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Growing Good Communication for Your Operation

Every farmer faces questions about how to operate, how to position for the future, who should own the farm, and who has the talent to manage it. While all of these questions are difficult, each one must be confronted. 

The biggest threat to the future of the family farm isn’t crop prices, land prices, or federal regulation. It is the lack of positive and consistent communication within the farm family.

Changing a pattern of communication does not happen overnight and will take practice. In the long term, the consequences of not trying are ultimately the possible fractures in family relationships and the loss of family ownership of the farm.

To help you get the dialogue started, there are 10 questions that every farm family should ask each family member. Asking these questions will create a dialogue and will clarify gaps in perceptions and expectations.

1. What does it mean to be a (insert family name)?

This is a great icebreaker question for families holding a family meeting or if you are just riding around together in the truck. The responses of your spouse, children, and grandchildren might surprise you.

A discussion about what it means to be a (insert last name) may initiate a conversation that allows emotion to bubble up and perhaps facilitate a generational connection that didn’t exist before.

2. What is the biggest unknown regarding the future of the family farm?

The future of the family farm usually looks different depending on who’s doing the looking. Each participant sees the farm through a different lens, and it is unreasonable to assume you know how each person feels without asking directly.

While all responses may not be the same, it will be crucial to know the perceptions of family members in order to manage expectations and to have the type of conversations necessary so no one is surprised by big decisions regarding the farm.

Ultimately, it is crucial that the generations understand the fears of each other and then respect and work through the uncertainty together.

3. What is or would be the hardest thing about being a parent and a farm owner?

One key challenge of perpetuating the farm is found in the multiple roles that people play simultaneously. 

One example may be a mother, wife, and co-owner of the farm with non-operating in-laws. In this situation, it is natural to be conflicted in how you treat people and situations depending on what hat you are wearing at the time. Some things that you would want to do as a mother would not be appropriate to do if you were only an owner of the farm.

As a parent, your desire to treat children equally can cause significant operational challenges if not carefully executed. Coming to terms with your multiple roles and then working through the challenges of making decisions in these situations will be critical to navigating the complexities that you face.

4. What do you perceive as the biggest challenge of shared ownership in a family farm?

Sharing ownership of anything is difficult, but when you consider sharing ownership of an operating farm, the complexity is almost staggering. You should carefully consider the unintended consequences of forcing people to own things jointly.

The challenges of sharing ownership with non-operators should also be carefully considered. If that is the path for your family farm, there will need to be significant investments made in creating communication plans, establishing the rights of owners, and then creating an internal market for ownership shares if someone would like to sell his or her share of the farm in the future.

5. At what age do the decisions in your personal life influence how people look at the farm?

All successful generational family operations come with expectations that the community places on the family.

At a very young age, children should know that their choices reflect not only on the family name, but also could impact how people feel about the family operation. Poor judgment and run-ins with the law can put a black eye on the reputation of the family farm.

With privileges come responsibility. All family members should realize that in a family business, an individual’s personal conduct can have an impact on the family operation.

6. What is your comfort level with having to personally guarantee the debt of the family farm?

Parents tend to want to shield children from as many of the stresses of life as possible. In doing so, children may end up with unrealistic expectations about what it means to be an owner. It’s crucial to learn the risk temperament of anyone you’re considering including in ownership.

While a family may be asset-rich, most still operate with some short-term and long-term debt obligations. With debt comes risk, and that doesn’t always mean just business risk.

The concept of having to personally pledge assets in order for a lending institution to give you a loan should not be overlooked, as you are training up the next generation. Some may not be wired to handle the stress and pressures of a personal guarantee. It is best to know now the risk tolerance of those you are planning to have participate in farm ownership.

7. If you owned the farm, what do you think would keep you awake at night?

The challenges worrying you about the family farm may not be the same things that worry other owners or potential owners of the operation. Addressing the fears and anxieties of ownership will facilitate conversation, enhance understanding, and ultimately may influence how ownership succession takes place.

8. Complete this sentence: The best thing about being a part of a family farm is…?

Deciding to be a part of the farm is not always logical. It isn’t always the most profitable venture that an individual could choose. Many times, it is an emotional connection to the farm that keeps people farming when things are tough.

Assessing an individual’s emotional connection to the operation may bring insight and appreciation to what they love about the farm. When you know what others love about the farm, it will allow you to relate and connect with them on a different level. It also may help inform how the person fits into the operational aspects of the farm.

9. What responsibilities come with owning a farm?

Owning a farm is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t all beautiful landscapes and breathtaking sunsets. Owning a farm comes with responsibility. 

As the next generation has an opportunity to verbalize what they see as the responsibilities of owning a farm, this will open the door to further conversations, giving perspective and a healthy reality to the next generation.

The best-case scenario for someone returning to run or own the farm is that his or her eyes are wide open to the challenges and opportunities that come with the privilege of owning the farm.

10. What innovations will the family farm have to make to stay competitive?

The one thing that is constant in any business is change. 

Innovations in the industry will influence how productively you can operate. The need to improve efficiency and profitability will necessitate the willingness and ability to change and adapt with the times. Whether it’s marketing, plant genetics, breeding practices, or changes in estate tax laws, the ability to adapt and embrace change is key to finding continual success across generations.  

To navigate generational transitions of the family farm, it isn’t always important to have all the answers. It is crucial to ask the right questions, though. 

Invest time thinking about the questions you should be asking your family about the future of the family farm. Then have the courage to ask these 10 questions, whether in a family meeting or individually. You will be pleasantly surprised what you will learn as you encourage dialogue and sharing. 

The talents and capacity of multiple generations on the farm can only be tapped into effectively when the family establishes a pattern for communication. Enjoy the journey, and start asking questions now!

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