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Defining roles can save the farm

Deciding and confirming “who’s in charge here” can take frustration out of the family farm

Improved communications and actually defining roles and responsibilities on a family farm can not only make the day go better, but can actually save a farm business, says a long-time Alberta consultant.

Confusion over who is in charge can lead to some very stressful situations, says Merle Good, a well know consulting agricultural tax specialist who has also learned plenty about human resource issues over the years. And that stress and frustration can potentially lead to someone just walking away from the whole farm business, says Good.

“In any business, particularly a multi-generation family farm it is important that everyone is clear about responsibilities,” says Good. “Whether it be parents working along side their children, or siblings or other family members running a farm, it is important to define management roles. Be clear on each person’s responsibility and then let them do their job.”

Good, as part of a recent presentation to the Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers in Edmonton, described a real-life farm conflict he encountered in the fall of 2015.

The issue involved a long time mixed farming operation, that included a large grain operation along with a 300 head cow-calf operation, says Good. The son, now 36, had been back working with his father on the farm for about 15 years.

“First of all it was a fall where they were dealing with the harvest from hell,” says Good. The weather just hadn’t co-operated, harvest was delayed, everyone was feeling the tension. “And after harvest the son comes to me, he wants to leave the farm, because he is just so frustrated,” says Good. Here is what happened.

The son was responsible for looking after harvest and getting equipment lined up, but the dad comes to the son as soon as there appeared to a decent stretch of harvest conditions ahead, and says “we should get a couple extra combines in the field to get this harvest done, do you have anything lined up?” And the son replied that he was looking after it. And that’s where the conversation ended. That was the Friday.

Come Monday morning, four extra combines show up on the farm. Two had been lined up by the son and two by the father. The father, not trusting the son to deal with the equipment situation, had lined up two machines as well. Neither had communicated their specific plans to the other.

“In that case the son sent the two combines he had lined up home,” says Good. “Harvest got done, but the son was extremely frustrated, he saw his father as always challenging his decisions or ability to make decisions. And the father in that situation later claimed “I was just trying to help.”

“The issue these farmers needed to sort out was the difference between leadership and management — they need a proper business structure,” says Good. “If you are the leader or take the lead in a particular area of the farm management you ask for advice as you make decisions. If you are the manager or on the management end then your responsibility is to follow that advice or implement the decision.”

Good says in any farm business it is essential that roles be clearly defined. He challenged farmers to go home and define 16 areas of farm operation and management and decide who is the lead. Who is the leader of cropping decisions, lead of seeding operations, lead of harvest operations, lead of haying operations, lead of managing the cattle, lead of financing, lead of rental agreements — look at 16 areas of the farm operation and decide who is going to take the lead.

“And on any farm business different family members will likely lead in different areas,” says Good. “But it is important to decide who is leader in each area, and then who is the manager that will carry out that decision. Determine 16 areas that are critical to your business and put names beside them — specify who is leadership and who is management.“

In the example of the farming operation with double the combines showing up in the field, that problem would have been avoided if the roles had been properly defined, says Good.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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