The Middendorfs – (from left) Rosie, Dan and Joel – review farm paperwork at Rosie and Dan’s home near Verndale, Minnesota. 
The Middendorfs – (from left) Rosie, Dan and Joel – review farm paperwork at Rosie and Dan’s home near Verndale, Minnesota. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE

    VERNDALE, Minn. – The Middendorfs are nearing the end of what has been an overlong journey. In just a few weeks, Dan and Rosie Middendorf will give ownership of their dairy to their son, Joel, and his wife, Maureen.

    After two years of discussing the business structure and vision for the farm, the family has setup a succession plan; but none of it would have been possible without the assistance of non-family members.
    “It’s absolutely necessary to have a trusted third party involved with your transition plan,” Joel said. “Unless you have someone looking at the big pictured, unbiased, you don’t really know where you want to go and you’ll never get there.”
    Joel oversees the day-to-day tasks on his family’s 120-cow organic dairy farm in Wadena County near Verndale. Together with Dan, the father-son duo also runs 400 acres of cropland and 300 acres of grass and pasture land.
    “Any decision about fieldwork is totally up to Joel. He decides what’s planted and where,” Dan said. “Any big decisions for the farm we still make together.”
    Joel returned to the farm in 2017. After a year of working as an employee for Dan and Rosie, they began discussions on what was the best route to fully transition the farm to Joel and his family.
    The Middendorfs worked with a financial planning firm based in Mankato to determine if the transfer would be viable.
    “It had got to the point that we had to do something because Dad needed to back off from the farm for his health,” Joel said. “In the same sense, though, if things weren’t going to work financially, we knew this wouldn’t work.”
    Nearly a decade ago, the Middendorfs tried to transfer the farm. Dan and Joel were working in an informal 50:50 partnership, and they discussed Joel taking on more ownership.
    Yet, the timing was not right for a farm transition.
    “We’ve been almost through this process before,” Joel said. “It came down to seeing what Dad wanted to do and if he wanted to stop farming. That answer was no.”
    Dan agreed.
    “At that point, Joel leaving was the best we could do,” he said. “There were no hard feelings and it was an amicable split.”
    The conversation changed after Dan suffered a brain injury from a car accident in 2014. Joel and his siblings returned to the farm to help their father as he recovered.
    For the following three years, Joel managed the fieldwork and his sisters dealt with the dairy.
    “I was never far away,” said Joel who was a welder at the time. “It really became a matter of how we were going to make the finances work so I could come back.”
    When Joel was able to return full time, the stage was set for the Middendorfs to plan their future.
    “We each sat down with the planner separately and listed off our goals,” Joel said. “What we found was that this time we had very similar goals which made it easy to move forward.”
    The Middendorfs carefully reviewed the business structure of the farm and made a plan that would benefit both parties when the transition was complete.
    For the families, it was important there would be money for Dan and Rosie to retire on, they would have the financial means to pay off existing debt, and the farm would still be able to support Joel’s family.
    “The most important thing was knowing we could retire, and Joel could make a future to survive on the farm,” Rosie said. “Secondly, we needed to know we had our bases covered and nothing was going to legally backfire on us down the road, that Joel is protected.”
    To meet these objectives, the Middendorfs needed to change the management of their dairy. They were operating under a quota from their cooperative, so rather than increasing cow numbers, Joel focused on crossbreeding to Jerseys to improve components.
    There were also familial matters to work through.
    “This process has been slower than we expected, but that’s happened to be a good thing,” Joel said. “Looking back, a lot of things have resolved themselves.”
     In 2018, Dan and Rosie moved off the farm and into a house 3 miles away. The move allowed the elder Middendorfs to separate themselves from the dairy and for Joel and Maureen to be more engaged in the day-to-day happenings of the farm.
    Since Dan’s accident, he has continually done less and less of the chores for his own health and safety. He does milk every morning and some evenings, and enjoys completing projects on the farm.
    “Before when we tried this, I wasn’t ready to stop farming but now it’s time I step back,” Dan said. “And not living on the farm has helped me take my mind off it.”
    Rosie agreed.
    “Moving off the farm has made a big difference,” she said. “Now, Dan maybe doesn’t feel so obligated to do work if he can’t or doesn’t want to.”
     All in all, the Middendorfs are pleased with the process it took to get them to this point.
    “My biggest concern, aside from money, was decision making,” Dan said. “I didn’t want to step on Joel’s toes. This is his future and he needs to make those decisions for him.”
    Joel agreed.
    “It’s been really helpful that everything’s on paper,” he said. “We know what each other’s expectations are, how we want it to go and what the time frame looks like.”
    As the details of the transition are finalized and set to paper, the Middendorfs have no regrets about the way in which they have transitioned the farm. And, each one of them is looking forward to their new role in the family dairy.
    “A lot of things affect dairying that you can’t control, but this, this we’ve been able to keep in harmony,” Dan said. “There’s nothing else to do other than turning the keys over.”