Graywood Farms LLC is located in southern Lancaster County. It is owned by Lisa Graybeal, her brother, Byron, and her dad, Steve.
“We milk 700 Holstein cows on 1,300 acres,” Lisa Graybeal says. “We raise all of our young stock and we also grow and harvest all of our forages — corn, alfalfa, rye and some soybeans.
Her grandparents, Harold and Esther Graybeal, started farming in 1942 with 60 Jersey cows.
As an owner and hands-on farmer, Graybeal says, “All farms, in my opinion, should have some kind of transition plan. You don’t live forever and you can’t take it with you when you die! “
“Most generational farmers are passionate about keeping their land and resources in agriculture today for their future generations,” says John P. Wodehouse, an agriculture business educator with Penn State Extension.
Planning needs to start sooner rather than later, Graybeal says. In fact, Wodehouse suggests anyone just starting a farm business should lay the groundwork for estate and transition in the initial business plan.
“Today’s farm families face many financial, operational, managerial, environmental and production-related challenges,” Wodehouse says. “Business structure, ownership and asset management all need a plan, plus the steps to achieve the estate transfer all take planning, resources and time.”
Graybeal notes that it can be cost prohibitive for the next generation to buy in if they wait too long. Advance planning also can minimize tax and legal costs. And when multiple families and children are involved, as is the case with Graywood Farms, fairness and equality also come into play.
For nearly 75 years, the Graybeal family has lived and worked on this land which borders the Mason-Dixon Line (with some spilling over into Maryland).
Graybeal chronicles the history of the farm and family. Her dad, Steve, returned to the farm in 1968 after attending North Carolina State and serving in Vietnam. His brother, Joe, graduated from Penn State and came back to the farm in 1970. The family purchased a neighboring farm in 1973, adding 450 acres. Then they built a state-of-the-art free-stall barn and milking parlor and expanded the herd to 350 cows. The family purchased another neighboring farm in 1979.
Brother Byron attended Delaware Valley University and came back to the farm in 1993. With three families now to support, the family decided to expand again and built another barn and milking parlor in 2001. The herd expanded to 600 cows.
While the farm was expanding, Lisa and Byron were growing up. They worked on the farm as kids, but Graybeal says she did not plan to stay there.
“Though I have always had a deep, emotional connection to the farm, I had no intention whatsoever of returning to work on it.”
Graybeal graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a degree in journalism in 1994 and worked at a variety of newspapers until returning to the farm in 2002 to help with the transition to the new barn and assist in communicating with the farm’s Spanish-speaking employees.
“I had every intention of returning to journalism,” she says, “but life happens, so to speak, and I decided to stay.”
She became an owner in 2012 when her uncle retired. They purchased two other neighboring farms. All the land is contiguous and preserved.
“It is gratifying to work with my family to accomplish common goals as it pertains to the farm and to keep it in the family,” Graybeal says. “But the dairy industry has been very volatile in the years since I returned, and it has been quite challenging to make a good living.”
She also has discovered that transitioning the farm from one generation to the next can be complex.
“When my dad and uncle returned to the farm, my grandfather wasn’t in the greatest health. ... The transition from my grandparents to the next generation was basically done with a handwritten note signed by all four parties turning over the operation with the guarantee that my grandparents would remain on the farm and be taken care of,” she says.
As families grow, transitions become more complex, Graybeal says. On the one end is the question of who, if anyone, will come back to the farm to keep it going. On the other is the difficulty of letting go and handing it off to another generation.
The Graybeals knew that transitioning this time around would require more than a handwritten note.
“The farm’s attorney and accountant continuously advised our family that we needed to begin transitioning,” she says. “When you consider all of the pieces and parts that go into this — people, children, land, operations, assets — it can get very intricate.”
Among the considerations: Ensuring that her father and uncle and their families are comfortable in their retirement, and that the next generation is getting a viable business.
“Emotions definitely come into play, I think for me, as a female, more so than for the men in my family,” she says. “There is something to be said for keeping the farm in the family. We all live here and we all work together.”
Her brother and sister-in-law have two children. That means a fourth generation is in the making if they decide to return to the farm.
The family has been meeting with Acuity Advisors and CPAs of Lancaster, a firm specializing in agriculture accounting and transitioning. Together they are reviewing scenarios to transfer the farm to Lisa and Byron in a way that meets everyone’s goals.
“I believe it’s imperative to involve experts in this kind of planning,” she says, no matter what size the farm. “There is too much at stake to make a mistake.”
Experts can also help ensure that priorities are kept straight and everyone is treated fairly, she says.
Wodehouse agrees. He recommends that farm owners embark on transition planning by selecting an advisory team that includes an attorney, all interested family members, a Penn State Extension educator, a PA FarmLink specialist, and an accountant with experience in transition.
PA Farm Link has certified transition facilitators available to discuss succession planning. They also offer workshops on various transition topics, from financial and legal challenges to family communication.
Agriculture is not an easy way to make a living, Graybeal says, but it has been the livelihood of her family for generations.
Wodehouse notes that a growing number of people are looking to leave or supplement their traditional jobs by starting a farm. Consumer demand and the desirability of the lifestyle are also enticing young people to consider a career in farming, he says.
“The recent demand for locally produced foods, as indicated by the increased number of small farms and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in our area, have farmers planning for growth,” he says. “Producers also have increased pressures from economic development, making it necessary to grow more, make more and service more, with fewer acres.”
And for those like Graybeal, the appeal of carrying on a family tradition is undeniable.
“I have a soft spot for family-run businesses and for those that are multi-generational,” Graybeal says. “I think there is something noble about continuing the family legacy and even aspiring to make it bigger and better.”