In many ways, the family farm has reinvented itself. Although there's still an idyllic view of what it should look like, many families are now using the same business practices you'd see on Wall Street. The kitchen has now become the board room where family members hash out their operational decisions.
Levi and Norma Huffman implemented an organizational plan with their children soon after the younger generation joined the family farm.
The Huffmans, their son Aaron and his wife Roberta and their daughter Sherilyn and her husband Jim Hawbaker are the six members of the family board that manages Huffman & Hawbaker Farms, Lafayette, IN, a 2,600-acre farm. The family grows corn, soybeans and wheat, along with specialty crops and a farrow-to-finish hog operation.
Everyone in the family has specific duties. Jim manages the specialty crops, Aaron manages the row crops and hogs, Norma oversees the bookkeeping and Levi is general manager. Sherilyn and Roberta keep track of the books for their individual families' share of the farm.
While everyone has a clearly defined role, Levi says everyone helps where needed. Since the joint venture was formed five years ago, the family has crafted a mission statement, compared personality profiles to get a sense for each person's strengths and holds monthly meetings to discuss business.
All major decisions come before the family board. “If someone comes up with an idea, a new project, a new enterprise or if we need a new piece of equipment, that person brings it to the board and asks what the rest of us think,” Levi explains. “Usually, we ask them to look into it further, work up a budget and show us what it will do for us as a business.”
The board may wait a while to make a decision, especially on a major project. “We can usually tell by the questions if it's time to vote,” says Levi. “If there's someone who is unsure about a project, we'll wait, even though there might be a majority vote. The right answer usually becomes clear when we give it time.”
The men also meet for breakfast each Monday morning to help keep the lines of communication open. Aaron and Jim make the day-to-day decisions affecting their areas of management, and Levi says it's important for them to make decisions and not have him second-guess them.
“It was hard for me to let go, but I knew I wanted to,” he says. “I consider their success my success. The only way they can learn how to make decisions is through experience.”
One of the challenges for the family is balancing family time with work. It's difficult for them to spend 15 hours a day working together and still budget family time.
“We run the farm as a business, but it's still a family farm and we want it to stay that way,” he adds.
Every family and every business hits a bump in the road occasionally. But what happens when both the family and the business are hitting bumps at the same time? Or when the bumps turn into huge ruts and there seems to be no way out? What are some of the signs that families may need some assistance?
There are some “red flags,” according to Ron Hanson, professor of agribusiness at the University of Nebraska.
Hanson says the father/adult farming son or daughter relationship should never turn into a parent/child relationship. “Not all dads and sons or daughters are meant to farm together,” he says. “For some dads, it's ‘his way or the highway.’ I know of situations where the son is 40 or 50 and is still treated as Dad's boy. That should never happen.”
Simple disputes can also tear a family apart. “There's a world of difference between disagreeing about something and fighting about it,” says Hanson. “You can disagree and still respect each other. It's when the disagreement turns into a fight and the strategy is to get even that things get done and said that destroy relationships.”
He adds that carrying grudges accomplishes nothing. “If you're mad, that's normal. Get it out and deal with it and then forget it,” Hanson says. “Grudges fester and one day the whole thing falls apart.”
Failure to communicate can also create tension. “If young people farm with their parents, and the parents refuse to talk about the future or put anything in writing, that's a concern,” says Hanson. “If everything's one big secret, those young people are taking one heck of a gamble.”
Alan Miller, a farm business management specialist at Purdue University, adds that tolerating situations over and over may also be a sign that there's something wrong. “If you find yourself swallowing your pride and tolerating things you don't want to, it's time to deal with that,” he says.
Miller also says problems can sometimes emerge from outside the group that actually works together. “When you have a significant change in the people involved in the operation, you may need to make sure everyone's on the same page about where you want to go,” he says.
Both Hanson and Miller encourage farmers to be proactive. Miller suggests farm businesses have a trusted group of advisers. Help is often available through land grant universities and their extension specialists. Clergy may be of assistance, too. Purdue University offers the Farming Together Workshop each year, scheduled next for Jan. 30-31, 2004.
Family Comes First: Planning For The Future
Adversity can tear a family apart. But for one family farm in Nebraska, it's part of the glue that holds them together and makes them stronger.
Gary Heine and his four brothers, Ron, Tom, Steve and Gene, farm near Fordyce, NE. They grow 6,000 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa and have a 15,000 head feedlot. They also own the oldest livestock auction barn in South Dakota.
This generation was thrown headlong into farming when their father died in 1969. Gary, the oldest, was just 21. “We've learned through the school of hard knocks,” he says. “But we've each found our own role in the operation based on our strengths.” Besides the five brothers, Gary's wife Arlene is the only other family member currently working full time on the farm.
Their family is being tested by a series of court battles surrounding the farm's attempts to expand its feedlots. “We've taken a lot of abuse in the last 2½ years, but we try to stay low key and promote ourselves positively,” says Heine.
With such a diverse operation and with so many family members not directly involved with the farm, the family meets once a month to discuss business. “The conversation can get lively at times, but we work well together,” Heine says. “We're always able to see beyond our own personal wants to make our decisions based on what will be the best for the whole scope of our family farm.”
He adds that first and foremost they're a family. “When we walk away from the table we set aside our differences,” Heine says. “We all have our own interests, and we respect each other as individuals.”
Heine enjoys the camaraderie of working with his brothers, noting that from the business standpoint, working together also has its advantages because alone they probably couldn't have accomplished what they have as a family.
The next challenge is deciding how to include the next generation, which will probably mean restructuring the business as a corporation. “We're still working on the most viable way to bring the younger generation in and maintain credibility of the whole operation,” says Heine. “We want the farming operation to continue for generations to come.”