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Managing family conflict on the farm

Published author and columnist for Successful Farming, Jolene Brown, talked about communication within farm families, the “stories behind the stories,” when speaking at Commodity Classic 2022. 

Unclear expectations

Brown says establishing expectations with your family and creating a respectful environment are key to managing the family farm. Unclear expectations can form between family members, even if they have been working on the farm for years.  

“So what are the expectations at your farm? What I know is that what is behind this is communication,” says Brown. “And you know, the more I have to communicate with people, the more I like cows. Because if I don’t like her, I’m going to send her to market.”

Brown established some guidelines to ensure clear communication with families. Clarity and purpose in communication, along with undivided attention, go a long way. Fifteen-minute morning huddles, especially at the busiest time of the year can help align everyone on what needs to be done today, who’s going to do it, and what resources are needed to achieve it. 

Monthly management meetings by the key people on the farm are a good opportunity to get together and make sure everyone is working well together. It can be a space to talk about how the markets are affecting the farm, identifying what inputs are available, risk management — anything established on an agenda prior to the meeting. 

“Because some have to prepare, some have to bring things to the meeting,” says Brown. “You must be ready to go. Let’s not waste time.”

For farms operating as an LLC, S corporation, or C corporation, it’s important to hold an annual meeting. Brown spoke about a couple of operations in which someone was injured on the farm. The insurance agent asked for the minutes to the annual meeting to verify the farm was operating as a structure. When the farm wasn’t able to produce minutes because there had not been an annual meeting, the insurance company said they weren’t acting like a structured business, they were acting as single people — therefore not insured, and the injured farmer was ineligible for coverage. 

“Get out your bylaws, get out your operational and organizational agreements,” says Brown. “If it says you must notify people in writing, even though you see them every day, you better have it in writing. It only takes one disgruntled stockholder, which I have seen, who did not get the invitation in writing, to make null and void everything that happened in the corporation at that meeting.”

Team-focused, not self-focused

Jolene Brown, published author and columnist for Successful Farming, speaking on the Main Stage at Commodity Classic 2022.
Natalina Sents Bausch

When working in a team, Brown says to do a “goodwill assessment” in three parts: The first is asking if you have a common goal. Are you all agreeing? Establish what you do, why you’re in business, and who you serve. “The second part of goodwill: Are we willing to deal with conflict at the mosquito bite level? So we don’t have eruptions or fighting on the way to the funeral home,” says Brown. The third is asking if you’re willing to help someone else succeed in their job. When goodwill is gone, it’s like respect and trust, it takes a long time to get that back.

Brown says to hold up the mirror to reality and assess the situation. If the achievement of your goal depends upon the assets or power which someone else has, and they do not have your same goal, they do not have the problem.

“If this is your philosophy — ‘My way or no way’ — you haven’t realized that in a family business, you are no longer independent. You are interdependent,” says Brown. 

In addition to having clear expectations and finding goodwill, farm families must make an intentional choice: Are you a family-first business or business-first family? A family-first business operates its future on a habit, assumption, hope, tradition, and luck. Brown says she is all about becoming a business-first family. 

“A business-first family does not demean the family. This is not saying, ‘We’re more important than you, family,’” says Brown. “What it says is, ‘We love and honor you so very much, we better get the business right.’ If not, you may lose both family and business.” 

Managing conflict

You must be direct when dealing with conflict in a family farm, says Brown. Sometimes being the peacemaker can only lead to a greater conflict. 

“So in conflict management, very basically, here’s what it is: If you’ve got a problem with somebody, you must go directly to them, and you may not goad the problem unless you have a solution,” says Brown.

If individuals can’t solve their conflict, they must go to the business leaders or managers. It must be addressed or those mosquitos will keep biting and the pile begins to build, says Brown.  

In a family farm, there’s a lot of work, a lot of emotions, and a lot of habits. When it comes to working in a family business, you must be aware of who’s working around you, which is where the “Platinum Rule” comes into play, says Brown. The Platinum Rule is do unto others as they’d like done unto them.

Leadership transition

Everyone has different expectations about who has power and control in a family farm. Brown says she has found that farms need people with the knowledge and the experience to lead a business. When transitioning leaders, you must transition the intellect and experience of how to successfully operate the business, and you must also transition ownership of hard assets.  

“Please separate operations from land, because as I have learned from all of you in 35 years, I want people who know how to operate a business to own 100% of operations,” says Brown.

Brown has also found sometimes the next best leader of a business is not a family member. Sometimes the best leader of the business is an in-law.

“Let me tell you why the in-law makes the best leader of a business — they are scared to death to do something wrong,” says Brown. “They’ll do everything exactly right.”

It doesn’t matter if the family member is directly related as long as they have the right leadership qualities. Brown spoke about a daughter-in-law who became the leader of the farm family business. She did the hard work to move up the ladder, has great trust with the farm staff, and isn’t a dictator. Brown told her, “If you choose to lead this business, not only do you have to have a really sharp mind, you better have a really strong spine.”

Her first week leading the business she made $51,000 — by firing the deadweight, alcoholic brother-in-law who posed a danger to the farm. As the leader she said they loved him unconditionally, and would help him get the resources he needed, but also needed to do what was best for the farm. She was willing to make a decision the father was too scared to do. When it’s time for a new generation to take the lead, Brown says for the previous leader to step aside and allow it to happen. 

“Please understand that rising generations do not want you dead, nor do they want to kick a farmer or rancher off the farm and ranch,” says Brown. “But what they need is the wise rancher. The one who’s ridden the roller coaster, the one to say, ‘Gosh, that sounds like a great idea.’”

Brown closed out with a reminder to reset, celebrate, and appreciate. Many farmers will run like hamsters on the wheel, get burned out, worn out, and stressed out.

When it’s time to pass the farm to the next generation, it can look like passing along the same burnout. 

“What would happen if we actually paused to applaud all that we have done?” says Brown. “... I wish for you a wonderful celebration. You have worked so hard to get where you’re at today.” 

For more from Jolene Brown, including videos and books, visit jolenebrown.com.

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