Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

"Improve family communication to benefit farm and family"

Leslie A. Forstadt Published on 27 March 2015

There is a common misconception that because family members are in business together, things will go smoothly.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth; every relationship (familial or otherwise) has its own quirks to work out. Relying on informal conversations can sometimes blur progress and jeopardize what’s best for the farm and business.

A graying father and his adult daughter quietly walk the land side-by-side. He’s in coveralls; she’s in a sweatshirt and vest. She reminds herself not to rush ahead but to keep in step with her dad. They cover the land, surveying the alertness of the animals and the quality of the grass.

Finally, the daughter says, “Dad, I think we should get a bunch of new calves this year to grow the herd.”

“I don’t think it’s a good use of money right now.” To him, the conversation is over.

She persists, “Dad, you’ve got to spend money to make money. The ranch business plan hasn’t changed for years now.” She’s already run the numbers and is confident it will work.

“You’ve always been a risk-taker, your whole life,” he says, in an attempt to stop the conversation. He imagines his meager life’s savings evaporating before his eyes. Why change it if it works?

They stare ahead, walking in silence.

It is common for communication to be uncomfortable or difficult, especially when there are differing opinions. Communication doesn’t just happen; it is something that can be learned.

Sometimes little tensions can act like a little leak in a barn. If you can catch it in time, you can fix the hole and prevent further damage. But if the leak continues to drip, it might spread to other parts of the barn – and before long, there’s big damage.

Developing good, solid communication skills can benefit the business and the family. That way, if there’s a little leak in the barn, you’ll be happy you’ve put some of these ideas into use that will make conversations a little smoother to avoid a lot of damage.

Get started improving your business and family communication with two questions:

1. What’s your role in the family?
2. What’s your goal for the farm or ranch?

Role in the family

Are you the long-time matriarch or patriarch of the business, a child of the business owners, one of many siblings involved in running or taking over the farm? Are you married to one of the children?

Whatever your fit may be in the family, it’s important to be aware of your own role and the roles of others. This way, you all can be aware of potential tensions and be proactive to get the most out of family communication.

For example, the older generation might be excited to try new ideas, and having a good business rationale for putting new practices into place makes sense. Or perhaps they’re a bit resistant to change. Good communication will provide a way to air all the concerns and discuss the practicalities of new ideas.

If siblings or cousins are sharing responsibility, or if there is interest by some siblings and not others, being clear who makes decisions is critical. And typically, those who are on the farm or ranch make the most sense, since they are seeing the business day-to-day.

However, sometimes, there are dynamics of being the “older” or “younger” sibling, or there might be long-held conflicts or resentments that can hinder the ability to make decisions. Working through these with a mediator or counselor can sometimes be the quickest way to a solution that works for everyone.

In-laws are sometimes excluded because they are perceived as outsiders, which can be very isolating and unwelcoming. Instead, if the new husband or wife wants to be part of the business operation, make him or her feel welcome and have responsibility for an enterprise or task on the farm that is of interest and within his or her skill set. In addition, as family members, they become part of the decision-making team, and their perspective should be respected.

If there is no one from the family interested in taking over the farm or ranch, it’s important to talk as a family about a farm transfer plan. How the assets will be divided if the farm is sold is an important decision to make well before there are health concerns about the older generation.

Your goal for the farm or ranch

Define your goals. Do you have ideas you’d like to share about new business practices? Maybe you’d like to see an expansion of the enterprises on the farm? Is there a role you’d like that you are not in currently? Are you being asked to do things that do not interest you? Trying something new may take some time to phase in.

For instance, it’s not an instantaneous decision to stop doing farmers’ markets and instead try a wholesale or community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, or to increase the herd dramatically.

But it all starts with new ideas. And sometimes the best ideas are a blend of yours and another family member’s. Find or create a way ideas can be shared on your farm or ranch.

Family meetings

Do you have your big business conversations while sitting around the dinner table? Sometimes workload and available time together makes this a necessity. But if you can find time away from the table to come together in a more formal way to discuss business on the farm or ranch, it will be more beneficial.

Why? Official meetings allow farm family members preparation time. It allows the whole group to know in advance the topics that will be discussed, so there are no surprises and everyone can contribute meaningfully.

Preparation also allows those who are a little more introverted to think about things they’d like to talk about. And finally, it frees up dinner for non-business, free-flowing conversation rather than decision-making.

Depending on the size of your staff and family, you may want to consider two different types of meetings on a regular basis: farm family meetings and family meetings.

Effective meetings

Call them whatever you like, but the idea is to have the farm family meeting include all employees, apprentices and decision-makers. These meetings follow the guidelines of those illustrated in Figure 1.

These all-farm family meetings can happen monthly or at different time intervals, but it is a time to hear from everyone on the farm about ideas and decisions being made.

Please note that when making day-to-day operational decisions, full farm family meetings can be cumbersome, depending on the size of the farm. It may not be realistic to gather everyone together. Often the farm manager will have smaller meetings with a few employees or family members about specific tasks to accomplish in the short term.

Periodic meetings that do involve everyone provide the opportunity to bring all farm family members together and for everyone to have a chance to voice ideas.

Family meetings have a different focus. Here, the members of the immediate family can be present, and these meetings can be used for business or non-business matters. What can happen at times is that all meetings become business meetings. It can be important to set aside time so that you can discuss your next vacation, review your family goals and provide an opportunity for all family members to voice ideas.

Whatever type of meeting you’re having, to have the best and most productive meetings possible, it’s important that everyone feel they can contribute and will be heard.

These are just some of the ways to be thoughtful about communication on the farm or ranch. Picking one or two new strategies can have great benefits for the farm, the family and the business.  FG

Leslie A. Forstadt
University of Maine Cooperative Extension