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Keeping it in the family is sticky (Editorial)

(June 7, 2016) In disputes within farm families over succession planning and the future of a farm operation, often is the case that the farm as it was is significantly altered or dissolved as a result of irreconcilable disagreements.
In the recently-argued court case involving Rossview Farm in New Hampshire, it seems the farm will remain intact, but it could be the farm’s family that is lost.
The disheartening legal dispute pitted parents Wayne and Ruth Ross against their son Don Ross over a lease agreement on the 600-acre Christmas tree, berry and pumpkin farm. In late 2013, the elder couple moved to evict their son from the farm claiming he owed $21,000 in land rent.
The farm has been shuttered the last two years as the case went to court.
In a ruling last month, Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara decided that Don Ross has a right to both lease the land and manage its crops.
When planning began to hand the farm down to the next generation, the Rosses appeared to make the right steps toward a successful transition.
According to the Concord Monitor, the elder Rosses essentially retired from farming in the mid-2000s and in 2007 sold a conservation easement on the property for $2.6 million.
Don Ross took over the operation, with his parents’ support.
In a stewardship plan drafted in 2006, the elder Rosses said they planned for their son to “take on management after they retire.”
They transferred the trees and equipment to him and their stake in the business and operated under verbal agreement for land rent. A written lease was eventually signed in 2006, but it was brief and ambiguous about its duration.
Ruth and Wayne Ross argued it was only for one year; Don Ross claimed it was meant to last until his parents’ death.
In his ruling, McNamara found that Don Ross did pay rent until 2011, and that both sides agreed then that it was no longer needed.
The court decision means Don Ross can continue leasing the land for free but does not establish what will happen to it when the elder Rosses die.
The ruling can be appealed, but Don Ross’s attorney, Peter Callaghan, said even if that does happen, it’s not likely the Christmas trees will go unharvested for another season.
Don Ross and others have been caring for the trees throughout the lawsuit, he said.
On the farm’s website, Don Ross said, “There are a lot of tasks, maintenance and care to catch up on, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Estate planning experts say farm families cite starting the conversation on farm transition as the biggest obstacle in planning.
The sad case at Rossview shows that continuing that conversation and updating the plan — in writing — is crucial as well.
The issue on Rossview Farm shows that even with a plan in place, people, situations and relationships can all change, putting the plan to the test.
However, had no planning taken place, the farm could now be closed permanently or owned by someone outside the Ross family.
Their planning, with a conservation easement, did its job in saving the farm, though it appears to have left a fractured farm family in its wake.
Don Ross says he’s up to the challenge of getting his farm up and running again.
We hope he and his parents are up to the challenge of repairing their family as well.