Expert Answers Questions About Making Your Return To The Family Farm A Success

Bernie Erven
Bernie Erven

Returning to the family farm is a big step for both family members on the farm and those returning home. Bernie Erven, Professor Emeritus of agricultural economics at Ohio State University and Consultant with Erven HR Services LLC, addressed the choice to return home as part of the latest installment of the GenNext Webinar Series.

Here, Erven took time to follow up on the questions he didn’t have time to answer during the webinar.

Q: My sons are interested in coming back to the farm, but do not want to deal with the government regulations that come with farming in this day and age. What do I tell them?
A: Someone on the management team must deal with the government regulations given the reality of modern agriculture.  If your sons decide to hold labor positions rather than management/labor positions on the farm, then they will be able to avoid primary responsibility for the regulations. However, if they want to hold key management positions, then they have no choice but to learn to deal effectively with at least some of the government regulations.

 

Q: My dad thinks that I don’t want to work hard and would rather sit behind a computer instead of “getting dirty.” How do I help him understand I’m interested in returning to the farm, but want to make sure it’s a good decision for my immediate family including my wife and children?
A: Your question goes much deeper than working hard and “getting dirty.” Does your father and the business want and need you to return? What does your spouse want your career to bring to the family? Do your strengths and interests meet the needs of the business? Are there basic issues between you and your father that need to be faced before you can hope to reach a mutually satisfying answer to your question? In your question, are you guessing at what your father believes about you or has he explicitly communicated that he believes you “would rather sit behind a computer instead of ‘getting dirty’“?

 

Q: How do I get my family starting to talk about a farm transition if they’re reluctant to?  How do you balance the ambition of the next generation with the contentment of the past generation in order to ensure the business remains relevant or even progressive enough to stay in business?
A: The senior leader of the farm transition is responsible for facilitating the necessary communication. Should this person choose not to provide the leadership for the communication, perhaps they would be willing to delegate the responsibility. However, their reluctance or refusal to start the necessary discussion ties your hands unless you can quietly work among family members to build support for the needed discussion. Farm transition requires much communication. A reluctance to even start the discussion sends a very negative signal to the family.

 

Q: What are some of the best things I can do as I prepare to return to the farm?
A: Listening and learning are likely to help your preparation more than trying to say just the right things. Look for issues that need to be discussed. Work at showing patience and developing trust. Seek clear and extensive two-way communication. Insist on putting job responsibilities, agreements, and issues still to be addressed in writing.

 

Q: We make plans, job descriptions, and commitments to each other but we never make deadlines and if there are deadlines, they are ignored. How can we take each other seriously?
A: First, determine if most people in the family agree with you that there is a serious problem. Most people in the business not taking each other seriously suggests that some fundamental changes need to be made in how you communicate and follow through.  The problem may be that you have the wrong people involved in the business. It could also mean that there is a lack of leadership, a reluctance to change, or even a lack of basic trust of each other. Your first step is to figure out what the basic problems are and then begin tackling them to create a new environment for action and progress.

 

Q: I already have cousins employed at the family farm. Is it safe to assume I have a job if I’m considering coming back?
A: No! Until you have a concrete offer of a position, you cannot be sure of what you have. Keep in mind that having a job is quite different from having a satisfactory job. Fairness, opportunity, and acceptance are typically an important part of a satisfactory job.

 

Q: How can I help my parents understand now that there are a bunch of us working together, communication is much more important than it ever has been with this family?
A: You are assuming that your parents do not understand the need. Perhaps they understand it even better than you but do not know how to facilitate communication. It is possible that they have never been a part of a business environment that has excellent communication. Understanding a need for better communication is just the first step. There are the all-important follow up steps of developing a communication plan that will work in your family, training people how to communicate and then following through with disciplined commitment to the new plan.

 

Q: Both of our sons have outside jobs but still help on the farm on their days off. They are both interested in keeping the family farm going, but what can I do to ensure that is a possibility?
A: There is no assurance that — in the long-run — the business will be viable and that there will be genuine opportunities for your sons. Your challenge is figuring out how to keep your business profitable and thus create attractive opportunities for your sons. They are unlikely to have much interest in supporting a failing business.

 

Q: My dad already has a succession plan in place with some of his staff members. But, I would like to return to the farm. What should I say to my dad?
A: Evidently, your dad did not see you as being a part of the business after its transition to staff members. Why? What has changed? What does your father need to know and understand about your interests? Say to your dad that you have an important matter that you want to discuss with him. Schedule a time for the two of you to have a face-to-face discussion of your concerns and his plans.

 

Q: Can you give me an example of good family communication? Can you give me an example of bad family communication?
A: Good example: At the end of each year, mom and dad sit down with each of their family members employed in the business to share four important messages: These are the three most important contributions we believe you have made to the business this year. These are the two most important things we would like you to work on improving in the next year. These are the changes we encourage you to work on over the next year to make an even greater contribution to the business. We want to know what questions you have for us and how we can be more helpful to you.

Bad example: Mom and Dad never have individual and confidential discussions with family members who are part of the business. Family members never can ask dad and mom any questions. Dad and mom show no interest in ideas that anyone else in the family may have to improve the business. Mom and dad are afraid that family members will ask difficult questions they prefer not to answer. Family members are afraid to ask any questions or offer any suggestions.

 

Q: I’ve been working professional for ag-related companies outside the family business since I graduated with a degree 10 years ago. What suggestions might you have for someone working outside the family business this long?
A: My assumption is that you desire is to return to the family business. You need to honestly answer several basic questions. What are your goals that caused you to raise this question? Do the family members already in the business want you to return? Do they understand how your experience and strengths might help the business? Are you willing to make the difficult adjustment from non-farm employment to employment in a family business?

 

 Q: How does one go about leaving a family farm at a young age to explore alternative career options when you see your role in the family farm as critical to its survival?
A: Your first step is clarification of your own goals and reasons for wanting to explore your options. The other family members need to hear from you exactly what you are considering, the timetable you have in mind, and the reasons behind your wanting to explore other options. Work hard at making your communication with your family explicit rather than implied. At some point, you will want to carefully explore with the rest of the family what they see as the future of the business with and without you involved.

 

Q: When and how do personal financial goals and family needs fit into this process?
A:  It is unclear whether this is a question assuming a family business that the questioner is already a part of. This may be a question about the career management issues the questioner is facing or the potential of a family business to satisfy goals and needs of a family member.

 

Q: What happens if after joining the family business, characteristics present themselves that had never been noticed before (e.g., disrespectful speech and attitude)?
A: One never knows the future with certainty or how people will change over time. First, note how terribly important it is to ask the “right” questions before agreeing to join a family business. The importance of open, honest, and trustful communication continues as family relations evolve. There is a never-ending need to place a very high value on communication and commitment to positive family relationships.

 

Q: I am the only son and my sister is not interested, if I decide it’s not right for me to join the family farm how do you suggest breaking the news to Dad?
A: You face the need for honest and timely communication. Let your father know as soon as possible that you are considering not joining the family business. It is possible that your Dad will be greatly relieved to know you are at least considering not coming back. It is important that Dad speak clearly to you about his plans for the business and your role in it. In short, open your lines of communication and keep them open. Your father-son relationship may turn out to be more important to both of you than your involvement in the farm.

 

Q: My brother and I had plans to farm together, but he just bought a house in another state. He still wants to help on the farm. How do I talk to him about this change in our family’s business plan?
A: The first issue is whether your agreement to farm together included a written plan for the business and a written agreement on how joint ownership issues would be resolved. (Note the importance of business agreements being thorough and in writing.) Your brother has precipitated the change in your business relationship. If he did this without your involvement, then it is important that you gain an understanding of his goals and plans for accomplishing those goals. “Still want to help on the farm” suggests an employer-employee relationship that is much different from your business partner relationship. It appears that much discussion, negotiation, and communication is ahead for the two of you.

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