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The Family Meeting-Getting Down to Business

By Jane Eckert

Having visited with many, many farm and ranch families, I have found that within our farm families, we often avoid really talking business.

I guess it’s because we want to avoid conflict, but over and over again, I’ve found families that don’t seem to want talk with each other and resolve their differences.

Oh sure, we talk enough that we know what topics will likely get heated, but it’s often just a comment or a facial expression, without getting things out on the table and setting a clear direction. Yet we all know that we’ve got to communicate in order to move ahead and plan our futures.

Well, it’s time to change. As the kids would say, “Hello?!! This farm is a business. Let’s act like it.”

Okay, it’s natural that with two spouses, or maybe two spouses plus an uncle, a son, a daughter-in-law, a sister or brother, and perhaps some cousins, you are bound to have some differences of opinions! The real key to growth is to determine that in spite of our differences, the goal is to reach agreement as a business, and move forward together.

Meetings That Move the Farm Business Forward

Too many times when I sit down with families during my on-site consultations, I find that the family has not yet resolved their differences, and they expect me to get this accomplished. This may be the first time they’ve sat down at the same table! Well, sometimes I can help them talk about their differences, and sometimes I can’t.

The differences are often very real. For example, you may have one family member that is very “fiscally conservative” and wants to spend no money to paint or fix up the old sign. Another family member “doesn’t believe in spending money on marketing.” Or another “just doesn’t want to expand into entertainment activities. We don’t need people walking all over our farm!”

So step one is to acknowledge that these are very real concerns, and that we don’t just dismiss each other’s opinions. At the same time, we can’t just say, “We’ll, she’s for it and I’m agin it, and that’s just the way things are.”

Do you want to grow? Do you want to increase your revenue potential? Then, let’s bring everyone to the kitchen table (or wherever you meet) for a real discussion.

Step two: Let it be known that all negative comments are to be left outside and that the purpose of this meeting is to begin to set a clear direction for the future of our farm business. Everyone is asked to leave your past frustrations at the door and plan on working together to move ahead. We are meeting because we want to increase our income, and we want to add balance to our lives.

Can this really be done? Yes, I believe it can. But only if we are able to positively and constructively talk with one another to reach agreement, and move forward in the same direction.

Meeting Guidelines

Okay, let’s talk about setting up some guidelines for this meeting and future meetings.

1. Set a short agenda with one or possibly two topics per meeting.

For example, how do we attract more customers to our business? What other products should we be selling in our market? How can we better motivate our employees to increase retention and sales? Are there new business enterprises we should enter? Does our store layout facilitate good traffic flow and maximize the shopping experience? Should we go into pick your own?

2. Set a time limit

Generally, one or maybe two topics will be enough for a single meeting. But definitely set a time limit for the meeting. This lets everyone prepare to stay for the whole meeting, and no one is as likely to head out to the tractor before a decision is made.

3. Agree to some business rules (this is business, not family)

  1. State the goal up front. “Today, we are going to talk about how to attract more customers to the farm.”
  2. Only use positive words
  3. Don’t personify the agenda. Separate the idea from the person, avoiding statements like “Bob’s idea is that we sell oranges online.” The topic is “selling oranges online,” no matter who suggested it.
  4. Put on your listening ears. Try not to be thinking about your response. Just try to clearly hear what is being said.
  5. Explain your thoughts from your perspective. Instead of accusing “you wasted $3,000 on billboards,” offer your opinion that “I think we’ll get more for our money if we invest it in more varieties of plants, rather than spending it on advertising.” This makes your statement less confrontational, and gives you legitimate matters for discussion.
  6. No idea is stupid or out of order
  7. Look for common ground. “I agree that if the farm looks better, people might enjoy their visit more. But maybe we can fix the entranceway ourselves this winter instead of hiring a sign company.”

Most major business decisions are not going to be decided in one meeting. That is why it’s best to take it in smaller chunks of time, focusing on specific topics where we can reach agreement. These meetings should be at regular intervals, and the topics known in advance so everyone can prepare. You probably want to let everyone suggest two or three topics for future meetings. That way each person knows that his or her interests are going to be addressed, and everyone will be heard.

If you are already doing this – successfully- I applaud you. You are one the families in the small minority that have taken the time to cultivate good communication. You talk – you reach agreement – you execute. And once the family sets a clear direction, it’s much easier to communicate that plan to the employees, and to motivate them to help achieve the farm (business) goals.

So, the family meeting is about getting down to business. If our goal is to grow the business-let’s talk about it.

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.