In just a couple of years, Nathan Garner will face a one-of-a-kind job interview. His father, along with three other senior farm partners, will ask him questions, weigh his answers and qualifications and then make a decision about Garner’s ability to help run Heglar Creek Farms.
If the interview is a success, Garner and three other junior partners will take over the Idaho-based farm. The plan has been in motion for the past 15 years. But first, the four have to earn their stripes.
“We had to go away from the farm for five years, have two ag internships and have at least an associate’s degree,” Garner says. He earned a bachelor’s degree in ag business and then worked for other farms before making his way back home.
“I think it’s very valuable to have worked somewhere else before joining the family business,” says Davon Cook, co-founder of Ag Progress LLC, which helps family businesses with succession planning. “For the individual it gives you confidence and experience, and for the business you bring technical and soft skills.”
Heglar Creek Farms, based near Raft River, encompasses 5,000 acres of crops, 11,000 beef cattle, 2,000 dairy cows, about 600 acres of turf grass (sold to the housing market), an electric business, a trucking business and a dairy supply company.
Garner, 27, is in charge of the 5,000-acre row-crop operation. After 2020, he’ll be an owner and in charge of the operation’s finances—if all goes as planned. He says his future goals are to make the farm more efficient and seek out new opportunities.
Don’t just expand the business because you can—have a plan and a good one. Garner and his dad, Mike, aren’t related to their farm partners—the Webb brothers, Mark, Scott and Todd. When Mike teamed up with the Webb family, the operation had about 2,500 acres. It’s grown by leaps and bounds since then as the partners adopted new ventures and hired employees, family members and non-family, with the skills needed to make Heglar Creek Farms successful.
“Each business we entered depended on who worked for us,” explains Garner, who says the farm employs 130 people. “We found a good person to be in charge of the feedlot, so we could make good money there. He suggested buying all the bull calves from local dairies.
“When we saw an opportunity to enter the sod market, it opened the door for another family to come back,” he adds.
The electric business was the brainchild of yet another member of the younger generation, as was the robotic dairy business. Each expansion is a matter of growing to continue providing new opportunities for the next generation, while maintaining a positive bottom line.
“We don’t diversify unless we can be one of the best in whatever that business is,” Garner says. “That means we hire the best person possible—if it’s family that’s great, but ultimately you have to find the person who will make you money.”
When it comes to hiring, family shouldn’t always automatically win the opportunity, Garner says. Instead, he says the farm partners do what’s best for the business.
That’s the best strategy for hiring employees, Cook says. “Realistically, family often has a leg-up, but consider what sets them and the business up for more success,” he says. “Look at their skills and see what, if any, position fits them best.”
In the end it’s about two things for Garner: respecting the legacy generation and being the most profitable at what they do. When he boils it all down, Garner says he wants to make positive changes for the operation in a way that respects what his father and the other partners built.
“We’ve completely changed the way we do things in the four years I’ve been back, but that’s not to discredit what our dads have done—we’re just trying to do it more efficiently,” Garner says. “You have to respect what the older generation is providing, and by doing that you’ll have success.”
Building on what his father and partners have built means expanding on their philosophies of success. They never set out to be the highest yielding producers. Instead, they aim for the highest profits.
“Our philosophy hasn’t been boosting yields, it’s cutting costs while maintaining yields,” Garner says. That theory is in every part of their business from the crops to the dairy to trucking. “I don’t want to outdo others in yield, I just want to be more profitable,” Garner notes.
He says the one thing he never wants to see any farm operation do is split up. Even through tough times, Garner hopes others stick it out.
“We see a lot of families split up businesses with generational shifts,” he explains. “That’s counterproductive. The smaller you become and the moment you stop growing is the minute you’re in a real risk of having to sell out.”
Because there’s no family entitlement to land or property, Garner’s farm is likely safe from uninterested siblings and cousins threatening to sell their portion of the operation.
For now, Garner’s father and his partners still hold the power of veto over new opportunities, but his day is coming. As he and the other junior partners prepare to shift into an ownership role, they’re exploring new ventures and charting their course for what they want to accomplish.
How to Handle Family Dynamics on the Farm
Anytime you’re in business with family there will be challenges. That’s why it’s important farmers remember which “hat” they’re wearing, says Davon Cook of Ag Progress.
“You have three hats you wear in a family business: owner, family member and employee,” he says. “When having discussions, identify what hat you’re wearing first.“
For example, if you’re the operation manager talking to your son about a mistake he made on the farm, start the conversation by saying, “I’m talking to you today as your manager not your father.”
In addition, make sure every family member–employee understands their roles and responsibilities. Well-defined roles can help set up family-employees for success or help them understand disciplinary action when needed.
“A best practice is to write down employment guidelines,” Cooks adds. “Also identify the interview process, who the hiring managers are and how employees, family or not, will be managed and compensated.”