Successful farms tend to have common attributes

In his work as a county extension agent, Glenn Newdigger works with a lot of farm families and has come to recognize that successful farm operations tend to have common attributes.

Among them is the willingness to accept differences in family members’ and employees’ background and experiences, and to communicate openly and with respect for one another, said Newdigger, who is based in Stafford County, Kansas, with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Many are willing to be flexible and take some amount of risk.

He, along with co-presenters Katelyn Barthol, extension agent in the Marais Des Cygnes District and Mark Ploger, retired extension agent from Pratt County, spoke on the subject at the recent “Women Managing the Farm” conference in Manhattan. Other common threads of successful family farms are a willingness to share leadership; a focus on being in the business for the good of the whole operation; and the understanding that successes should be celebrated as a team.

Newdigger spoke about the stages farms go through and noted that even high-functioning farms can find themselves in places they don’t want to be, such as when a key family member or employee dies or leaves. Those stages and traits often linked to them include:

Gathering—This is where it’s decided why the business or group is together, an agenda is set, a leader or leaders are confirmed and expectations and directions are agreed upon. This may sound formal for a family farm, but it sets the stage for establishing a business-like way to proceed. And remember, things change. At any given time in a farming operation, it might be a good idea to go back to this stage.

Chaos—In this stage, participants are determining the farm’s purpose. It can be marked by family members or employees jockeying for position or feeling left out. This is the time to determine a shared vision and to learn who can contribute what. Many events can throw even a smooth-running operation into chaos—the death of a participant, the inclusion of an adult son or daughter or new employee.

Unity—In this stage, the business is progressing toward its shared vision and working out differences. To keep it moving that way, this is a time to acknowledge accomplishments. Maybe that’s singling out the daughter who negotiated a better price on fertilizer. Maybe it’s the employee whose extra work resulted in more yield per acre or the spouse who updated the farm’s record keeping capabilities. “Everyone wants to hear they’ve done a good job. That frequently gets forgotten on the farm,” one conference participant noted.

Performing—This is a time to celebrate the farm’s successes, whether it’s providing cash bonuses or throwing a party for employees, suppliers, customers or others. This is also a time to evaluate the farm’s work and processes and to learn from each other, and to start determining what’s next. That might include exploring new options—trying a new crop, selling a parcel of land or starting a side business in agri-tourism.

Throughout the session, Newdigger encouraged audience members to provide their own insights into the categories. Continuous and clear communication; periodically revisiting goals; being open to including a mediator or other type of outside help; and food were topics that came up over and over again. Food is a unifier, participants said; whether it’s coffee, donuts and fruit at an early morning meeting or a hot meal if the meeting is later in the day, it can be considered the very first step toward common ground among the farm business’s key players.

Kansas farmers have numerous resources available, Newdigger said, with answers for the occasional question, educational opportunities or support on an ongoing basis. A good place to start is the local K-State Research and Extension office. Other resources include the Kansas Farm Analyst program, Kansas Farm Management Association and the Kansas Agricultural Mediation Service.


Why a farm management conference for women?

Kathy Heiniger of Fairview, Kansas, who recently attended the “Women Managing the Farm” conference in Manhattan, said she found sessions on grain marketing and business management helpful.

“We had two tables that discussed several things—our recordkeeping and communication—just different things that we do on our farm and how we do it and then each group, we shared as a whole and there were things that were useful, good tips,” she said. She also picked up tax tips from one of the sessions, including information about selling grain to a co-op under new tax legislation.

“The networking is nice, just to see how other people do things,” Heiniger said.

Phyllis Perry of Hope, Kansas, said she and her daughter initially started coming to the conference several years ago to have fun and learn together. “One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that the participants in the conference are younger and younger, which is very encouraging, because the first years it was a lot of women who ‘Oh, I think I’d like to find out what my husband does.’ And so now I see a distinct change. They are definitely working into the operation in a more professional way, which is the way it should be.”

Perry grew up on a farm, lived in a city out of state for 30 years, came back to Kansas and now considers herself an absentee owner, although part of her farm is cash rent and part of it is share, so she does her own grain marketing and likes to keep learning.

“If you don’t learn something new every day, you might as well call in your chips, and there’s always something new, whether you’re talking about the marketing aspect of it or what new crops should be grown here. So that’s always the fun part.

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“Get involved in the farming operation. Be sure your name is on anything which has a title to it,” Perry advised other women in agriculture. “I would encourage them to start their estate planning young. Do not wait until it’s too late. You do not know when someone’s going to be injured or hurt permanently. It’s too much of a shock. You need to know what the finances are. You need to know how to do it.”

“The Women Managing the Farm conference fills an important professional development space for women in agriculture,” said Kerri Ebert, coordinator of the Kansas Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Center at K-State and this year’s WMF coordinator. “It also provides a unique atmosphere for women to network with other women with similar agricultural roles either on the farm or in industry. The WMF planning committee works diligently to make sure keynote speakers and breakout sessions cover topics that are timely and female-focused. Women perform so many roles in agriculture and we try to provide programming that will help our attendees expand their knowledge whether she is an absentee landowner, a sole proprietor or somewhere in between.”