Mike Riley admits he had a tough time adjusting when his first son Dusty came back to farm with him nine years ago.
"Hogs can be fairly uncooperative and when something goes wrong, you have to be able to communicate with one another regardless of what happens and not take that baggage home with you," says the Amboy, Minn., hog and grain farmer. "I had been farming on my own for 20 years and wasn't used to explaining any of my decisions. It took a couple years for us to get to the point where we could work together all day, then sit down at the dinner table and laugh and talk as a family."
That's just one of the changes Mike needed to make for the farm expansion to work. Like many farmers, he and his wife Cathy were happy to bring Dusty, and later their other son, Ross, back to the farm. But in doing so they knew they had to ratchet up family communication and establish a transition plan – two keys to turning a family farm into a "business-first" family farm.
That approach works best says Jolene Brown, an Iowa farm wife, professional speaker and business consultant. Part teacher, part mediator, Brown has played many roles as she advises countless farm families. She’s even been called agriculture’s version of “Dr. Phil!”
You might say she's seen it all.
"I've had a son tell me point blank, ‘I can't wait for the old man to die,’" she recalls. "I've walked in on brothers fighting with pitch forks, and others who’ve been hospitalized due to fists and short tempers. And then there are the dads and moms who don't want to face the tough issues. They hope they will go away or be lucky enough to die before they have to deal with them.”
Brown, an Iowa-based farmer who has helped hundreds of families work through some touchy issues, sees a common thread in many of the problems she tries to help solve. For families that work together on the farm, her message is simple: "Without communication, cooperation and commitment, you can count on resistance, resentment and revenge," she says.
Business first family
The key to success, she says, is for families to decide if they want to be a family-first business, or a business-first family.
The words, “business-first family” may sound harsh, but it doesn't mean the business is more important than the family; it means you want to honor the family so much that you must strive to get the business right, she says.
"If you don't, you could end up with neither family nor business," she warns.
At least 95% of every conversation or email Brown has with problem-families comes from a family-first business. "They make decisions based on tradition, or they work on assumptions, hopes and wishes. They don't want to make dad mad or upset mother. They just want everyone to get along," she explains. "Sometimes that works out, but it's nearly always luck. You need much more than luck for a successful family business."
What do you need to succeed? In the next two blogs we'll talk about common problems farm families face, and ways to move your farm business to the next level.