Bulletin #4802, How to Run a Farm-Family Meeting

Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance

Adapted by Extension Human Development Specialist Leslie Forstadt and Extension Professor Tori Jackson, University of Maine

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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:


person with clipboard takes notes; photo by Edwin remsberg

This publication is focused on how to have a meeting that includes family members. You will likely have different types of farm crew meetings that vary in length and frequency.

Regular meetings are essential to the success of any family business. Farming is no different. A good meeting can draw a team 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 farm business issues, there may be a need to schedule a different meeting that focuses on family issues.

Meetings are a time for everyone to be educated about what is happening on the farm. These meetings can help assure that all farm family members are working toward the same goals, and can be a time and place to come to an agreement. Meetings are also an opportunity to recognize and appreciate special efforts that make the farm successful.

Consider the following tips to run productive and helpful family farm meetings.

Where and When

Find a time that works on a regular basis and a place that has the least distractions. Pick a time and place that will create the best environment to accomplish the purpose of your meeting. Decide who will answer the business phone if it goes to voicemail for the duration of the meeting. 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 together, both big and small. The practice of making small decisions together will lay a strong foundation for larger 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.

Who

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 non-family 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.

Keep notes of the agenda, who attended, decisions made, and action items. Before or during 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. Keep the notes in a binder or shared online document. These records can be useful in the case of future disagreements, in case someone missed a meeting, and as a historical record of the farm.

Have working agreements (also known as 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.
  • Stick to the agenda (and create a “parking lot” for other items to be discussed at the end of the meeting, or a future meeting).

One of the difficulties with operating any family business is how intertwined personal and business issues can be. 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. And as stated above, a “parking lot” can be very helpful to stay on track with the meeting agenda.

How

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. Separate conversations about what is important, and three- to five-year goals for the farm and for individuals and the family as a whole.

The Whole Farmer

Allow part of each meeting’s agenda to consider personal, non-business 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, like “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 likely feel like you are on one side or the other 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 your conversations and decision making for the farm and family.

Conflict

Conflict often arises when two people have needs that are not being met. Developing good communication skills can help you the next time conflict happens during a meeting. Instead of avoiding conflict, there are ways to find common ground to have a conversation.

  • Establish working agreements. 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.
  • Practice reflective listening. When you hear something that you disagree with, instead of confrontation or challenge, try to learn more. “What I heard you say is X, can you tell me more about that?”
  • Put yesterday behind you and start today. Try not to let old disagreements or actions from the past color today’s discussions. When the past creeps into today, try to understand what needs are not being met (being listened to, being valued, having a say in the decision).
  • If necessary, bring in an outside facilitator or mediator to help with important and particularly stressful discussions.

Conflict happens and it can feel uncomfortable. There are many ways to develop skills that will help you have conversations and meetings in a way that conflicts don’t create ongoing tension and hostility.

Moving Forward

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 non-farm 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.

Adapted with permission from Clint Bentz, “Running a Successful Family Meeting,” Farm and Ranch Survival Kit 3 (Washington State University and Oregon State University)

Special thanks to the following reviewers:

  • Extension Professor Rick Kersbergen
  • Extension Professor Gary Anderson
  • Erica Buswell (Maine Farmland Trust)

1 For 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).


Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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