Communication key when family is on both sides

By Trista Crossley

men shaking hands

Walt Neff has the key to a successful, long-term relationship, whether it’s a marriage or a generational family farm.

“Communication. That’s the biggest secret right there,” he said.

Neff is part of a landlord group that includes his two brothers and a cousin. Neff’s son, David, is the group’s primary tenant, but they also lease land to neighbors. The family’s farm was first settled by Neff’s grandfather along the Snake River in Walla Walla County in the early 1900s. He later purchased land in Franklin County, across the river from the original homestead. The family has always grown dryland wheat, but a leasing arrangement with their neighbors has allowed them to expand into irrigated wheat.

“They (the neighbors) have circles. They wanted some virgin ground. We had it, so they put in a couple of circles on our ground. They raise potatoes, corn, onions, sweet corn and carrots. When their crop comes off it, we raise wheat. This is how we were able to survive during times when wheat prices were shallow,” Neff explained.

Neff transitioned into a full-time landlord about three years ago, turning over the Franklin County farm’s operation to David. The best part about that arrangement, he said, is he doesn’t have to go out and do the hard work anymore, although he does miss some things.

“I’m the kind of guy that loves driving tractor, always did, even when I was a kid. I’d go to school and sit at my desk and pretend I was driving tractor,” he said. “Now, I might go out to the ranch once or twice a month.”

Farming is an industry where the idea that family and business don’t mix is tossed out the window. Many family farms involve one generation leasing ground to the next, or, like Neff, sharing landlord duties with a group of relatives. Having that personal history and relationship in a business partnership adds layers, both good and bad, to any interactions. For Neff, that means making sure he is always communicating with his fellow landlords and their tenants.

“You have to get along. When you do disagree, you have to sit down and talk about it. It’s like being married. If you can’t talk to a landlord or your wife, you have no business being married or being involved with them,” he said.

Neff also takes care to leave the decisions to his son, but they do discuss the farm operation.

“I don’t want to be micromanaging my son. You can’t go out, stand out there and say, ‘why haven’t you gotten this done? Why not do it this way?’ You can’t do that. You’ve got to let them do it on their own. They might mess up, but it won’t happen again. You don’t make too many mistakes farming, or you won’t be in business,” he said.

The family group operates under a crop share agreement, and Neff said they talk to David and their other tenants regularly about seeding options, crop rotations, inputs, etc. Not all the landlords live locally, but they try to visit the farm yearly, and the group stays connected via email and telephone. For the most part, Neff said they all get along.