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For the family farm, communication is key

Karen Anderson

"The cows are out, the cows are out! Someone must have left the gate open!" In a business, communication is the key to achieve goals, to tackle daily tasks and to prevent little mistakes along the way. When it comes to personal lives, the majority of the population can easily separate what happens at work from what happens at home. However, the family farm brings together both family and business which creates its own challenges. In many cases, this desired line between work and family becomes blurred and can lead to some strained relationships if not nurtured properly.

Other factors such as stress can affect the dynamics of a family and farm business. Financial issues, heavy workload, undefined farm future and differences in personalities can all lead to undo stress on the farm business and family relationship. Some indicators or signs of stress within a farm family include: care of livestock declines, physical illness increases, routine changes, appearance of the farmstead declines and even farm related accidents increase. When these indicators are seen within a farm family, additional efforts should be made to reach out for help and increase communication to help alleviate some of the stress. Below are several suggestions on how to open communication for your family farm.

Understanding your farm business structure

Take the time to map out your business structure. For larger farms, this could be a pyramid-like shape with employees at the bottom, herdsman or farm managers working with the employees in the middle and farm owners at the top. A business structure such as this makes it easy to know who to communicate with up and down the pyramid. For small farms, the structure may be more complicated. Perhaps your business structure can be shown as a line with all business partners named side by side sharing in responsibilities and duties of running the farm business. If possible, try to redefine the line between work and family. Remember, your farm is a business, and should be treated as a business. Try to base all farm decisions on facts not emotions.

Identify strengths and define roles

Each and every member of the farm team has strengths in one or more areas of the business. Calf care, feed management, finances, genetic mating decisions and other farm duties can all be assigned to individual family members based on their strengths and time availability. By defining roles, you will strengthen your business structure and have a better understanding of who is responsible for the various tasks that must be completed on the farm. At times, some farm duties will require additional help to complete. Increase in communication is the key for farm partners to be able to ask for help when needed.

Establish weekly team meetings

Team meetings are essential to keep the farm progressing forward. The agenda can include a variety of topics such as the establishment of farm goals, evaluating different products or processes to implement, succession planning and even week to week duties that need to be done. Team meetings create an opportunity to share thoughts, express worries, and identify areas of need. It is vitally important that these meetings allow each person time to share his or her opinions. Farm and family discussions are best made when all key partners have a voice in the single conversation. Outside discussions are going to happen; it’s natural to share concerns. However, open discussions are the starting point to strong business and family dynamics.

Express appreciation

Often times, we can get caught up with busy schedules and heavy workloads. It is human nature to forget to express feelings or needs for each other. With the daily stresses of farm life, it is too easy to take out frustrations on family members working with you. Ultimately, hard feelings develop about being “taken for granted” by others or other individuals not pulling their weight on the farm. Simple things such as saying how much you need each other as family and for the business can go a long way for job satisfaction and family relationships. Remember, employees and part-time help are an extension of your family business and deserve appreciation as well! If frustration is building up, try to find alternative ways to channel anxiety and stress in a healthy manner. Getting enough sleep, a healthy diet and exercise are good places to start.

With the nature of the family farm, the desired line between family and business tends to blur causing stress and hard feelings among family members. Communication is the key to defining business partner roles, expressing concerns/appreciation and balancing work-family to move the business forward. Always remember communication is the foundation of your business. It involves give and take relationships, openness of mind, and willingness to hear what others have to say to alleviate stress and make the business change for the better.

April 2016

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