Your Farm’s Most Valuable Tool - Using communication to help evaluate the farm

Published on Thu, 12/08/2016 - 8:00am

  Another year has almost passed us by.  With the holidays also upon us, it is always a hard time to think about evaluating the past year on the farm, getting ready for tax season, and starting a new year on the farm. 

In past issues we have discussed the SWOT analysis, marketing plans, goals and objectives, and this should prepare you to evaluate your operation. What went right, what went wrong? Are you becoming more efficient at what you do with your farm?  Have you improved your balance sheet? Are you happy with the way things are going for your farm operation? 

Perhaps more importantly, is everyone involved in the operation happy?  Have you sat down to discuss the positives and the negatives with each person involved?

Working after work

Because my Extension career is my main occupation, I find I am truly a weekend farmer.  With the family, I try to get a whole week’s work done on Saturdays and Sundays because there is little time to get much else done during the week but feeding and inspecting the livestock. We still do many other tasks as daylight and time allow, such as cleaning pens, breeding sows, moving  livestock, and trimming goats’ feet. But because we don’t have whole days to do it, these tasks become drawn out over the week or weeks. 

In our farm operation, we rely on everyone in the family to do their part. Does this sound familiar to your situation?

When you evaluate your situation, are those around you in support of what you are doing? Do you step back and evaluate the role others play in the “Big Picture” of the day-to-day needs of the operation? Do you communicate daily, weekly, monthly, or never?

Take time to re-evaluate your goals and objectives of the operation and include everyone in the process.  Is everyone thinking the same things?  As families change, do your goals change as well?

Farm personalities

On our farm we have relied on our kids to help with day-to-day chores.  I have to keep in mind that one hates livestock, one has started college, and the third is in the prime of being a teenager and wants a social life.  My wife is supportive but she handles the paper work, not the feed bucket or pitch fork.

I value their inputs to the operation and with that input, change has come. Our livestock-hating daughter only helps when we need that extra person. Our daughter in college needs time to study so she gives me a schedule when she can help. And our son, the teenager, knows when he needs his social time it is granted. 

As a result of these evolving dynamics to our operation and many family discussions, several changes have taken place or will be implemented in the next year. Part-time labor has been hired to help get things done  in a more timely fashion, the goat herd has been downsized, and the swine operation will be next to downsize. 

Stretched too thin

Another example is a family in my county that I have worked with for many years.  They have a produce farm of about 50 acres. In the past, this family farm grew many varieties of produce and fruit, had a CSA, participated in 7 to 9 farmers’ markets (some 60 miles away from the farm), and operated an on-farm retail market.

Like our family, everyone worked on the farm and had responsibilities. They would spend many early mornings picking and packaging produce to get ready for the next markets and sometimes even later nights to get other tasks done. The operation even got large enough that hired labor was brought on. 

The hardest lesson to contend with was something they had not made plans for. The family structure changed when two sons went away to college, and another son became heavily involved in high school sports. Everyone wanted a social life and at times had hired unreliable labor. The reality for this family—change in the operation was needed! 

Getting them to discuss their situation as a family was vitally important. As a result of finally getting everyone to share their true feelings, emotions, and goals, they realized staying in production meant making big changes—drop the farmers’ markets, the CSA, and the on-farm market and instead produce for wholesale markets though different coops and connections they have made over the years.  They now produce fewer items, specialize more in production, and do less running around to satisfy the market plan.

In the end, the family members have expressed a sense of satisfaction, less stress and just more time for family. They are still doing what they like, just at a different level.

A view from the inside

Each farming operation is unique—it may only be two of you rather than our situation that involves five of us— but how do you see yourself in your family operation? How does everyone else see themselves and their roles in the operation? 

Consider these practical steps to involve each person so they feel they have a say in the goals and objectives:

1. Have each person write down personal, family, and farm operation work goals for three months, six months, and a lifetime. What is going on in each family member’s schedule? This may include school, extracurricular activities, church events, family events, and just time away.

2. Give each person involved necessary time to sit and think about decisions. Be clear what you want and need for your well-being. Practice healthy stress management strategies. 

3. Deal well with unfinished business with others. Reflect with your family to help solve problems. What worked? What didn’t? What might be some new strategies?

4. Enhance your communication and listening skills. 

The Extension Service has some great information to help you and your family members communicate. Here are just a few communication tips for family farm situations to consider:

* Understand the farm operation. Take the time to map out the farm business structure. A smaller farm may have a more linear structure, with all business partners shown side-by-side, each with their own set of tasks on the farm.

Try to separate between work and family. The family farm is a business and most decisions should be based on facts rather than emotions.

* Identify strengths and roles of each family member. Each family member has his or her own strengths related to the farm business. Identifying those strengths and giving each family member a role geared toward those strengths will help improve the function of the farm business.

Examples of roles can be baby animal care, feed and nutrition management, genetics and breeding, health care, farm mechanic, etc. Sometimes farm duties may require more than one person to get the job done. Communication is critical in making sure all duties on the family farm are being carried out.

* Family meetings can keep everyone on the same page and make sure the farm is meeting its goals. Family meetings can help save time if used properly. Don’t take these meetings lightly.  Meetings allow all family members to sit down and share thoughts and concerns and identify areas of improvement. This can be a place to sort out new job roles and identify different strengths and weakness within the group. Family meetings should open the lines of communication between family members.

* Show appreciation. Getting caught up in the workload and busy schedules often makes it hard for farm families to express their gratitude for one another. It can be easier to criticize when something goes wrong rather than to show appreciation when the farm is working right.

Family and employees want to know that they are appreciated for the work and long hours they put into the family farm. Meetings can be a good place to acknowledge their hard work, and letting them know that you appreciate what they are doing for the farm can make them want to continue to work hard.

Being a farmer can be gratifying and successful. Set your goals and objectives accordingly and include everyone in the decision process. This applies to all farm operations big or small.  

There are many resources available to help in family communications and farm management. Your local Extension Office can help you get the information you may need.