Which comes first, the family or the business, and how do you keep some kind of boundary between them?” asks Alan Miller, a farm business management specialist at Purdue University. “There are fundamental differences in what families and businesses do. Families nurture. Businesses make a profit. To be successful, the family has to have a shared idea of what it wants to accomplish.”
Family farming presents unique challenges, says Ron Hanson, professor of agribusiness at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “It's hard for some families to let the farm run like a business, and let their personal lives be separate,” he says.
Hanson and Miller say successful family farms have similarities.
Family farming is a team effort. Miller says families should create a clear sense of purpose and values for the business, and communicate. The family council is a way for everyone to stay in tune and it offers a legitimate forum for raising issues and concerns.
Hanson adds that regular meetings eliminate surprises and provide a forum for family farms to set short- and long-term goals. “Too often families go from season to season or sometimes from crisis to crisis,” he says. “The farm business needs focus and direction to make sure everyone's working toward the same goals. Follow an agenda, discuss what you need to in a professional manner and when the meeting's over, adjourn and go back to being a family.”
Hanson and Miller also like to see families incorporate business tools like mission statements, job descriptions and performance evaluations.
“There is often this undercurrent that someone isn't doing what's expected when really this person has no clue of what the expectations are,” says Miller. “The job description and performance review provide the opportunity to clarify expectations.”
Know where you're headed. “Assumptions about what people want get in the way,” says Miller. “We assume everyone wants the same thing, but most of the time people don't.”
For those adding new family members to the farm business, Miller recommends careful planning. “There's nothing that will create problems like cutting the pie into too may pieces by bringing back a family member,” he says. “Recognize that beforehand so you can plan adjustments.”
Respect people and their differences. “Recognize that there's value in differing perspectives. Often if there's conflict the first reaction is to quit talking for fear of hurting someone's feelings. But in a business setting those conflicts must be resolved,” Miller says. “Conflict isn't necessarily bad. If you've got good people they're going to disagree. But how you deal with it is the key. If everyone clams up, that's not dealing with it at all.”
The key is to open the lines of communication before it's too late. “Sometimes the hurt is too deeply ingrained,” says Miller. “Recognize early that there's some sort of breakdown and take steps to turn it around.”
The family comes first. “Farms can be replaced, families can't,” Hanson says. “To lose a farm is one thing, but to destroy a family is another.”