Jon Wilcox: Farm Business Culture – Why It’s Crucial

Posted on March 24, 2013 in


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By Jon Wilcox, Vita Plus
A family with energetic boys raised cattle on a hobby farm. A well-intentioned neighbor, with decades of experience in cattle production, was critical of the “results” he saw and often shared his wisdom. One evening, as the neighbor chastised the father, the mother stepped in and said, “You don’t seem to understand. We’re not really raising cattle on this farm. We’re raising boys!”

Perhaps the main issue with the people in this story was they had different “perceptions.” The parents and the neighbor saw the world differently.  Our perceptions affect how we interact with each other and are driven by our:

  • Attitudes
  • Personality type
  • Past experiences
  • Beliefs and values
  • Present circumstances
  • Expectations, hopes and dreams

Our brains assimilate, sort, and manage all the experiences we’re exposed to as we go through each day. The conclusions we reach lead us in the way we interact with those around us. Our brains process so quickly and agilely that we tend to navigate through our world without even being conscious of how we’ve arrived at our conclusions.

The agricultural world we operate in has evolved tremendously and the hobby farm in this story is an idealized lifestyle that has few similarities to the pressures and stresses of global markets, fast changing new technologies, specialization, commodity price fluctuations, and government compliance issues that we wrestle with in modern agriculture. Change has become the constant in agricultural operations and yet, despite all this, there’s still a strong family component in almost all operations. And this adds another dynamic to an already complex business.

Family relationships can complicate an already complicated business with another layer of intimate experiences, expectations, differing ages and shared history. This can have subtle or blatant effects on how decisions are reached. The effects can be deeply satisfying and a source of pride for all involved. But when they are dysfunctional, it’s like watching a car accident in slow motion.

In the spring of 2012, I sent out a short survey to learn more about how farm families thought about and dealt with this aspect of their personal and business lives.  I asked for feedback on the pros and cons of working with family as well as practices and procedures that helped them be successful. I asked about how non-family employees were affected. And then I asked them to rank the following eight principles in order of importance, with 1 being not important and 5 being essential.

I tabulated and averaged each person’s response. Here are the results in order:

  1. Communication – 5.0
  2. Attitude, commitment and accountability – 4.8
  3. Fairness in problem resolution – 4.6
  4. Job descriptions and clear roles – 4.4
  5. Opportunities for advancement – 4.4
  6. Evaluations and performance reviews – 4.1
  7. Balance between work and personal life – 4.0
  8. Unique culture and values – 3.2

I was surprised to see that culture and values ranked last and considerably lower than the other concepts.

Defining culture
After almost 30 years of working for the same company, I’ve watched its growth from a small business to an organization with more than 360 employees. I worried about how the organization might change as we grew. I became obsessed with team building, employee engagement and personal development – critical areas for any business.

A team’s culture is dynamic and fragile, requiring proactive management. Cohesive cultures can play a huge role in business success. A sick culture will drive the best talent away.

Although “culture” tends to be a hot topic these days, many farming operations may not have much exposure to it. When you’re dealing with the pressures of daily issues, crops and weather, labor and wild markets, it’s understandable that a concept seen as “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t get much attention.

So what is culture?
Whenever two or more people align together, it creates a culture.  Families, teams, neighborhoods, churches, ethnic groups, businesses and nations all have unique cultures. The “culture” reflects shared values, beliefs, attitudes, history and goals. The ways individuals interact, communicate, make decisions and perform flow out of the group’s culture.

Culture does matter
Famous business guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” The point is that a visionary leader can develop a brilliant strategy – but it likely won’t succeed if it doesn’t fit the culture of the organization.

A farm can have good genetics, the finest facilities, strong health protocols and a sound nutrition program. But, if the management team doesn’t “click” and the culture is characterized by bitterness, distrust, disrespect, fear, high turnover and employees feeling abused, well … good luck. The farm won’t reach its potential.

On the other hand, we’ve all seen operations with older facilities, mediocre equipment and ordinary pigs, but most everyone gets along and feels included. On tough jobs, managers and owners pitch in and employees feel they’re listened to and rewarded for caring. They go the extra mile for each other and they treat the animals the same.

Let’s finish where we started by going back to the hobby farm story. The objective wasn’t to build a business to support the family – it was to provide a place to raise boys based on the family’s values. The culture sprung up around those values. The parents recognized that maturation is a process, mistakes are part of that and growth occurs with effort and time. Their strategy was to provide an environment where the boys could learn. The strategy fit the culture.

In any business, leaders must identify core values and consciously build a culture around those values. All stakeholders must be accountable. Only then can a strategy be implemented that capitalizes on the most important resource – people. If and when family is involved, you’ll need to learn to love unconditionally, forgive like you’d like to be forgiven and surround yourself with the best women you can find to nurture that culture. If you do that, it seems happiness and success will find you; you won’t have to go looking for them.

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