Top of Mind: A Cult of Personality

12:31AM Aug 09, 2012
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Allen Lash’s devoted followers say he is one of the smartest people alive. They describe him as a soft-spoken, humble genius who can diagnose a farm’s financial problems with remarkable clarity. They say his philosophy about the future of agriculture and consolidation has empowered successful farmers to attain greater profit.

Some 43 farm families have joined Lash, 69, and his FamilyFarms Group, which he created in 2006 with Harold Birch and Leroy Jones. Today, FamilyFarms comprises more than 400,000 acres and projects to grow significantly by the end of 2012.

But detractors note a darker and more manipulative side to Lash. They say he runs a cultlike program aimed at breaking down members, separating them from the control of their farms and inducting them into a members-only world of standardized agricultural business practices. Lash acknowledges he sends out internal "manifestos" that deal with corporate culture, and confidentiality is sacrosanct at FamilyFarms: members sign nondisclosure agreements and rarely talk about the inner workings of the network.

All but a couple of the farm teams that have left FamilyFarms are under a contractual gag order.
Lash says there’s nothing about his business mission that makes members give up control. Indeed, many members I have interviewed see FamilyFarms as providing excellent business education, including individualized financial processes and systems supported by continual training.

Selling Ag. It is quite a sales job to an industry that is historically independent, but Lash has a flair for promotion. He speaks methodically and showers compliments on friend and foe alike. At a recent media event, Lash led reporters around his expansive headquarters in Illinois, praising more than 20 employees by name.

Business success often depends upon developing such a cult of personality—think Steve Jobs. Charisma can be used for good or bad. The FamilyFarms model was built by Lash, but for years its secretive nature drew a wedge between the group and the rest of agriculture.

Now FamilyFarms is pledging to "lift the veil," with the hope that more transparency will reveal the value of this group. There are dozens of ways farmers partner together to boost their bottom line (equipment, labor, marketing) that go beyond the traditional do-it-all farmer. Transparency is simply crucial before jumping into any partnership, including FamilyFarms.

We’ll see how far Lash is willing to lift his veil. At the media event, he started the morning with an edict to reporters: "Don’t ask any questions you wouldn’t ask of your own company."