built, and their herd grew from 160 to 330 cows. The year they transitioned ownership of the farm to Andy, they built a new double-12 rapid-exit parlor because milking in the step-up parlor was taking six to seven hours per milking three times a day.

“I was 59, about to turn 60, when I realized that it was time for Andy to have ownership in what he and his family were working hard toward,” Tom says. “It’s really the job of my generation to gauge when timing is right, to communicate at all times and graciously step back a little at a time.” Tom also wanted to ensure that he and Sue would be able to retire and maintain an income flow.

When starting this transition process, they hired a lawyer they knew and trusted who had the same moral compass as they did. There were two meetings that took place, the first being all about goals and the second mapping those out on paper that became the plan.

The Bollingers have three sons and a daughter, so once the plan was documented, a family meeting was called, including the lawyer and consultant. They were there to help facilitate the meeting and mediate the discussion. This is when their children learned about the transition plan and the reason why.

The transition took place on December 26, 2012.

“To be honest, the process wasn’t difficult because one of our goals was to not repeat the past experience with my dad,” Tom says. “What made it go more smoothly was that we had a son who was dedicated to the farm and is an excellent manager. Andy, along with his wife, Andrea, really embraced the ownership and ran with it but also felt humbled to own part of our family business.”

Andy currently has 51 percent ownership, and Tom owns the other 49 percent of the partnership. Once the process was done in 2012, not much changed with farm responsibilities, and most everyone continued in their everyday roles.

“Andy has taken over more management of the cows in the past couple years, but Sue still does the books and I do my thing,” Tom says.

So what about the other siblings? Tom says, “They haven’t been written out of anything. If any of them chose to come back to the farm, a plan is in place that states exactly how that happens, and Andy is protected so the farm can’t be taken from him.”

“It really does come down to open communication,” Tom continues. “All my children have been open and honest since the beginning about what they wanted and what they thought was fair, and that has been respected throughout this transition.”

In the next five years, Tom and Sue would like to be able to decrease their partnership more and be able to travel in the summer.

“We’ve always wanted to go to Alaska, and the summer is the perfect time to do that,” Sue says. “It would be great to be able to travel a little together and enjoy some of the blessings from our life’s work.”

Tom and Sue have a passion for challenging those who are their age in the dairy industry.

“First of all, the earlier you start this process, the better it will be. It’s important to use industry professionals because there are many great people and organizations that have the tools and resources to help reduce the stress and headaches that could come from trying it yourself,” Tom says.

“Both of us experienced a great deal of pain, hurt and lots of anger in the past. We needed to deal with that emotional baggage, and to do that, we put ourselves in their shoes and tried to relate to that generation,” Sue says. “We remembered that, in order to get ahead, we had to forgive the hurt and move forward.

That’s the era in which they were raised, and they did the best they knew how. It was our job to change how the next generation communicates with one another, instead of continually repeating it, and we think we are well on our way to achieving that.”

“We try not to hold onto material possessions because it doesn’t belong to us anyway. We are just the stewards of what we’ve been given and have been incredibly blessed,” Tom says. “Many people wish they could be farming, so who are we to hold onto it, especially when a child of ours passionately wanted to be involved with part of a family legacy? I feel an incredible peace because we have a plan and everyone is on board with it.” PD

Meadow Springs Farm, LLC was one of nine dairy farm businesses that participated in a Transformation Team Project coordinated through the Center for Dairy Excellence, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Bollingers worked with a Transformation Team to focus on ways to transform and advance their operation. Go to the Center for Dairy Excellence website to view videos and a case study about their experience.

Watch our September 12 issue for an interview with the next generation of Meadow Spring Farm, Andy Bollinger.

PHOTO
In the next five years, Tom and Sue Bollinger plan to decrease their farm involvement and travel more. Photo courtesy of Amie Howes .

amie howes

Amie Howes
Communications Specialist
Center for Dairy Excellence

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