Inner Drive

The 25 year old son was only concerned about his needs and his little world. 

It was a large farm with multiple employees and thus they used a punch card clock to keep track of hours.  He had his list of jobs to do and he did them.  He actually did them well.  He showed up for his milking shift at 4:01 every morning and punched out at 9:03am.  The issue was that he punched out, when he punched out mentally and never thought twice about the farm. 

The farm was clearly falling apart and the son didn’t care.  It was a $20,000,000 dairy operation with 6 non related employees and it was obvious that Dad was having a hard time keeping things together.  He was a man that liked to control everything to the last detail.  It was this personality trait that had made the operation so successful initially but as it grew beyond the scope of what he could manage personally, things were falling apart.  His kids weren’t helping. 

As we walked across the yard, I noticed small manure pit from the 60’s which wasn’t used anymore that was overflowing with water.  Then I seen a dead heifer carcass floating in that pit.  I stopped and looked at the son to say “what do we have going on here”.  He said “ya, last fall three heifer calves jumped into that manure pit and drowned”.  I said, why didn’t you fix the fence after the first one drowned”?  He said “I told Dad about it, but he never got around to it”.  I said “why in the hell didn’t you fix it yourself”?  His voice went from zero to 60 and he screamed at me “its not my job and also I don’t know how to fix the fence, Dad never taught me that”.   He then went into a tirade about how he didn’t have enough time for his personal life, about how he was being mistreated by his parents or how the farm wasn’t paying him enough to care. 

That moment defined the problem for that farm for the next 20 years.  “Its not my job” was not what I wanted to hear come out of the mouth of a 25 year old eldest son who was positioned to take over a $20,000,000 farm.  Yet for so many successful family farms, this is the situation they face.  It takes one generation to start a farm, the second to build it into an empire and the issue of entitlement is what causes the third generation to run the farm into the ground in a hurry. 

For successful family farms, getting your sons/daughters to take personal ownership in the farm’s success is a critical issue which few family farms overcome.  Contrary to many accountant’s perspectives, gifting equity in the company in many cases is not the answer and quite often can lead to further problems.  I’ve seen many entitled farmers get gifted millions in equity from an empire which took generations to build.  I’ve seen them 7 years later try to retire young because they feel they “worked hard in their youth” and deserve it. 

You can either motivate a mule to move using a carrot or a stick.  Rather than constantly yelling at your kid to get his butt out of bed or get his head in the game (stick), you’ve got to rethink your approach and think about how to adjust his/her mindset (carrot) to become a better farmer. 

There are many things you can do, but here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Off Farm Experience

Have your son/daughter work away from your farm on a similar sized operation.  Make sure it’s with a progressive farmer whom you don’t know (nepotism) but respect.  Make sure this farm is understaffed and has a reputation for being a tough work environment, so they learn that your farm isn't all that bad. 

  1. Encourage Change

For a lot of successful farmers, control is a big factor and it’s this subliminal infatuation with control which has made them awesome managers.  The problem is that it comes back to bite them.  Whether they know it or not, their infatuation with control and micromanagement is often what causes many farm kids to lose interest in the farming operation.  The kids feel helpless to make changes, because they feel they have to do its “dad’s way or the highway”.  The kids need to feel that they can make a real difference and turn around outcomes.    

  1. Withhold Praise

What motivates a man to get out of bed who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has a large inheritance coming some day?  Praise from someone they respect.  In my experience with the most successful farms, the hardest working young farmers work with the hope of earning their parent’s respect.  They want to hear a few complimentary words, more than they want air.  In these operations, praise is held back like a currency and is only given when deserved.  The farms whereby the parents praise their kids for every action are not necessarily successful because the kids think they are better than they actually are.  Similar to spoiling kids with too much money, giving too much praise can be counterproductive.  Yet, never forget to praise them from time to time when deserved or else they will grow to despise you. 

  1. Let them prove themselves

Many farmers don’t want to go to Florida for the winter, but they need to realize it might be the best thing for the farm.  When your son is in his late 20’s, for parents to go to Florida for a few months during the winter, it is one of the best things to teaching a son to think for himself and to take pride in the operation’s day to day success.  I am not talking about a 10 day holiday but a 3 month period from which the son/daughter can evaluate their management performance.  It is one thing for a parent to look over a shoulder and push a son to perform daily chores, but another if the son knows he is ultimately responsible for chore success.  Learning to problem solve without parental supervision (perhaps vet’s oversight) will teach your son/daughter to take personal responsibility to solving the problems.  This will teach your son/daughter to think of the operation as his sole responsibility, rather than a place I “punch in and punch out”. 

  1. Encourage Vision

Every farm kid needs a vision of what the farm is going to look like by the time he is by the time he is 40 and this vision is key to get him out of bed in the morning.  Getting your son/daughter to travel to visit large farms out of state and see different ideas is key to motivating them to create their own vision of what they want the farm to grow into.  Getting them to have friends whom are farmers is also critical.  Although it’s a pain in the butt for your son/daughter to want to grow/do things differently than the parent’s envision, this is beneficial in the long term.  They need their own drum beat to walk to. 

These are just a few ideas about what I am discovering is a big undiscussed problem within a lot of farm families, but I know the list doesn’t stop here.  I’m currently writing a book on “How to overcome the third generation curse” and would love your feedback: