Planning, training, challenge and hope: Passing the family farm to the next generation

Three men stand outside
Dan Younggren, 60, pauses with his nephew Corey Younggren, 30, (left) and his son Blair Younggren, 22, (right) at the family farm outside Hallock, Minn. Younggrens have been farming in Kittson County since the late 1800s. "There's a lot of pride involved with family farms like this," says Dan, who is thrilled that both Corey and Blair plan to continue farming.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

A painted wooden sign in the shop on the Younggren farm near Hallock reminds everyone that the operation has been in the family since 1895.

For Dan Younggren, it feels like just a few years ago that he was the one taking over that legacy. But he’s 60 now, and helping his son and nephew become the fifth generation to farm this land in northwest Minnesota.

"My father and uncle told my brother and I, as we were sitting in the shop one day, just don't screw this up and everybody will be fine,” recalled Younggren. “I tell these guys the same thing. Screw this up and you'll have the wrath of my brother and myself to answer to."

The family raises soybeans, wheat and sugarbeets on about 6,500 acres in the northern Red River Valley.

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Younggren, his brother Darryl and cousin Erik haven’t screwed up the farm. And he’s confident the next generation will keep it going.

A white sign reads "Younggren's since 1895."
A sign in the Younggren farm shop points to the family's long history of farming in Minnesota's Kittson County, located in the northwest corner of the state.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Dan Younggren’s nephew Corey returned to the farm in 2010. His son, Blair, just graduated from college and also decided to return to the farm, rather than pursue a teaching career.

Dan Younggren is confident both young men are capable of running the operation — with enough planning and preparation.

"You just can't one day wake up in and hand the books over to somebody,” he said. “I mean, there has to be a progression put into place. It takes a matter of, at a minimum, probably four years and maybe even closer to six to pass it on.”

Never too early to plan the transition

Blair Younggren graduated high school and left Hallock for college in Moorhead, about two hours south, intending to become a teacher. But he kept coming home — helping out on the farm every summer — and a couple years ago, he realized how much he enjoyed working with his family. Now that he’s graduated, he’s back home, substitute teaching and starting to learn about farm finances.

"That is probably the biggest challenge, the whole business side,” he said. “I've been out there in the tractors and trucks, but the behind-the-numbers stuff, I'm going to need to learn more about that."

Experts say it’s never too early to start planning for a farm transition.

Two people hold coffee cups.
Farming has been a way of life for many generations of Younggrens. Blair Younggren, 22, (left) and his dad, Dan Younggren, 60, hold coffee cups inside their heated farm shop outside of Hallock, Minn.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

“Start soon, discuss this often and you will be more likely to have a successful farm transition,” said Megan Roberts, a University of Minnesota Extension educator who teaches farmers about transition planning.

“I hear from some farmers that are in a difficult spot, or maybe farmers where their family farm has been broken up because the plans weren’t made ahead of time,” she said.

When Dan Younggren joined the family farm business in 1978, his father and uncle made the transition seamless with detailed planning.

He wants to do the same for his son and nephew.

After a surge in farm income in the early part of the decade, the farm economy has been tough in recent years with low crop prices, a string of bad weather years and a trade war that shut the door to some markets. But Younggren said the farm is financially stable, thanks to a long-term conservative philosophy he learned from his dad and uncle: Use the good years to prepare for the bad years.

A man leans against the wheel of a tractor.
Minnesota farmer Corey Younggren, 30, is the fifth generation of his family to work land in Kittson County. "You show up every day and there is a different challenge," he says.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

His nephew Corey has been farming for a decade, and he's gotten that message.

"That's just kind of the nature of the beast when it comes to farming,” Corey Younggren said. “There's going to be good years there's going to be bad years. It's just a matter of making sure that you're prepared to weather the hard times.”

Keeping the farm in the family

When he went to college, Corey wasn't sure he'd return to the farm — and to rural living. But after a few years away, he felt more of an affinity for life on the farm.

"You show up every day, and it's a different challenge. I think that's the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I like to problem-solve. I like to make things. And both of those are pretty pretty common to find on a farm."

Corey is married, with a 2-year-old son who he hopes will someday want to join him in the farm business.

A drawback of farm life used to be that amenities like shopping were an hour or two away, he said. Now with Amazon, whatever he needs is just a click away.

Boots, a broom and gasoline cans are among the items on a concrete floor.
Evidence of winter's work litter the shop floor at the Younggren family farm outside Hallock, Minn., on Jan. 27. The Younggrens grow sugar beets and other crops in the northwest corner of Minnesota.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Young people often leave rural communities for economic opportunity, but in this remote corner of northwestern Minnesota, more young people are returning home, to farms and other jobs. That made it easier for Blair Younggren to come back.

"My classmates, I’ve already got like six that moved back, and I’ve got more that plan on moving back, so it's actually kind of wild,” he said. “No one thought that my class was actually going to come back and already a third of us are making our way back here, so that's kind of cool.”

Dan Younggren said he never pressed his son to join the family business, but he was ecstatic when it happened.

He feels lucky. A couple of years ago, a neighbor had to sell the farm when he retired, because there was no one to take over the operation.

“It’s a very tough pill to swallow, when you’ve spent so much time building something up only to see it go away in a day at an auction sale,” said Dan Younggren.

Keeping the farm in the family is often the primary goal for farmers, Megan Roberts says.

“And that can be a really big burden, to have not only debt on your back, but then the weight of continuing that farm,” she said. “What if you're the last generation to be on the farm? That is a big psychological weight.”

A field is covered with snow.
Snow falls on a snow-covered field owned by the Younggren family outside Hallock in late January. The family's history of farming dates to the late 1800s and is a source of pride for Dan Younggren, 60. "This has always been home base," he says.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News/Ann Arbor Miller

And if a family member doesn’t take over the farm, who will? After decades in the business, Dan Younggren believes a family connection is the only way a young person can start farming under current economic conditions. The cost of starting from scratch, buying land and machinery, would be insurmountable, he said. If a farm doesn’t stay in a family, it’s often broken up and sold piecemeal to other farmers who want to expand their land holdings.

Roberts sees a lot of farm families struggling even when they have an established farm to pass on to the next generation. The transition is more difficult now than it was just a few years ago.

“Both generations need to be able to have enough money to go around, to fund retirement, and then for the younger generation to fund their day-to-day life,” she said. “That can be challenging with our current economy.”

That also means that more farmers are relying on off-farm jobs to supplement their farm work. Dan Younggren said his wife Diane makes a critical contribution to the success of the farm: Her job as a county social worker brings in additional income, but more importantly medical insurance, which is unaffordable for many farmers, who, as independent business owners, are responsible for their own insurance coverage.

Nationally, farm debt is growing, and the USDA predicts farm income will be down this year. But most balance sheets are still stable, agency analysts say, because farmland prices remain high and interest rates are low, helping farmers manage the debt.

Three men stand outside. A house and large trees are in the background.
"There's a lot of pride involved with family farms like this," says Dan Younggren (far left). An effort to transition the Younggren farm to younger members of the family, including Dan's nephew Corey Younggren (center) and Dan's son Blair Younggren (far right) is in underway. The house in the background now stands vacant, but was previously occupied by Dan's grandparents.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Dan Younggrens’s priority now is to rebuild the farm’s working capital — which has been eroded by recent challenging years — to help ease the transition to the next generation.

"These next couple years are gonna be pretty thin," he said. "So hopefully in the next four to five years, before Blair takes over, we can heal what we've gone through and put some money back in the coffee can and put it up on the shelf for another day."

The fifth generation of Younggrens know those are words to live by. They feel the weight of sustaining what previous generations built here, and keeping this farm alive for the next generation.

Are you in the midst of a farm transition? MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson would like to hear from you.