Lessons Shared

March 6, 2009 10:09 AM

The eternal optimism of youth was contagious at the Top Producer Young Farmer Program, held a day before the 2009 Top Producer Seminar in Chicago.

"Today's young farmers are smart and aggressive, and maybe even more motivated than their fathers were to improve management skills," says Dick Wittman, a farm financial management consultant based in Culdesac, Idaho. Wittman led off the daylong program with a session on determining management aptitude.

Previous and current Top Producer of the Year finalists Lon Frahm of Colby, Kan.; Rob Barley of York, Pa.; and Chad Olsen of Hendricks, Minn., provided firsthand accounts of what it takes to manage employees and grow an operation.

"I've learned over the years to let my employees in on decision-making," Frahm said. "I don't spend as much time looking for deals and opportunities because everyone on my team understands the bottom line and brings ideas to me."

Barley and Olsen stressed the importance of hiring good people and stepping back to let them do their job. "Once I stopped trying to do everything myself, it made it a lot easier to grow," Olsen said.

Not alone. One goal of the program is to foster networking opportunities for producers in similar stages of life. It's not uncommon for farmers to feel as if they are on an island, said Bret Oelke, University of Minnesota farm management specialist. Oelke suggested forming a network of farmers or other businesspeople with similar challenges and opportunities.

Young farmers also need to learn how to actively manage their finances, and should expect help from their accountant, said Lance Fulton of Kennedy & Coe.

For example, accountants should help farmers protect capital from changes such as partner bankruptcy, divorce and insanity by separating equity from operations, he said. They also should understand counterparty risk and help clients protect against it. "If your accountant isn't helping you with these areas, ask about them," Fulton said. "If necessary, find one who is able and willing."

Legacy. Top of mind for many young farmers is succession. It sometimes helps to regard it as simply a transfer of stewardship, Kevin Spafford of Legacy Planning Partners told attendees. "We don't really own the business; we just get to control it for a time," Spafford said. "The only way it will carry on is if the elder generation prepares the next one for their stewardship phase."

To contact the authors, e-mail jbernick@farmjournal.com.

Top Producer, March 2009

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