“I was home from college over the summer, working on the farm. I wasn’t planning on going back to college, although no one knew that yet. One day I said to my grandpa, ‘If my uncle doesn’t work out, I wouldn’t mind trying to run this place.’ I had no idea how powerful those words were,” says Whit Peters.
Sara Osborne, Whit’s mom, separately told Grandpa Roy that she and Whit could help out if he needed it. Even so, it came as a surprise when Grandpa Roy put them in charge of the cranberry harvest that year. As Whit puts it, “in the blink of an eye, things changed.”
The story of Peters’ Cranberries successful farm transition is about a mix of the unexpected and the planned, of good teamwork and a dedication to learn by doing, and a willingness to push the envelope.
After that first harvest, they started talking about buying the farm. But Grandpa Roy died just a few months later, in the spring of 2007, before they actually purchased the farm. Getting over the hurdle of his unexpected death wasn’t just about getting paperwork in order, as Sara says, “he was supposed to be there to help us and then he wasn’t.”
While Sara married into the farming family in the '80s, she wasn’t very involved in the farm. When the opportunity came to take over the farm, Sara was navigating a particularly messy divorce and trying to figure out how to support herself. She was dragging her feet a bit, “This isn’t what I would’ve seen myself doing,” says Sara, “But Whit said, ‘I can’t support you mom but we can do this together and we can make this work for both of us.’ Not a lot of 22-year-olds think like that.”
Sara says, “The first attorney I went to and told him ‘I’m trying to buy this farm from my father-in-law and I’m divorcing his son simultaneously.’ He said, ‘This is not going to work!’ And that was actually really good. Because I found a different attorney who found me lots of great professional people to have in my corner.”
Critical to the transition, Grandpa Roy put plans in place before he died. On the business side, he set up an LLC that included, as Sara says, “a partnership where my son, my then-husband, myself and my daughter were limited partners.” This was a framework to work from. Roy also added a cleaning operation, diversifying their farm income, which ultimately helped through the crash in the price of cranberries.
Roy also set up mentors, neighbors and a long-term employee, to help advise Whit. Whit says, “They were loyal to my Grandpa with fulfilling that. There was also a long-time employee that stayed on through the growing season and guided me through how to grow the crop — I had never paid attention to the lifecycle of the cranberry. I didn’t know the signs and steps to harvest.” Sara says, “Our neighbors were always gracious with information and help. They are competitors in a way but also good friends.”
The mother-son partnership works so well because they divide up tasks. Sara says, “Whit does the hands-on farm stuff. While I do the bill paying and bookkeeping as well as the grower relation work. We talk all the time.” For Whit, “our partnership completed the whole thing.” And for Whit, he takes a firm position that even though it’s a farm, it’s a business. He says, “family ends at the gate. That’s gotta be the kids position.”
Sara’s advice on farm succession: “The elder generation should just start planning — it might make the next generation more interested. Start working together as it’s unfolding. Seek out professionals to aid in the implementation of it. This isn’t what I would’ve seen myself doing, but things are what you make of them. It was a good opportunity and a lot of hard work and it’s still an opportunity that I’m thankful for.”
Sara’s embraced her new career, “with farming you don’t have a ceiling, literally and figuratively. You’re outside, there’s nothing over your head, and you can hope and dream and think of better ways to do things. It feels like freedom.”
Ready to start your farm succession plan? Go to Rogue Farm Corps website to find more resources: www.roguefarmcorps.org/changinghands