Posted by
Misty Zakrzewski

Drewsey Field Ranch Company

Planning for the next generation.

By Misty Zakrzewski

For many family farms and ranches, the idea of succession planning is more daunting than writing a will. It can be a sensitive topic no one wants to discuss. To the Drewsey Field Ranch Company, succession planning is a vital part in continuing the family legacy.

The Drewsey Field Ranch Company family legacy started in 1902 when Jack Joyce immigrated to theUnited States from Ireland to escape British oppression. He came with nothing, and food was hard to come by.

In Ireland he was a sheep rancher, and switched to cattle ranching when he moved to Oregon, owning property in Grant and Harney County on Cottonwood Creek.

Nelson Wilber, a sheep shearer, and his wife, Eulah, homesteaded on Sinking Water Creek in Harney Countyin the early 20th Century and started a ranch. The Wilbers’ son, Wright Wilber, and Joyce’s daughter, Kathleen Joyce, married in 1941. Wright and Kathleen bought the ranch in the 1940s and called it the Drewsey Field Ranch Company.  In the 1960s, they bought the land Jack had homesteaded and brought it into the Drewsey Field Ranch Company, as it is still named today.

The company is currently owned and operated by their three sons in partnership—Bill, Pat and George Wilber. Now, the family is discussing the company transition to the fourth generation. For the first time, the family will have a formal succession plan in place, as transitioning was not nearly as formal in previous generations as it is today.

“Transition planning in ag is a difficult thing,” says Bill Wilber, president and co-owner of the company. “Most ag people just avoid it. It’s a frightening situation because you’re talking about the end of your career,” he says. Wilber stresses the importance of having a succession plan in place before the passing of a family member. “Having that succession plan in place prior to the passing away of key individuals is vital, and that is an outcome of that planning process,” Wilber says.

With the help of NW Farm Credit Services, the Drewsey Field Ranch Company now has the beginnings of a concrete succession plan in place, which will take about a year to be completed. It has been a complex process for all members of the family who are involved in the company.

Pat and Judy Wilber, Casey and Cara Wilber, and Royce Wilber are lined up to be the next generation of owners of the Drewsey Field Ranch Company. Pat and Judy Wilber currently live on the ranch, and Pat has dedicated his whole life to the cattle business. Casey is Pat and Judy’s son, who has worked full-time as a ranch hand since graduating from Oregon State in 2008. Royce is also Pat and Judy’s son, who has worked as a ranch hand part-time since 2009, spending the other half of his time as a volunteer firefighter.

In 2006, NW Farm Credit Services facilitated a three-day retreat to Pendleton, designed to help determine if there were family members who wanted to stay in the business. The retreat educated the younger generation about the historical significance of the ranch, to help them see why staying in the family business was worth doing. “Learning that your family members don’t want to take over can be devastating,” says Wilber. When Wilber and his brothers were in the position to decide whether to be successors of the company after their parents, there was no question about taking over the family business. “My brothers and I felt a very strong obligation to our grandparents and what they started. An important part of succession planning is recognizing what others accomplished before you,” he says.

Wilber says that succession planning hasn’t been difficult for his family because they approached it with a different mindset from most. “We approached it with the mindset that it’s very necessary to continue the legacy of the family industry,” Wilber says. “It ensures you don’t get caught with Uncle Sam taking the bulk of your assets.” For Wilber’s family, the most challenging part has been coming to the realization that you can’t work forever. “There’s a lot of soul searching. It’s emotional because of the examination of yourself and how best to proceed. So it’s not an easy task,” Wilber says.

For family farms thinking about beginning succession planning, Wilber’s first tip is: embrace the idea that it’s necessary. Second, hire an experienced and gifted planner who can lead you through the process.

When Wilber’s nephews take over the business, they will come in with a lifetime of ranching experience under their belts, having grown up around ranching since the age of six or seven. Before agreeing to be successors of the company, Wilber wants his nephews to realize, “Cattle ranching is a 24/7 job and it typically goes from daylight until dark. You might get a vacation about every other year. That’s difficult for the younger generation to buy into,” he says.

When Wilber was working as a healthcare executive in hospital administration, he always had a hand in the family ranch. After more than 30 years in the healthcare industry, he returned to the ranch fulltime. He enjoyed the significant degree of independence, his ability to chart his own course and the personal satisfaction he received from the work.

“Seeing a baby calf that had a very stressful birth, and when you get it to thrive and live—that’s a good feeling,” Wilber says.“We are outstanding stewards of the land. Every year we put a significant amount of capital back into the ranch such as alfalfa seeding, crested wheat seeding, brush removal, juniper removal—whatever it is that improves the ranch that you make a living on. We pride ourselves living off of the land. Not only does it benefit the owner, but the environment, wildlife and society in general. Honestly, that’s the way we live. You have to reinvest in what makes you successful,” says Wilber.

And he hopes that reinvestment will continue for many more generations to come.

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