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Jolene Brown: Family farm is a business, not a birthright


Jolene Brown has heard it all from family farming operations.

Let’s not rock the boat. Let’s not get Dad mad. I don’t want them to think we are greedy. I hope there is a will. We can all get along.

She even once received an email that said: Our farming son is married to a wh***. How do we protect our assets?

It happens all too often in agriculture, but Brown said those family fights don’t have to happen if farms make one important decision — do you want to be a family-first business or a business-first family?

A professional speaker, author, and family business consultant, Brown presented “Stop the Fighting on the Way to the Funeral Home!” to 400 growers at the Wyffels Hybrids Corn Strategies 2017 event Wednesday at the Williamson Brothers Farm in Ruthven, Iowa.

We all know cousins and uncles, dads and sons, and neighbors not talking to each other, but Brown says it doesn’t have to be that way on the farm.

Here is some of the most eye-opening advice Brown has for every family-first farm that is transitioning to a business-first family.

Genetic relationships do not equal good working relationships.

“Acceptance in a family is unconditional,” Brown said. “Acceptance in a business is conditional, not a birthright.”

Brown said she often hears Moms and Dads say: “well, they couldn’t keep a job anywhere else.” She says that’s not an excuse to hire a family member.

“A family business is not a place to rehabilitate a family member,” Brown said.

Believing the business should financially support all family members who want to work together.

Brown says first you need to consider the senior generation. Are they financially secure? What’s the real cost?

“It doesn’t matter if the next generation is ready, if the senior generation isn’t,” Brown said. “People have to live until they die. You don’t turn over assets you need. If the senior generation isn’t financially secure, they will never release financial control over business.”

For the next generation coming in, Brown said they and the farm needs to be able to answer these questions:

  • What benefits and results are you bringing to the team?
  • Does the team really need them?
  • What is the cost to the team?
  • Does the value this person bring equal the cost to the business?
  • Have you worked for someone else for at least 2- 3 years?

Assuming others will/should/must change … not me.

A rancher once told Brown his thoughts about his daughter returning to the ranch: “As long as she doesn’t change anything, I’m flexible.”

It’s a statement that is often heard on many family farms, but it’s not a position business-first families should take.

“If the achievement of your goal depends upon the assets which someone else has and they do not have your same goal, they do not have the problem,” Brown said.

A conversation is not a contract.

Farmers lie, Brown said. The three lies heard most often on family farms:

  • Work hard, someday this will all be yours.
  • I’m going to retire.
  • Don’t worry about your brothers and sisters. They have their jobs. They’re not interested in the business.

Hope is not a good business strategy. What do good businesses have in writing?

Don’t ignore the in-laws, off-site family, and employees.

How long do you have to be married to get to be family?

That was a question Brown once received from a daughter-in-law about her family’s farming operation, but in reality, all business-first family farms need to address: What is the role of the spouse in the business?  What are the spouse’s expectation of the business?

Use common courtesy.

“I’ve seen farm family members treat strangers on the street better than family members,” Brown said.

Be sure to say thank you. I appreciate you. I need you. Would you be my mentor?

Have a plan in place.

You do not owe your kids a business, Brown said. But if they are going to take over, you need transparency and wise experts to guide the transition.

“We do owe our children morals and values, opportunity for an education, legal discussed revised plans, and a listing of details beyond the will,” Brown said.

Brown said you must do the business right to honor the family. If not, you will have neither family nor business at the end of the day.

“Without communication, cooperation, and commitment, you can count on resistance, resentment, and revenge,” Brown said.

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