Gleaning from personal experience, former Top Producer of the Year winners and a finalist share their tips for success as a farmer.
Panel offers views on growth, employee management
Put a couple of former Top Producer of the Year winners and one finalist on a panel and there’s no shortage of take-home advice for young producers. At the Tomorrow’s Top Producer event, Jim Kline, 2011 winner; Jake Clark, 2011 finalist; and Lon Frahm, 2009 winner, shared their perspectives on family and employee matters as well as growth and reputation.
Kline is in the process of figuring out how to secure a place for his son and possibly daughter and stepdaughters on the family farm in Indiana. He plans to enlist the help of a third-party expert to help put plans in place. All of the panelists agreed that trust is more important than degrees and titles when making plans that involve a third party.
Clark was quick to offer a reminder that succession plans need to be frequently reviewed. In his view, what’s more important than the farm staying in the family is that his children are happy in the career they choose. "If it’s six generations and that’s it, so be it," said the Michigan farmer.
Growth was also a topic of discussion among the panel, but not just in terms of acres. Growth can also be measured in profitability as well as meeting a goal, said Frahm, who farms in Kansas. "Don’t get stuck on acres," he stressed.
Kline, for example, is adding a farm shop, increasing office space and adding a conference room.
"We’re trying to present a more professional image on our farm," he said. "We work very hard to develop a good reputation."
Image is very important, Frahm agreed. "We forget about the image we project—why would you not want to be [seen as] professional?"
One of Frahm’s goals moving forward is to look and be more professional, which always reaps benefits you might not anticipate, he said.
Kline’s immediate focus is to pay down debt. After two years of high crop prices, though, it’s easy to want to use that money to increase acreage base, he acknowledged.
Employee Appreciation. The panelists stressed the importance of treating employees with dignity and respect, giving them specific responsibilities and rewarding them. Frahm said he takes his employees on annual vacations as well as to various performing arts and sporting events throughout the year.
Clark said his family sent one of their long-term employees to a NASCAR track and arranged for him to drive a race car. "We look at who they are and reward them with some-thing they will enjoy," he said. They gave another employee, a longtime Detroit Tigers fan, a baseball signed by Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline.
On a daily basis, Clark said, "you have to give [employees] respect." That’s especially important for him, he said, because as a younger producer he is often managing employees who are much his senior and who taught him how to farm.
In Kline’s view, it’s also important to give employees a sense of entitlement. With that in mind, he gave one of his employees the title of soybean production manager.
What employees really want, Frahm said, "is the ability to make meaningful decisions. That builds ownership, which is what you want."
Clark said that when he first started farming, he thought equipment with shiny new paint was important. Through the years, he has come to realize that the people are the most important.
- March 2012