For many dairy farmers, the lines between family and farm are blurred. While there are many positive aspects when family members work together, it can also be challenging. Oftentimes, inadequate communication can be the root of many problems.
“A lot of small business owners struggle with communication,” said ag economist Brady Brewer during a Purdue University Commercial AgCast podcast.
A conversation that can be particularly difficult to navigate is that of succession planning and farm transfers. Yet, open dialogue is necessary to create a path forward.
“All succession planning and transfers start with communication,” said Renee Wiatt, a family business management specialist at Purdue. “You need to know everyone’s intention and desires. Bridging that gap in succession starts with communication.” Wiatt, Brewer, and others offered 10 communication tips for farm businesses during the podcast.
1. Recognize the family’s role in the business. According to USDA data, 98% of farms are family owned, which means family is very integrated in the business. “The family entity and the business entity are constantly competing for time, money, and resources,” Wiatt said. She encouraged people to establish clear roles for how each family member fits into the farm.
2. Conflict isn’t necessary bad. “Conflict gets a bad rap, but it just means that people care. That they are passionate about something,” said Heather Caldwell, a county extension educator. “Conflict doesn’t need to be bad. Instead, learn to embrace conflict as an opportunity to communicate.” She said it is common for people to avoid conflict, but it is critical to know what everyone is thinking. Assumptions can be more dangerous than conflict itself, she noted.
3. Explore family feelings. No one likes to talk about feelings, offered Kelly Heckaman, a Purdue Extension area director, but we should be willing to sit down and talk about how people feel about certain situations. “Some family members might have unique personal situations going on, and that can affect the dairy,” Heckaman said. We should not expect people to be superhuman all the time. While these are not easy conversations to have, “If we don’t talk about them, they can have a huge impact on our business. We want to keep the business in the family, and keep the farm moving along,” she stated.
4. Discuss issues before they become a crisis. Wiatt noted that in farming, a lot of tasks are tied to a time and season. She encouraged farms to have a plan in place for who would serve as a backup if a farming family member was not able to fill their role for a period of time due to health or other issues.
5. Discuss roles, responsibilities, and expectations. “Defining roles is important,” Caldwell stated. “If everyone is clear on their roles, it leads to more supportive, collaborative work.”
6. Focus on goals and setting them in a collaborative style. “Goals are extremely important,” shared Heckaman. “Make sure everyone is headed in the right direction, on the same page, to achieve success for the business. Hopefully, every farm business has a mission and vision statement that helps with the overall vision of where they need to be headed.” She encouraged families to sit down and decide why they are in business together. Goals should be written annually and revisited through the year.
7. Listen to what others are saying. “The way people communicate can vary based on external factors,” Wiatt said. “We need to listen to what they are actually saying. Context and content matter more than the tone.” If there is any question, she encouraged the listener to restate what they heard and confirm its accuracy.
8. Transparency and honesty go a long way in moving the farm and family forward. Sharing our feelings can make us vulnerable, and many people aren’t comfortable with that, but it helps shape a farm’s future. “Being honest and transparent is the most effective way to move your farm business forward. Put your wants, desires, and expectations out there,” said Caldwell.
9. Engage in active listening. Most people are not very good listeners, Heckaman pointed out. “Practice reflective listening,” she encouraged. “The real goal is that we make sure we eliminate as many distractions as we can and are all present in the moment. It takes some practice.”
10. Do not schedule farm family meetings on holidays. The speakers agreed that holidays should be about family, and that business meetings should take place on a different day. That’s because these conversations not only impact the farm but can also make or break a family. “Set boundaries,” Wiatt said. “We want a functional family entity, and we want the business to trade hands to the next generation.”