Bulletin #4802, Running Successful Farm-Family Meetings
Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance
Running Successful Farm-Family Meetings
Adapted by Associate Extension Professor Leslie Forstadt and Associate Extension Professor Tori Jackson, University of Maine
This series, Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance, provides a starting point for farm families to think about issues that range from family conversations to managing stress and sharing ideas about life and business balance. Titles include:
- #4800 Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance. An introduction to the series.
- #4801 Why “Thank You” Matters: Expressing Appreciation
- #4802 Running Successful Farm-Family Meetings
- #4803 Farm and Family—Finding Balance
- #4804 Understanding Roles in the Farm Family
- #4805 Recognizing the Signs of Farm Family Stress
Regular meetings are essential to the success of any family business. Farming is no different. A good meeting should draw a family closer, sharpen the vision for the farm business, and rekindle the passion for farming. Family meetings can be a time for business issues or family issues—the most important thing is that everyone is clear about the purpose of the meeting. If one meeting focuses on business, there may be a need to schedule a different meeting that focuses on family issues. Or there may be an agenda that includes many items.
Farm-family meetings can educate everyone on one another’s roles in the operation of the farm. These meetings can help assure that all farm family members are working toward the same goals, as well as provide an opportunity to recognize and appreciate special efforts that make the farm successful.
How can you lay the groundwork for a good family meeting? The following tips can help you and your family run productive and helpful family farm meetings.
Where and When
It is important to pick a good time and place for the meeting. The day of the farmer’s market is not an ideal time to get everyone together for an important meeting! People are always busy on the farm, but some days are busier than others. Look at the primary reason for your meeting and pick a time and place that will create the best environment to accomplish that purpose. Meet on a regular basis, rather than only when big decisions need to be made. This avoids surprises and gets people into the habit of discussing issues and making decisions.
If you use whole-farm planning1—including the creation of annual and quarterly goals for the business, the family, and the land—you can use this time to review your goals.
Decide who will be at the meeting. Will you invite all of your children? Their spouses? Grandchildren? Managers? Apprentices? Will you have a mix of family and nonfamily members in attendance? Will the attendees vary depending on the topic? Will the meetings always be led by the same person, or will people take turns? What about your advisors (attorney, accountant, financial planner, etc.)? Is there a cost associated with having advisors there?
What and Why
Prepare a written agenda. Family meetings work best when there are no surprises or hidden agendas. Write up a proposed agenda and send it out to all of the participants before the meeting. This is the time to ask for their feedback and any additional agenda items they want to see covered. If the family members know before the meeting that their concerns will be heard, they will be more likely to participate fully in the meeting. Identify proposed “action items” in the agenda, i.e., the decisions or actions that should result from the meeting. Not all items have to have a decision or an action: sometimes an item may be brought up just to keep everyone informed.
Have ground rules for your meetings. These might include the following:
- Everyone gets a turn to weigh in.
- Everyone will try to take no more than [__] minutes for their turn.
- Everyone’s opinion is valued.
One of the difficulties with operating any family business is how intertwined personal and business issues are. It can be useful to create a two-part agenda, with business issues being half, and personal issues being the other half. It is not always possible to separate them, but it can be helpful to keep the conversation topics focused.
Decide and talk about how decisions will be made at meetings. Consider these three major decision-making models: advise and consent, majority rule, and consensus.
- Advise and consent means that the group gives advice to the primary farm decision maker(s). He, she, or they then do what is felt to be best, hopefully taking the advice into account. This model can work as long as everyone knows and agrees that this is the model being used.
- Majority rule means the group votes by ownership or percentage. The votes of those with a larger ownership stake in the farm carry more weight.
- Consensus means all agree after a process of discussion.
There is a place for all of these models, depending on the issue being discussed and the dynamics of the family. There may be a parent or parents with young children. In this case, it is the parents or partners who are the primary farm decision-maker(s), and it is important that they communicate as a couple. They will need to openly and clearly discuss the farm’s three- to five-year goals, as well as each of their personal goals.
The Whole Farmer
Allow part of each meeting’s agenda to consider personal, nonbusiness issues as suggested above. Make sure that you give as much time to people as you do to production. This means including agenda items for sharing passions, such as why the farm is important to us as a family and how we want to participate in community activities. The agenda can provide time to share each person’s vision and to build human capital in the form of educating, informing, and inspiring one another. Ask one another where you see this business (and our family) going over time. What do you like and dislike? What is important to you? What are your dreams and hopes for the future? What are your challenges today? What was accomplished off the farm today?
Realize that there is often a tension in the very phrase, “family business.” When the business is the farm and you also live on the farm, it can often feel as if you’re working every minute. Each family member or meeting participant will have a different view of his or her relationship with the family and with the farm, and of the relative importance of each. Some people will view the farm as primary, with the family serving the needs of the farm. Other members will view the family as primary, with the farm serving the needs of the family. You may find yourself on both sides at different times depending on the time of the season, the financial situation, and your personal state of mind. Discussing and recognizing this tension among the family members will help a lot in reaching consensus in how the farm operates.
Don’t avoid conflict, but try not to become a culture of conflict. Conflict arises because we are alive and thinking beings. We will have differences of opinion. This is good because we live in a complex world and lack infinite knowledge and wisdom. However, at the end of the day, we have to agree to support whatever decisions are made and operate as a team with our whole hearts.
- Establish ground rules. This can allow and encourage all participants to speak out and share their ideas and concerns without fear of being put down or judged. All insights have value, even if they are not acted upon.
- Put yesterday behind you and start today. Try not to let old disagreements or actions from the past color today’s discussions.
- If necessary, bring in an outside facilitator to help with important and particularly stressful discussions.
Farm businesses are more than just another small business, but a way of life; conflict can affect not only the business, but the family as well.
After the meeting, follow up on action items and do what you said you were going to do. If family members see that their input is valued and acted upon, they will be much more willing to participate in the future.
Most of all, have fun. Celebrate your successes. Play together. Share family stories. Recognize accomplishments by individuals in the family team. Rejoice and talk about what makes your family unique and special. For couples, set aside time for nonfarm activities, where you can be together and remember why you like each other’s company, and why you chose to pursue your dreams in the first place.
Special thanks to the following reviewers:
- Extension Professor Rick Kersbergen
- Extension Professor Gary Anderson
- Erica Buswell (Maine Farmland Trust)
Adapted with permission from Clint Bentz, “Running a Successful Family Meeting,” Farm and Ranch Survival Kit 3 (Washington State University and Oregon State University): 1–2. http://www.agrisk.umn.edu/conference/uploads/BTuck0195_03.pd
1For more information on Whole Farm Planning, see David L. Marrison, “Whole Farm Planning Model,” Building for the Successful Transition of Your Agricultural Business Series (Jefferson: Ohio State University Extension, 2007). http://ohioline.osu.edu/bst-fact/pdf/3608.pdf
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