This year’s resolution: Don’t let the next Christmas suck

Did Christmas suck this year? Everyone talks about Christmas being the most joyous time of year, but for many family farms, it isn’t.

Why? There’s a different reason for everyone, but being the guy behind the scenes, I can see many farmers share common pains that can make Christmastime miserable.

1. For many farmers, the days just prior to Christmas are spent with their accountant and year-end financials that don’t look as good as they should. For some dairy farmers, labor shortage, crazy inflation and wild fluctuations in the price of milk over the past few years have created anxiety around the possibility of Christmas on the farm for future generations. The fear of the farm, which took generations to build up, “going down on my watch” weighs heavy on many farmers, especially as they look at the happiness of the family members who rely on their every decision.

2. Many farmers face a dysfunctional partnership with their family members. They feel powerless in making the decisions and changes they feel are necessary to keep the ship afloat. Partners fighting over the steering wheel leads many farms into the ditch.

3. It can be very awkward to sit at a table for two hours with a family member and try to be joyful when, over the past year, joy with a particular family member wasn’t there. Many farmers are great guys to strangers – but to family members, they can be rude or even abusive. It’s tough to sit down for a meal with someone who has caused so much grief over the past year.Advertisement

I’ve been there with my own family. Every Christmas, I didn’t think things could get worse, and yet they did. The reasons festered, year after year, until my parents divorced and, eventually, my dad and I stopped speaking over the holidays.

The lowest point for me was on Christmas in 2010, when I milked another man’s cows 500 miles from home and spoke to no one the entire day except for a voicemail left by my mother. I had no girlfriend, and I couldn’t afford to date because every penny went back into starting up Agriculture Strategy. I was doing so much consulting work for free and helping out friends, money was tight, and my Christmas dinner consisted of rice, peas and a Stouffer’s frozen dinner so I would still be able to cashflow bills on Jan. 1. This isn’t a pity party, but I too had low times in my life. Fortunately, a decade later, my life has changed dramatically. I am happily married with two wonderful boys, I own a farm and have a profitable business. The stork and Santa Claus are supposed to come on the same day this year, and life this Christmas couldn’t be better.

My heart goes out to anyone this Christmas season who feels depressed or is in a partnership that has gone off the rails, because I know how it feels. If you feel like giving up, know there might not be happy days tomorrow, next week, next month, but there is another merry Christmas in your future if you make positive changes this New Year’s.

Today has to be the milestone moment when you ask yourself, “What will I do in the forthcoming year to make Christmas 2022 better?”

Instead of playing the victim and maintaining a “woe is me” attitude, write your problems out on a sheet of paper. Once you’ve written them out, in red underneath each problem, take your time and come up with solid, realistic and feasible actions. In the next few weeks, hold a family meeting about how you can transform 2022 into a great year.

Four years ago, I asked a 32-year-old farmer, who farmed with multiple siblings, to write down three problems he was experiencing on the farm. Here is what he came up with:

1. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

2. We keep buying stuff we don’t need, yet there is no money for the things we do need.

3. I have no clue what I’m working for and no long-term goals or succession plan.

Before he came up with these three specific issues, I had him write down all the problems that happened on the farm over the past year. We spoke for a few hours – and each time he brought up a key concern, I had him scribble it on a sheet of paper. Soon enough, the blank page was full, and he was scribbling over his own writing to get all the farm’s problems onto one sheet of paper.

The farm faced many problems, and some (like a parent and daughter-in-law relationship) would be more difficult to solve than others. After an hour, I asked the young farmer to identify the three most problematic but simple-to-solve issues. This was the key. After he identified these three problem statements, he wrote them down on a new sheet of paper.

Under each statement, I asked him to write three simple solutions to each problem.

Problem No. 1: The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing

• Hang a whiteboard up in the shop to create space for a to-do list.

• Schedule coffee at 8 a.m. every Monday to delegate tasks for the week.

• Arrange a group phone call every day at sunset to tweak plans for the next day.

Problem No. 2: We keep buying stuff we don’t need, yet there is no money for the things we do need

• Get everyone to agree not to spend more than $5,000 without consent from all partners.

• Create a pro-forma budget and discuss the next month’s cash flow on the first Friday of each month.

• Write a wish list where family members can rank and prioritize what item to buy first. Hang it in the shop so there are no surprises.

Problem No. 3: I have no clue what I’m working for and no long-term goals or succession plan

• Ask one or both parents for a list of five to 10 things I need to change in regard to both character and work performance. Ask them to clarify their expectations of me.

• Track my progress towards these goals through a monthly written performance review.

• Request that parents define for themselves a reasonable timeline to construct a succession strategy should I meet these expectations.

Establishing concise, measurable actions for each clearly identified, solvable problem was a game-changer.

A weight was lifted from the farmer’s shoulders once he fleshed this all out on paper and stuck it on the kitchen fridge with the title, “This Year’s Resolutions.”

His outlook shifted from “the stress you’d get if you were juggling chainsaws to the certainty you feel when the wood is split and in the shed.” He now had a clear plan of what he wanted to change and realistic actions of how he’d go about it. It wasn’t your normal New Year’s resolution, but a promise to himself he would keep.

At a local Chinese buffet and in a private room in the back, the farmer and his family discussed New Year’s resolutions and came to an agreement on how to address the above problems (and the problems his partners identified using the same process). Instead of a dysfunctional discussion like so many fights earlier in the year, the conversation was productive because everyone walked into the meeting with clear goals, not a dump truck of frustration. He was able to articulate his concerns with real solutions. As a bonus, the prospect of being able to go for third helpings at the buffet kept the meeting civil and positive.

Four years later, the succession plan has been laid out with clear expectations and clear goals for the next generation. As all die-hard farmers do, the farmer’s 75-year-old dad is still working the same, but at least there is clarity on where everyone stands now and after the funeral. Plus, the way the brothers farm together has changed for the better.