Food for thought
“If you ate today, thank a farmer!” has long been one of my favorite bumper stickers. When we think or speak of family-owned and closely-held businesses, the first images that come to mind are often of manufacturers of widgets and consumer products or of service providers. We may not be envisioning owners of family farms or forests in the mix, yet without these two important land-based industries thriving, our very lives are not possible. Since most of us don’t grow our own food, we directly or indirectly rely on farmers to feed us. And without trees, well, what would we breathe?
Full disclosure, my fiancé, Andy, is a recently retired organic farmer whose son, along with his life partner, are now in the first year of being entirely responsible for the farm operation. Every seed selected and sown, every crop disaster, and every dollar earned or lost is now theirs to celebrate or bear. Plus I am a tree hugger in every sense of the word—propagating, planting, tending, harvesting from, and, yes, even occasionally hugging, trees. A child’s pleasure in and curiosity of the natural world has morphed into a deep appreciation for the environmental services (e.g., clean air, shade, water cycling) and the multitude of products from trees, and better yet, forests. So the businesses of growing food and trees are part of my daily life experiences and thoughts.
During the last 18 months, I have witnessed the latter stages of my fiancé’s transition out of the business of the farm he founded, along with the interplay of family relationships on this family business and vice versa. Treading carefully, during my own transition from friend to fiancée, and most definitely not a hired consultant or coach, I have occasionally offered “food for thought” based in The Galliard Methodology and Family Business Advisor Core (FBAC) training. Through this journey, I’ve been challenged to consider how family farms and forests are both alike and different from other types of family-owned businesses so that I could consider how to be most supportive.
One way has been (at times painfully) clear. As Dave Specht, family dynamics specialist and author of The Farm Whisperer pointed out during our webinar on Family Farms, Forests, and Agritainment: “These families often live in their business.” Yup! So when the pack shed burns down and with it, the farm bathroom, farm employees become part of the daily traffic flow through the house. Or when it’s Market Day, even the retired farmer, awakened by the arrival of the new farming generation, still rises with the chickens. Dave was correct to say “Farming represents a way of life, not just a way of making a living.” And since “family systems are systems of love,” the jarring noise of a tractor starting up just outside the bedroom window at 6am on a Sunday is something to celebrate, not throw pillows at.
One of the stumbling blocks, you will not be surprised to read, has been and still sometimes is communication. Over time, the family dynamics shift in ways that families not in business together don’t experience. Dad—who once made the house rules, taught four wee ones what he learned about farming as he learned, and later became the Human Resource Manager for Teens Working on The Farm—eventually laid down these roles and the mantle of Head Farmer to pick up a role as mentor and now advisor. Along the way there were bumps that both impacted the farm business and the family dinner table. As Tim Schaeffer, GFBAI member, family farm member and farm consultant himself, astutely highlighted during the webinar, “Family members may not know what role they play, how they fit in, how they add value.” Yes, that needed to be clarified and honed at every step of the transition. Conflict was the red flag that communication needed more attention.
Though Andy’s family does not own a forest per se, they recently acquired a parcel that includes part of the edge of a forested piece of land and have the opportunity to purchase adjacent portions. They are deciding if that makes sense financially. Says Jennifer Jones, family forest expert, Founder of GROUND™, and GFBAI member, “77% of all family forest owners in America do not make any income off the land. And there are costs, such as taxes, associated with owning this land.” In my experience, vegetable farms value land in terms of productivity per acre per year. The value of a forest may be more subtle and over a different time scale—15 or 30 years depending on the tree crops.
According to Jennifer, “64% of all of the family forest land in America is owned by somebody who is 60 years or older, which is why this succession planning conversation is so critical to have right now. We’re facing the largest transfer of family forest land in America in our history.” Learning that makes this tree hugger want to cast an “outlaw’s” vote to buy up that entire forest and keep it intact to pass to the next generation to steward. Keeping my FBAC Training in mind though, I’ll be careful about my outlaw role, and I’ll consider Dave’s counsel to “consider the questions we ask” of land-based business owners so that I can instead offer a thoughtful question if asked.
And maybe I’ll channel my energies away from “outlaw” voting and into a new business with the grandkids. I have an idea for a new bumper sticker: If you breathed today, thank a tree…and maybe a family-forest owner as well.
(Note: If the term “outlaw” in conjunction with family business dynamics is confusing, send us an email and we’ll be glad to explain.)
Tips for advising land-based business owners:
- Tim: Professionalize the business so there is a business.
- Dave: Preserve family first then the business “just perpetuating the family business is not the only measure of success.”
- Dave: Interrupt their patterns of communication and to help them establish new patterns. Many families do not have formal ways of communicating with each other.
- Dave: Ask, “What does it mean to be a [insert your last name]?”
- Jennifer: Succession planning, especially for family forests is “not about the math, not divide by 4” for example. “Family dynamics is the number 1 cause of the succession plan not working.”
- Jennifer: Some family forest owners partner with hunting and fishing clubs that pay dues and help with property management. Hosting weddings and special events to generate income is another creative strategy.
The [family] relationships are at risk if there’s not a pattern to communicate, if there’s not a structure in place for families to learn how to make decisions together and learn how to navigate conflict. – Dave Specht
Over 80% of the women who are part of a family –forest property want to be part of the management of that property but only about one-third are. – Jennifer Jones
Resources to learn more about advising land-based businesses: