Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Relationship Skills Important In Agriculture

February 16, 1998

Question. What do you think is the most important management tool for farmers and ranchers? Marketing? Precision farming? Financial analysis aided by computer applications? Diversification? Wrong!

Human relationship skills are what farmers and ranchers need to master in order to get to the next level of management. Why do I say this? Consider these factors:

- A happy marriage. A farmer who has an equal and mutually supportive relationship with his wife will have a partner on whom he can rely on for ideas, motivation and being supportive when it comes to farm goals, management and labor. They form an executive team that keeps work and family life in perspective. This adds fun, balance and leisure to life as well a buffer against stress.

- Motivated and committed successors. Gentle, patient and warm father/son or father /daughter relationships as children are growing set an emotional tone that interests children in being future successors on a family farm or ranch. The emotional warmth of a family farm also depends on children watching a loving marriage and the incorporation of family fun and leisure into a farming lifestyle.

- Shared management. Sharing management and having a respectful, give and take relationship with adult children partners and their families creates complementary managerial competence and specialization. This paves the way for maximizing the skills of adult children and the delegation of important responsibilities. The business gains by having many decision-makers who provide creative solutions as well as important checks and balances on each other.

- Communications and delegation. Employer/employee and partner/partner relationships go better with positive ways of handling conflict, respect, trust and drawing out ideas. The motivation and commitment of all parties improve when everyone is included, respected and challenged.

This is important because, as operations get bigger, owner/operators must become expert managers of people and trust others to be on top of important technical and production aspects of the business. By expanding and shifting to human resource management instead of their own labor producers create more time for themselves and their families.

- Joint ventures. In today's modern competitive environment, farmers and ranchers need vital relationship and negotiation skills to link up with other producers in cooperative ventures and/or maintain positive relationships with contractual relationships with food processors.

Farmers and ranchers have to be skillful in identifying the needs of others in the process and to articulate their own needs. The go-it-alone farmer has to give up some of his or her autonomy to form alliances that give market clout by participating in joint ventures.

- Professional management. Farmers and ranchers professionalize their management by knowing how to conduct effective family business meetings. They also have clear cut lines of authority and accountability. They take time for long term strategic planning.

- Positive relationships with partners, experts and suppliers. Farmers and ranchers need to appreciate the value of other people's knowledge and resources. Outside expertise improves the business. Farmer/lender relationships have to be nourished as partners in a joint venture. The business needs of their suppliers should be respected and taken into account.

Why do farmers and ranchers have a tough time with human relation skills?
1. A farm or ranch is a business unto itself. The is little need to interact with the public. Initial success can come by mastering the technical, mechanical and biological challenges of agriculture. As a result, farmers and ranchers don't have to learn to bridle their tempers or govern their emotions in the workplace. If his wife doesn't stand up to the disrespectful treatment of herself or the children, there is no check or balance.

2. There is a pride factor in agriculture. By doing it alone, any success or prestige is reflected back on them. When farmers and ranchers put work ahead of the well-being of their wife, children and employees, they can become quite self-centered and demanding. They think they are "right" and take a forceful, intimidating way of making their points, shutting others down in the process.

3. Farmers and ranchers have a hard time letting go of the work. They don’t let others have a stake in the outcome - financially or emotionally. Management is top down. Having things perfect makes them highly critical of others' work.

4. Farmers and ranchers can use their right as landowners and ultimate decision-makers to bypass the ideas and needs of others associated with the business. "He who has the gold makes the rules." Sadly, those who have power can abuse power.

5. Being a manager of people on the farm isn't automatic. It takes a certain mind set to be empathic of others' needs. Farmers and ranchers need to listen to others. Many are poor listeners. Some are poor at giving positive feedback, recognition and constructive criticism. Others are poorly organized. Business decisions are made in a haphazard manner.

Can an old dog learn new tricks? Yes, if they are humble enough. Usually some kind of crisis will be necessary for them to want to change. What they need is to learn some basic listening skills, empathy training, anger management, and respectful ways of speaking. Some people latch onto this and discover a whole new world of valuing other people. When they understand this, they have the key to the next level of success in agriculture - managing people instead of the farm.