Business Clinic: How should I bring my sons into the farming business?

Whether you have a legal, tax, insurance, management or land issue, Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts can help.

Michael Mack offers advice on involving family members in the farm business.

Q My sons have been getting more involved in our mixed farming business and I would like to include them in some of the decision-making. I’d like to do this in a structured way so that everyone knows where they stand and what to expect. Please advise.

A This is a common question for many farming families, and if handled carefully can lead to family and business benefits. While you want what’s best for your children, communication between generations does not always come naturally.

Michael MackMichael Mack,
food and farming consultant, Savills

Having different characters on the farm can present opportunities for conflict.

The key to a successful integration of the generations to the business is clear communication, a transparent business structure for decision-making and recognition of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.

The younger generation often brings a different set of skills and aspirations to a farm, including energy, an understanding of younger consumers and a willingness to take risk whereas you may have a more conservative view on decision-making but years of experience to draw upon.

Creating an environment where you can work together and combine your respective talents is not always easy.

See also: Farming neighbours – how to co-operate to reduce costs

One of the first challenges you may well have to overcome surrounds the decision-making process. You will have been used to single-handedly making the decisions both day-to-day and also at a strategic level.

Bringing your sons into the discussions, when you know they have less experience, may be frustrating particularly when they disagree with you or behave differently to how you would, but for the future good of the farm it is important to let them have their say. 

Setting KPIs 

It is definitely worth putting a structure in place and my first recommendation is to set key performance indicators (KPIs) for each of your sons.

These should clearly acknowledge that on achievement, their standing in the business will change. The KPIs should be wide-ranging and include developing skills, building networks, achieving targets for certain parts of the business and demonstrating leadership to the farm staff.

For example, if one of your sons is keen to take on responsibility for a beef unit then a target for improving daily liveweight gain might be an appropriate KPI.

The next step is to implement a simple set of management meetings.

Family farming businesses are renowned for not allowing enough time for discussions relating to both short- and long-term decisions.

Meeting structure

For most family businesses, there are three types of meetings and it is worth considering how these could work for you:

  • Weekly activity meeting: this should be kept short and enable the farm team to identify any immediate tasks, challenges coming up, such as a period of heavy work or staff holidays. Keep these meetings punchy (no more than 30 minutes) and have a simple agenda which is followed. These meetings will enable you as the principal farmer and any other managers you have in the business to focus more time on improving performance.
  • Monthly management meeting: these should be attended by all the family and key managers and should look at short-term decisions needing to be made such as timings, sales, specific project activity. I recommend you chair the meeting but tasks and responsibilities should be shared among everyone.
  • Six monthly to yearly strategy meeting: an opportunity for all the family to share thoughts and ideas about the past year’s performance and the coming year’s activities.

At the start of the process to implement these meetings, you will have the most responsibility but your sons should be encouraged to contribute ideas and undertake research or actions. As time progresses and your confidence in their ability increases, their contributions should be increased.

Ultimately you should be able to take on the role of adviser and sense-checker, leaving the day-to-day and strategic decision-making to your sons.  

Transparent structure

Implementing a simple and transparent meeting structure will force better communication between you and your sons, with everyone’s strengths valued and used for the good of the business.

Having this structure in place will also make it far easier to have the more difficult conversations without either side feeling they have not been able to have their say.  

It is important to document these meetings and record any decisions taken. The weekly meetings probably require only a bullet point record, while the monthly and longer term meetings will obviously need greater detail.

Remember to ask people if there is anything they would like to put on the agenda for the monthly or longer term meetings.

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