Effective farm communication requires formal meetings

Lack of communication, particularly formal communication, is a common issue on many family farms. 


I’m not referring to the general, day-to-day discussions that occur. People talk all the time.


However, they rarely really “talk,” and there are many reasons for this. 


Gender can have an impact. Men’s and women’s communication styles are generally different, with men being more reserved. 


It can be difficult to find the time. People are busy. Farms and families have lots going on during the day and the pace picks up in peak production periods. Family and personal activities are a priority in the evening. By the time things start to quiet down, it’s getting too late. And so it goes. 


Personal and business relationships benefit from active communication. There is a strong correlation between good personal relationships and successful businesses, so there is good reason to invest in both.


Communication can become even more important in succession planning, particularly because non-farming family members often introduce additional communication challenges. 


Having a written plan helps. 


Structured and productive discussions are difficult without some point of reference. Imagine trying to have a discussion with several family members about the business without anything written down.


The discussion is then based on people’s individual ideas about what has happened and should happen.


A plan that gives individuals the opportunity to offer input and reach a consensus provides a common base from which to communicate. 


The plan need not be overly detailed. Something that includes historical performance review and analysis and future direction of the business can be adequate. 


Meetings also help communication. They don’t need to be too formal but should include an agenda. Someone should record notes, and information should be distributed when appropriate. 


Different types of meetings include:


  • Weekly meetings that focus on operations (what’s happening during the week). 


Shorter is better, and cellphones can be left on. Employees are present. These meetings can be held in the shop.


  • Monthly management meetings.


The guideline is for them to be less than two hours. They can be about marketing, human resources, finance and operations, but they should not be a detailed discussion about operations unless there is a crisis. 


Only people who have management responsibilities attend. Cellphones should be turned off. They should be held in an office or equivalent.


  • Annual or semi-annual owner meetings that focus on the business. 


They are usually half a day, and discussion includes business strategy and investment. Operational and capital budgets are reviewed. Discussion can include compensation, risk and succession planning. They should be off-site with cellphones turned off. 


Organizational structure is another important element.


Farms, even when modestly sized, should have some definition around who manages what and who does what. 


It is difficult to have productive communication without an understanding of who has responsibility for the various management areas (operations, marketing, finance and human resources), what gets done in those areas and who actually does it. 


The space where communication happens makes a difference.


It is perhaps subtle, but a discussion in a kitchen will be different from one held in an office. Neither is wrong because structured communication anywhere is far better than the alternative. 


A formal office in the house will help, but a preferred option is an office out of the home where family members “go to work.” I’ve talked to several farmers who have invested in offices out of the home and they all agree it was a great decision. 


A formal out-of-the-house office does not have to be fancy and is not expensive compared to some of the equipment that farms buy.

Terry Betker is a farm management consultant based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He can be reached at 204.782.8200 or terry.betker@backswath.com.