Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What I Wish Farm Families Knew About Farm Management

August 18, 2008

In my observations of successful farm families, these are some key points I feel make a difference between farms that remain profitable and are passed from one generation to the next and those who are unable to continue the farming tradition.

Multi-family or intergenerational farming:

- The most important aspect of farming is grooming and cultivating the next generation of leaders on a family farm. Fathers need to understand that gentle and patient teaching along with a positive relationship with children around farm work will be a huge incentive to love the work. Even if the children choose not to farm, they will have good memories of growing up on a farm. Too many farmers are perfectionists who are too driven in their farming to make the experience of working together fun and enjoyable.

- When farming with adult children, it is important to open to ideas, delegate meaningful responsibility and share decisions in the spirit of true partnership. Too many farmers stunt the growth and motivation of their farming partners by autocratic and demeaning management styles.

- It is important to cultivate a team atmosphere in family farming by sharing goals, giving mutual trust and respect, communicating well, giving recognition and appreciation, and by providing opportunities for growth and creativity. Too many farmers have a top-down style of management that robs their operations of motivation, commitment and ideas that would make for better farming and happier people.

- Many problems in multi-family farming operations can be solved by having a well-organized and well run family business meeting. Too many farmers attempt to run a complex business without a systematic way to bring up and resolve conflict, coordinate activities, and discuss short and long range goals. Too many conflicts between individuals and families go unresolved because of a lack of communications and a "safe" environment in which to air differences.

- With openness, inclusion and acceptance, in-law relationships on a family farm can be rewarding and pleasurable. The incorporation of a daughter-in-law into a family operation is a delicate process. There are responsibilities on both sides to make it work. Too many farm families don’t include the daughter-in-law or accept her need for a separate definable life as a priority nor is she included enough in the business aspect of the operation. Too many daughters-in-law are too demanding and self-centered and refuse to fit into a family farm with give and take that is required.

- Clear commitments and openness about estate planning and succession create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation in working for long term goals. Too many farm families delay estate planning until too late. Hardships and inequities are created through poor or no estate planning. Farming and non-heirs benefit by

knowing retirement and estate plans and can give important input that makes for better decisions and future family relationships.

- Mutual respect and give-and-take are necessary in defining important social and family boundaries so that farm families can relax and be comfortable around each other. In a close family business, it is important to work through differences and not ignore problems. Too many farm families don’t communicate their needs and concerns allowing tensions and hurt feelings to grow without efforts to resolve them.

- Succession on family farms goes smoothly when parents cultivate interests, activities and goals that extend beyond farming. This will prepare farm families for retirement or to enjoy semi-retirement. The foundation is laid for a collaborative relationship where farming goals are shared without competition or control issues spoiling relationships.

Successful retirement planning is a function of a balanced lifestyle all the way through life. Too many farm families fail to develop satisfying goals and activities beyond farming. Retirement is resisted and reins are held tight because that means giving up rather than beginning an anticipated and satisfying phase of life.

Farm management:

- Record keeping, financial management and fiscal review of farm and family living expenses are an important part of farming success. It is important to work smart as well as work hard. Profitability is a key to maintaining a satisfying lifestyle. Too many farmers neglect book work in favor of the more satisfying and compelling "hands-on" work.

- It is important to seek help from good advisors and consultants in the effort to improve business and family relationships. It is responsible and smart to gather information and resources to help solve problems. Too many farmers let their pride or a misguided idea of independence get in the way of using other people’s ideas in helping to solve problems.

- If debts loom as an emerging concern, farmers need to seek financial and emotional advice soon in the process of gaining control and confidence in one’s plans. While denying or avoiding problems, their debts spiral downward and their options become more limited. Too many farmers wait too long to get help when they are in financial trouble. Their personal coping and family relationships suffer in the process.

- As farming becomes bigger and more complex, managing the human resources of an operation becomes the primary skill that will make a difference between success and failure. Too many farmers can’t let go, delegate or micro-manage their employees at the expense of motivation and commitment. Creativity is stunted.