“Our succession plan started, and we didn’t even know it!” says Jabrila Via. The plan’s auspicious start came in 1995 when Chris Overbaugh came to work at Winter Green Farm — 15 years after Jack Gray and Mary Jo Wade established the farm, and 9 after Wali Via and Jabrila joined them as partners—little did anyone know what the future held.
Chris would meet his wife, Shannon, at Winter Green when she came to work on the farm in 1999. Steadfastly, they grew in their roles from employees to business partners in the LLC. And, as Shannon says, “We’re family — Jabrila has helped me raise my two kids on the farm.” Chris and Shannon took the reins of the vegetable business in 2016, leading the next generation of Winter Green Farm caretakers.
While Winter Green Farm and its transfer are unique, their succession process also provides a template. The farm is an integrated livestock and vegetable operation on 171 acres in Noti, Ore. It was run organically since before organic was a label. The three families successfully navigated the complexities of creating a plan for the future of the land and the farm business while also figuring out the challenge of housing everybody.
Mentorship and shared decision making were critical. Jack says, “We gave Chris and Shannon more responsibility over time. When they came in, they had to provide an income for themselves – they brought in the whole farmers market component, and eventually they were part-owners in the business.”
Shannon says, “They were such great mentors. And, as a collaborative, we made decisions together. There were a lot of meetings to get everybody on the same page. Farming is hard work, and everybody needs to be in it together to make it work.”
Wali says, “As the farm grew and got more complicated we moved more into specialization: Jabrila ran the CSA and greenhouse, I did composting, biodynamics, personnel, and tractoring. Jack did the cattle and the maintenance of equipment and buildings, Chris and Shannon were on the farmers markets, Mary Jo looked over finances. We each had our own autonomy with decision-making but would come together and brainstorm to make things better overall. That’s how we operated for awhile.”
When Jack and Mary Jo, Wali and Jabrila started moving into their 60s, they were interested in retirement. Shannon says, “Buying out the other two families was not an option for a couple of reasons. It was beyond our financial means, and the other owners did not want to completely sell out.” Chris and Shannon were able to take the jump to owning their own farm business and house, while leasing the farmland. The founders continue as landlords and caretakers of the livestock and are also living on the farm.
Chris says, “we bought all the infrastructure and equipment that went along with the veggie business, we weren’t starting from the ground up, we incurred some debt, but I can’t imagine starting over to run a farm like this.”
For Jack, “We definitely wanted to see the farm continue similarly in the short term, but you have to realize it’s not going to be exactly like you did it, you have to be open to those changes. And to do that, you need to have trust in the next generation.”
Chris and Shannon have made changes. “We’ve made things a little less complicated,” Chris says. “We dropped the pesto business yet kept up income by both increasing what we sell at farmers markets and diversifying markets through more wholesale to Organically Grown Company, like carrots and burdock, as well as adding more stores and restaurants. We have been able to reinvest in infrastructure and pay our workers better.”
For Shannon, their farm viability is about being creative and open-minded. She says, “We can’t get stuck in a rut. You have to listen to others, glean from them. We have an incredible farming community here, farms like Persephone and Gathering Together. We all share information, we all want to make it work, because it’s a lifestyle.”
A solid team of long-term employees was essential to the success of the farm transfer. Shannon says, “We respect them and it’s very important for us to make them feel valued, and that they can take responsibility and make decisions.”
For others looking to succession Wali says, “don’t think about succession when you’re 60, think about it when you’re 40. It’s been our own experience that what looks like a feasible relationship might not be. We had good relationships with folks that ended up deciding to leave the farm and not consider being successors. You might need several tries to get it right, and you might need several options.”
Mary Jo said that in a transfer, it’s important to balance what you want to get out of it with the desire for it to continue as a farm. “Think about who you want to have it enough to make it work. The ‘who’ was most important to us.”
And Jabrila advises, “If it is a farmer’s desire to see their farm continue after their retirement, they should begin seeking and training a potential replacement farmer long before the time they plan to retire”
And Winter Green’s succession story continues: the next step is to pass on the livestock operations.
As for the next generation, Chris and Shannon’s two sons are working with them side by side on the farm. Whatever they do, Shannon says, “they will know what it means to grow food and know what hard work is.”