Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farm Family Business Meeting Promote Thoughtful Decisions

February 7, 2000

Formal business meetings are a standard feature of corporate America that many family farms would do well to copy. Regularly scheduled meetings promote financial planning and thoughtful decision making. Conversations over the dinner table or at holiday gatherings are no substitute, especially when several families farm together. A business gains a lot when people pool their thoughts and look at where their farm is headed.

One of the hardest things about holding a meeting is finding a time when everyone in the family can attend. That’s also a reason meetings are important: without them, the whole family rarely gathers to talk strictly business. Father may be off repairing some equipment, and mother may be giving the children a ride to a school athletic event.

So the first rule for a successful meeting is that everyone be there. This is serious stuff. Meetings should be held on a set day at a set time. For example, the meeting might take place the first Tuesday of every month from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. If anyone can’t make it then, a second date should be set in advance, and everyone should plan to attend.

Establish an agenda. Monthly or quarterly meetings can effectively address a broad scope of questions. These include management decisions regarding crop and chemical schedules, equipment needs, finance issues and marketing strategies.

It’s also appropriate to consider other matters, such as: Where does the farm stand at this point? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Are we using our resources and talents in the most effective way? Have any problems cropped up that we could keep from happening again?

A clipboard posted at a certain spot, or space reserved on a blackboard, will give everyone coming to the meeting a chance to write down issues they want discussed.

An agenda should be made up a day before the meeting, after which no new topics are accepted. This gives everyone a fair chance to prepare for the meeting. All but extreme emergencies can be handled this way. Establishing an agenda in advance of a meeting makes sure that important matters get attention.

The role of the moderator. Family business meetings can easily get bogged down with a moderator. Discussion can veer off the subject of agenda items and personalities clash. The role of a moderator is to promote calm discussion of agenda items, to clarify issues, and to help participants reach reasonable conclusions.

A good moderator encourages others to speak up at the meeting and reserves his or her own comments until everyone else has spoken. A moderator acknowledges at least two sides to every issue and helps individuals define problems in terms of issues, not personalities.

If the moderator has a vested interest in a topic, a new moderator can be approved to lead the discussion so that fairness can be preserved.

Planned recesses. Once the meeting begins, one person should take messages when the phone rings. It can be frustrating when someone leaves for a phone call in the middle of a discussion, and it wastes everyone else’s time. If it’s an important call, such as from a livestock buyer, there can be a planned recess when the call comes in.

That’s not the only reason to take a recess. If someone becomes emotional or angry, for instance, the meeting should break for 10 or 15 minutes to allow that person time to calm down. If anyone walks out of a meeting, it should be suspended or recessed in their absence.

Keep a record. Someone at every meeting should be assigned to take notes. Those notes are the official summary of a meeting. This forestalls any questions about agreements the family reaches or assignments it makes.

One reason families get into trouble is that everyone starts remembering things a different way. Summarizing results of the meeting on paper helps everyone keep track of what was said. Notes also symbolize the business nature of the meeting. No one takes notes at a family dinner. In a family business meeting, issues are discussed, conclusions are reached, and they are recorded because they are important.

Not every decision can be postponed until a family meeting. Some members of the farm have specific responsibilities, such as caring for livestock, and they’re working day to day, making decisions all the time. They are like committee chairmen. The family is like a board of directors. Everyone reports at the meeting about their area of responsibility. The family responds with suggestions or approval.

The best idea wins. An attitude of give and take helps make meetings successful. Say one person reports on animal health problems, and someone responds with a suggestion for handling the veterinarian bills or changing feed rations. Outside of the meetings, those suggestions might seem like meddling, or criticism. In the meeting they should be treated as part of a free wheeling discussion. People will stop making suggestions if they’re always taken wrong, and the business will be the poorer for it.

Many times, family members talk about items on the agenda before the meeting, and they arrive with well considered opinions. Decisions to sell land or buy equipment evolve over time, not in a single meeting. But the meeting serves to bring everyone closer to a consensus.

"We don’t do anything without a unanimous vote," says one South Dakota rancher whose family meets regularly.

When the family meets in regular business sessions, parents aren’t the sole authorities any longer. They learn to trust sons and daughters to help solve the farm’s problems and guide it into the future. The power of management grows as the family works and communicates as a team.