With bigger farms, communication among everyone on the farm team gets more critical every year. These are multi-million dollar businesses, after all, and it is becoming painfully clear that our farms need to give serious thought to how they operate, just like other businesses that generate the same kinds of receipts.
“We can’t just wing it,” says Gordon Colledge, a farm adviser in Lethbridge, Alta., who advocates for what he calls “professionalizing the farm business.”
Without good information flow, sometimes even small misunderstandings can escalate into big problems, warns Colledge. But there’s another concern too. Without good farm communication, it isn’t just that bad things might happen, it’s that great things can’t. “Meetings help to keep everyone onside,” Colledge says. “People are more likely to get on board.”
Maybe there was a time when all it took was a conversation around the dinner table. But those days are gone, especially when several families are farming together, says Elaine Froese, a farm family business coach in Boissevain, Man.
“Formalized family business meetings are important because they help members separate personalities and emotions from business decisions that must be made,” Froese says.
Formalized meetings also give the younger generation an opportunity for input into the decision-making process, says Gerry Friesen, a farm family coach in La Salle, Man. Sometimes the older generation is reluctant to consider new ideas, so a meeting gives the younger generation a platform where they can lay out their thinking, Friesen says.
It’s an example of why even small farms benefit from more formalized communication, says Friesen.
Friesen, who worked in farm debt mediation for many years, says he has seen too many cases where the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, which led to disaster. The very word “communication” can seem namby-pamby to farmers who are used to making hard decisions about very real things, and who already have very full days.
But, warns Friesen, communication is just as real. “Too often, a lack of communication is the downfall of the farm,” he says.
If you are already meeting over coffee, you may find it boosts your efficiency simply by taking things to the next level with a set time, an agenda and some informal notes or minutes, says Colledge.
By setting a schedule you make sure it happens, adds Friesen, who likens it to using an exercise machine. “If you make it a habit, it will get easier.”
Colledge recommends holding weekly meetings at the same day and time each week, except during the busy seasons. In his experience, Wednesdays and Thursdays work well for meetings. “If you have an 11 a.m. meeting for an hour and then follow it with a one-pot lunch, everyone can be back to work by 12:30 p.m.,” he says.
Then once a month, there could be a longer meeting to delve into financial reports and income and expense statements, Colledge says.
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However, Colledge is quick to say there is no cookie-cutter solution to business meetings that works on every farm. The frequency of meetings really depends on the type of farm and the players involved, he explains. On one farm with five partners, Friesen recommended daily meetings to keep everyone in the loop.
At the opposite end of the scale, Reg Shandro, a farm adviser in Lacombe, Alta., often recommends monthly meetings for non-production issues.
Regardless of how often meetings are held, there are some necessary elements in effective meetings.
Agendas are important and should be circulated a couple of days in advance so everyone can come prepared, says Colledge. The agenda should include a discussion of the minutes of the previous meeting.
“It’s important to record the issues discussed, the decisions made, who is to act, and by when,” says Froese. Then at the next meeting you can check to see what progress has been made.
Some of the other items for the agenda might include reports on crops, land, machinery, buildings, livestock, and finances. This is also a good time to discuss vacation schedules, adds Colledge.
Sometimes an industry expert may be brought in to provide information on an issue that’s currently being discussed.
To stimulate good discussion there should be no disruptions during the meeting, says Shandro. Meetings should be held in a separate space, not in the milking parlour, he says. “Phones should be turned off and the curtains closed.”
If no one on your farm team has the skills to chair the meeting, Colledge suggests bringing in a farm adviser or facilitator to help. This person can be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, he says. “Bringing someone in because your team lacks the skills is not a sign of weakness. It’s just a lack of experience,” stresses Colledge.
Team members can gain experience chairing meetings by getting involved in commodity or breed organizations, municipal boards or other associations to see how effective meetings are managed.
Everyone, even the quieter people, should be encouraged to participate in discussions and have their voices heard, continues Colledge. “Everyone should feel like their voice matters… is respected and validated.”
“Sometimes people are reluctant to talk about what’s really on their minds,” says Shandro. A trained mediator can read the body language and draw comments out of them, he says.
Farm teams will need to decide in advance how decisions will be made, advises Colledge. “Will it be by consensus, or by vote?”
Who attends the meetings will depend on the purpose. In Froese’s opinion, the people who understand what’s going on, the people with the power to make decisions, those who will carry out the decisions and those affected by the decisions taken should be there.
One obstacle to good meetings may be generational differences. Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) tend to like to follow protocol for every decision, which seems crazy to Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) and the Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000), says Randy Weigel, an extension specialist at the University of Wyoming.
“The Gen Xers say, ‘Just tell me what to do and let me do it,’” Weigel says. On the other hand, the Millennials have matured in a world of short cuts, technology and convenience. They are used to finding the answer with the click of a mouse, but may be less able to critically think through a problem.
While older workers have learned to be patient with the details of business meetings, younger employees are often easily bored and may play with apps on their smartphones or send text messages, continues Weigel.
The solution, Weigel says, may be to have fewer, but better meetings in order to help keep younger workers engaged. Also make sure that meetings have a clear purpose, a focused agenda and stay on track, he advises.
Weigel has one more piece of advice. While it’s important for younger generations to know the history of the farm, he discourages founders from starting too many sentences with “I remember when…” This can be a sure-fire way to make yourself irrelevant to younger workers, Weigel says, especially if they have no idea what you’re talking about.
Many farms would benefit from formalizing their meetings. By putting effort and planning into regular meetings, our experts agree, your farm business can reap the rewards of improved communication and decision making.