If you’re wondering how best to incorporate young people into your farming operation—just ask them. At this year’s Top Producer Seminar, I hosted a panel with young farmers Zoey Brooks of Waupaca, Wis.; Clayton Phelps of Groveland, N.Y.; and Julie Linder, from Norwalk, Ohio.
They captivated the audience with their take on coaching and training next-generation leaders.
Off-Farm Experience. Should young farmers work off the farm first? Yes, agree the panelists. Off-farm experiences provide personal growth opportunities.
Julie didn’t grow up on a farm. Her father, Mark Schaffer, started the farm with the liquidity of his excavating business while she was in nursing school.
“I was raised operating heavy equipment, and now with my science-based background, I am able to focus my efforts on soil fertility and crop health of plants and people,” Julie shares.
Zoey finished college and spent a year as Alice in Dairyland, a year-long program that promotes dairy in Wisconsin. “I didn’t plan to come back. I was going to be a vet,” she says. But the program ended and plans for a new facility on the farm altered her plans. Conversations with her dad, Ron, and her sisters led her to helping manage the construction of the facility, which she now operates.
Clayton and his dad, Craig, created a five-year plan for his return to the operation, but circumstances led them to shorten the time frame. “Dad was looking for a new manager, and I was thinking about changing jobs the same time,” Clayton explains. “It turned out we were really looking for the same thing.” Clayton had a formal interview with his dad and other stakeholders. “It was pretty weird doing a job interview in the living room, but it was a good process to get everything on the table,” he says.
The Return Home. The onboarding process for each of these young farmers went well, and they each quickly found a way to add value. For example, Zoey took it upon herself to look at how new employees were brought into the dairy. “We needed to help new people with more training than just a day,” she says. Zoey revised hiring and training protocols and now works directly with new hires.
Constructive feedback is the foundation for any working relationship, especially if family is involved. The panelists say good communication and regular meetings with farm leaders are vital.
Clayton and his dad meet annually to map out goals. This process has improved based on discussions and accountability with other father-son operations in their peer group network.
Julie believes demonstrating value to the operation is her way of gaining respect from their team. She created a manual that she and her dad review regularly that condenses day-to-day operations and helps with decision-making moving forward.
For Zoey, her biggest feedback moment came when her dad told her never to refer her employees back to him. “He said, ‘It’s OK if you don’t know what to do and need my help, but just tell them you’ll get back to them with the answer,’” she recalls. “I know it’s important that employees know they can come to me and I’ll get the answers.”
The Money Game. Family members often struggle with how to structure ownership and compensation. “My motivation comes through trials, getting our farm to the next level, and doing my job well—it’s not about money or land ownership,” Julie shares. Zoey has a financial stake in the new building from the start and says she believes that is an important way to differentiate her from off-farm siblings.
The young farmers say a structured process where they have input fosters the growth young farmers need. Most importantly, the younger generation should have an opportunity to lead.