The Secret of Working together in a Farm Family Business

Posted on: October 28th, 2010 by Richard Cressman

Leaving a farm meeting one evening a young farmer and her husband asked me, “What is the secret to working together long-term with family members in a farming business?”

The answer is complex yet the core reason is that successful families do a better job of communicating with each other. Basic communication involves listening and speaking, but it’s far more than just words. The appropriate tone of voice and body language can convey as much or more meaning than the words spoken. Few people enjoy being yelled at. And most people enjoy being listened to. Knowing when to speak and when to listen is extremely important.

The following are examples of how three families have learned to successfully manage their communication system in each of their farming operations.

The Smith family farm business is comprised of six partners, mom and dad, and four brothers who are in their 40′s. They crop just over 1500 acres of land and operate two dairy farms plus a hog finishing operation. Each brother owns his own farm. All other farming assets are owned by the family corporation. Five days a week from Monday to Friday after eating breakfast at their homes with their respective families, the four brothers meet at mom and dad’s house from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Mom serves coffee and the day’s activities are mapped out and decisions are made. Everyone is expected to show up regardless of how busy things are. In-laws are not involved in farming decisions.

The Masterson family farm operation is owned by two brothers who are in their early 30′s. Their father still works full-time on the farm. They also have a sister who is a silent business partner. They have a grain drying business, a custom farming business and crop 1750 acres. There is one employee. All farming assets are owned inside one corporation. Each Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. dad, and both brothers meet in the farm office where they have a formal meeting and sort out what activities need to be accomplished during the week. Then twice a year they have a business meeting at their accountant’s office where all family members are present including each brother and his wife, their sister and her husband, and mom and dad. Their accountant chairs that meeting.

The Applegate family runs a 1900 acre cash crop operation and finishes 11000 hogs each year. The full time personnel are father and his two children, a 31-year-old daughter and a 27-year-old son. The daughter’s husband helps out part-time in spring and fall. The three partners have established an interesting routine for communicating. Each morning from Monday to Friday at 7:30 a.m. the daughter calls her brother with her cell phone and then sets up a three-way conference call with father. The daughter is often in the hog barn and her brother can be in the shop, fields, or pickup truck. Dad is usually just getting his day started at his home in town. They have also established a tradition of having a family breakfast at mom and dad’s place one Saturday morning a month. Both children and their spouses attend this breakfast meeting.

Family farming businesses in which family members work well together have mastered seven basic rules for managing an effective communication system.

Strict guidelines are followed regarding frequency of meetings and who attends. There is a clear distinction as to who has input into decision making. Some families exclude in-laws, other families include in-laws. Employees may attend or may be excluded.

Agendas. For families who meet at least once a week formal written agendas usually are not needed.

Disagreements will happen. Someone may leave a meeting in a huff. That will happen from time to time. However, they are expected to come back to the next meeting willing to participate. Adherence to this principle is possibly the most important attribute of successful families.

Fight fair. Do not solicit support from one family member behind the back of another. Keep all discussions transparent.

Respect confidentiality. Hearing from a neighbour or a friend what was talked about at a family meeting rapidly destroys trust, which can be difficult to re-establish.

Regardless of how often you meet, it is important to cultivate an attitude that your meetings are an integral part of the future success of the business. The more people you have involved in the business the more frequent meetings need to be held.

Taking time to talk when you are busy may feel like a waste of time. The families you have just read about all have developed a communication system that is adaptable. Flexibility is also needed at times, but never for the sake of being too busy to take time for the family business meeting. The trap many families find themselves in is that they have tried to have some type of regular meetings, but other things get in the way and the meetings stop. Frustration grows and it is difficult to get the process started again. If there is stress and conflict in your family, it will almost inevitably trace its roots back to a lack of effective communication at some point in the family system.

As the father of the Smith clan said, “we are going to take time for a coffee after breakfast anyway so we may as well spend it talking with each other. Our meetings are probably the most productive time we spend in our farming business”. The youngest Smith brother summed it up another way, “we have had regular meetings now for over 10 years. Before that we met but not on a regular schedule. I can’t prove that meetings help us make more money, but each of our wives tell us we are easier to live with since we meet five days a week. We just don’t need to drag our farm problems home with us anymore.”

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