Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market EXPO

Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market EXPO in 2013. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower file photo)

When it’s done well, a family farm business is a wonderful thing. Multiple generations all work together and everyone feels a valued part of the enterprise.

Such an idyllic arrangement, however, doesn’t come easy, according to Dr. Val Farmer, a clinical psychologist and well-known Midwest columnist who specializes in conflict resolution and mediation for family farms and ranches.

“Family farms have a lot of pitfalls. Farmers seem to think that their ordinary communication skills are good enough, they don’t deal with the ‘relationships’ part of being in a family business, and they end up with serious conflicts because they haven’t put in place good business practices.”

Farmer will be leading three sessions at the 2017 Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Dec. 5-7.

Some of his tips for building a highly functional family-farm business include:

Don’t forget the basics. Job descriptions, along with clear expectations about work hours and time off, are paramount. For instance, a parent may view the farm as the single most important thing in life, while an adult child may see it as one part of a multifaceted life.

“These things really need to be understood ahead of time, rather than dealing with them as they come up, because the work ethic between generations is often different,” he said.

Set the right goal. “The most important aspect of the work on a family farm or family orchard is the development of the next generation, so the No. 1 job for parents is to be wonderful, gentle teachers that transition their children into business partners,” he said. “As the parents come to understand that their children need the confidence to be actual future leaders, they can put time and energy into the teaching process rather than just the work issue.”

Hold good family business meetings. The most productive meetings are run by a moderator who doesn’t have a vested interest in the specific decisions being made, but who cares about the process and ensures that everyone’s voice is heard.

“Underneath the business, the family loves unity, and the best place to get that unity is in a managed family business meeting that (invites people to discuss) problems and conflicts and gets them resolved in that meeting, so that afterwards they can function as family members instead of carrying around their unresolved issues in their day-to-day work situations.”

Only 5 to 10 percent of family farms have good family business meetings, but their efforts are rewarded in the ability to anticipate and therefore avoid problems, and in high morale, he said.

Get help with meetings if necessary. Moderators often benefit from a bit of training on how to run a good family meeting. Training is typically available at growers’ workshops or other community educational sessions. If a particularly sticky situation arises, an outside mediator may be useful. Such mediators could be a minister, family friend or another grower with experience overseeing meetings and managing conflict.

Send the kids away. Children should enroll in higher education and also work away from the farm for two to three years, Farmer advises.

“This allows them to experience the freedom of making their own decisions, so that when they come back, they have their own skills and they have more to contribute. They aren’t just a junior version of the parent.”

Think about expanding. As children get married and begin having families of their own, multigenerational farms may find the extra people make things too complicated. A good way to deal with this is to spin off different businesses that cater to the goals and desires of each family member. This might be an additional land purchase, a new farm stand, or some other related business.

“Farms should start to make plans six to eight years ahead of time for an eventual splitting apart of the operation, so they are still loosely connected business-wise, but allow for more independence,” he said.

Family farming remains a great experience because it combines a love of agriculture with the family experience, he said.

“Farmers must care about other people, not just the work,” he said. “These are the farmers who are the most successful at growing their operations and transitioning it to the next generation. That is the goal.” •

– by Leslie Mertz