We already have the next generation of farmers unexpectedly coming home to farm as a direct consequence of this COVID-19 crisis. Closed colleges, shelter-in-place orders, and inevitable COVID outbreaks on campuses will continue to move many 20-something farm kids to return home and farm unexpectedly. Another factor is the high unemployment that has forced former farm kids (and in-laws) in other age categories and walks of life to return to their roots and suddenly reconsider agriculture as part of their future career.
It’s wonderful that so many farm kids are renewing their interest in agriculture. Yet, it’s creating many unanticipated problems and could create an exponential number of succession problems down the road.
For instance, one of the larger farms I work with suddenly had five kids (all cousins) in their 20s come home. That was back in March, and the kids spent a good portion of their time standing around the shop being mediocre in their productivity and goofing off. Three of these cousins were seriously considering farming full time, and one of them already made the decision to not go back to vet college in the fall.
The farm owners got together, and one brother asked, “How can we possibly pay for all of these kids when commodity prices are so low? Should we schedule their hours so they come in from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until we get into the field?” This was a legitimate concern, but I reframed it for them and asked, “If they get into the habit of working 10 to 4 now and continue these habits for the next five years, how profitable will your operation be in 15 years?”
The habits and attitudes you establish during this season with your potential successors’ generation will define your farm for the next generation. Staying alert and taking advantage of this time to develop a strong culture of agriculture for the next generation is key. Although I could go so many ways with this article at this pivotal moment in history, I suggest starting with these five simple ideas that will help set a strong foundation during these constantly shifting times.
Sun-up to Sundown
Your son or daughter should be out to the shop or barn before daylight, working until sunset. Even if they must take a few hours away to do home-schooling, they have to learn the self-discipline of being in the shop before anyone else. If they want to farm or be successful at any career in their 20s, they’ve got to be the first one to work and last to leave. Each week, have them set personal goals for how many hours they want to work and get them to track their hours in a smartphone app. (Challenge them to do this. They will know how to do it on their own.) Have them also set personal goals for the times they want to play (e.g., go fishing/ATV riding Tuesday afternoon) and hold them accountable to achieving personal goals, not play victim after the fact. Encourage them to put in extra hours whenever they can (e.g., start work at 5 a.m. versus 7 a.m.) so they don’t feel guilty to take time off for their ideal personal life. Help them figure out how to work hard and play hard.
Plan of Attack
Prior to Sunday night, have your son or daughter develop lists of tasks that must be done on the farm for the forthcoming week on a whiteboard in the farm shop or milk house. Have them rank the task’s priority (low, medium, high). You can add to this list, but the key concept is for them to look around the farm and identify things that need to get done. Then sit down with them every Monday at breakfast and have them come to you with their schedule for the week. Have them plan what tasks they want to do and when. They also should have a list of additional tasks they plan to get done (e.g., sweep the shop) in their spare time. You can tweak this plan (you are still the boss), but the key concept is for them to come to you with an itinerary so they learn the skill of planning their day or week. These schedules are always thrown off by breakdowns and foul weather, but it’s key for any business owner (or potential owner) to start the week with a plan of attack and to always be thinking ahead. Many 30-something farmers haven’t learned this skill because their dads tell them what to do every day, and this leads to farm succession disasters. If they plan their own day, they will be motivated to take ownership in what they do and see things through to success.
$100 a Day
Have your son or daughter write down in a journal each day one way they found the farm could save $100 in newfound efficiencies. A wise farmer told me once while he was lacing his boots, “Before I take off these boots, I have to find a $100 bill lying on the ground.” In other words, he was looking for improvements and efficiency. His employees were 10 times more attentive to details once he got this into their heads, and his farm was exceptionally profitable because of this. The physical act of writing down newfound improvements in efficiencies in a daily journal for a year will evolve your successor from thinking like an employee to thinking like an owner. Make a simple rule that if they can’t journal a $100 improvement (e.g., fix leak in water pipe), they simply don’t get paid for the day.
Each month, sit down with them and do an objective performance review. Objectively grade your successor’s performance by five to 10 metrics that your successor struggles with (e.g., late to barn). Turn performance weaknesses into strengths. Each month, come up with one recommendation for improvement, both in their work performance and character. Each month, delegate one additional task for management responsibility. Make sure this is written down in a binder, with the successor leaving the room with a copy. In the next month, if they don’t implement these recommendations or have a satisfactory score in any performance review, dock the previous month’s pay by 10% and don’t count their hours toward the discussion for succession. Becoming better at what you do and who you are doesn’t stop with 4-H. Farming evolves you over your entire life.
Earn the Succession Discussion
Don’t talk about succession planning too soon. I’d suggest you state that when your successor works 10,000 hours and their performance reviews are satisfactory, then you’ll have a discussion with them at that time about how they could work themselves into the partnership (farm’s succession strategy). They have to earn this discussion, not have it given to them. That said, once your son or daughter has put in 10,000 quality hours, you should have a written strategy at the ready where they can clearly understand how they can work their way into being a partner on your operation over the next 20 years. Trust me, you don’t want to wait years to have this discussion and have the family fall apart when everyone has different expectations.
The future farming economy isn’t going to be sunshine and roses – economists predict the national unemployment rate could be worse than the Great Depression for several years to come. In order to survive, you’ve got to be exceptional. Successors need to focus their attention on having a healthy work/life balance, to be able to manage their time and priorities, and to adapt a “go get 'em” work ethic. These are exponentially more valuable than assets that are gifted in a will.
Whether sons or daughters decide to become partners on the farm or seek an off-farm career doesn’t matter. What matters is that they use these strange circumstances as the timeframe for the caterpillar to molt into a butterfly. Challenging successors to be the best they can be in a tough work environment will empower them to be successful at whatever they choose to do with their lives beyond 2020.