My husband is the middle child of three in a dairy family. All of us, the three siblings and their spouses, are active on the farm. The oldest and youngest couples are in a battle over their roles in the operation. The oldest feels like she and her family are being pushed out by the youngest daughter and her husband. The youngest is married to an ambitious man with farming experience and an agribusiness degree. He works hard and has big ideas. He seems to be taking over, but he doesn’t show much interest in working with the rest of the family.
Though not specifically stated, my father-in-law has his sights set on the youngest son-in-law becoming his legacy and assuming control of the operation. As the middle child, my husband plays ‘Switzerland’ and tries to avoid trouble by not taking sides. As a family, until now, we’ve all been very tight. My husband and I want the family to remain close and continue to farm together.
Is the damage already done? Or can steps be taken to salvage the family relationship and put a legacy plan in place?
The damage is not done. The operation is still functioning and the family is working together, in spite of the differences. All families are a bit dysfunctional and suffer bouts of sibling rivalry and differences of opinion. At this point, it might be too easy to say that a succession plan is the cure-all. However, proper planning will make major improvements in your family’s personal and business life.
As I see it, the dairy operation is not being actively managed as a business. Employee family members are being allowed to self-manage, and the lack of structure is creating a herd mentality for the participants. Without the proper business structure and left to their own devices, groups tend to establish their own pecking order. Energies are spent defending positions and guarding turf, rather than on growing the business.
I suggest you start with a business plan. Establish goals for the operation and define the actions necessary to achieve those goals. Through the planning process, the active family members should establish a management structure for the operation. As a management team, you should work together to assign roles and responsibilities, which will lead to job descriptions and lines of authority. Though ambition and big ideas are important, a management structure will help effectively channel that energy.
Once you have written job descriptions, your team can assemble an employee manual that describes each position’s wages, benefits and bonuses. It is not a stretch to assume that some of the children in each of your families will want to follow in your respective footsteps, so now is also a good time to write a family employment policy.
Business-like structures are necessary to grow the operation, and they help all of those involved to separate business decisions from family matters. Don’t let the formality of these suggestions intimidate you. You can’t eliminate emotion. It’s part of who we are, and it’s what makes us do the things we do. But unchecked emotion can destroy the operation. Using the proper structures, the family can establish communications strategies to share family matters related to the business without interrupting the business.
With a business plan in hand, your in-laws should begin to develop a succession plan. Start by establishing common goals for the family operation based on improving the integrity of the operation, enhancing the financial security of active family members and preparing the next generation to lead.
To access a checklist for writing a business plan, visit www.farmjournallegacyproject.com/business_plan
As Farm Journal’s succession planning expert, Kevin Spafford breaks down the complexity of the process to help farm families cultivate multigenerational success. Contact him at: