Woodbury:Farm Family Business 06/11 08:33
How Strengths Also Expose Weaknesses
Ag's most influential leaders must balance character traits to succeed in
life as well as business.
By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser
The last few weeks I've been reading two books on character. The first, Fred
Kiel's "Return on Character," discusses the relationship between a leader's
moral character and the financial success of a business. The second, David
Brooks' "The Road to Character," delves into the habits and practices of a
diverse group of people who've had a significant impact on the world. Both
books caused me to think about how the character of the family business leaders
I know has shaped the success of their agricultural businesses.
I began thinking about the question, "What characteristics lead to
agricultural family businesses success?" And then I asked, "What are the
obstacles others face to attain this success?" The more I thought, the more I
realized the answer is a kind of paradox. The qualities that define our success
also have embedded in them the obstacles to our progress. Let me offer three
An oft-mentioned characteristic of agriculture family farms and ranches is
that they are "independent" businesses, meaning the owners of such enterprises
answer primarily to themselves. They are free, within regulatory boundaries of
course, to make decisions about their businesses -- how they work their land or
livestock, what they grow, who they hire and who they sell to.
In my first book, on family business values, I described such independence
or freedom as the chance to work for yourself, to create opportunities for your
current and future family using your capital, your intelligence and your drive.
And in agriculture we see a significant number of independent farming and
livestock businesses: In the 2012 Census of Agriculture there were roughly
300,000 farms with more than $100,000 in sales.
I realize that a smaller share of that number accounts for a majority of
sales, but that is still a large number of businesses. (For some context there
are about 630,000 restaurants in the United States.) While there are some farms
that are owned by large corporations, the majority of those entities are
independent, family-owned organizations.
That independence, however, at times makes it difficult to work together.
I've seen multiple business partnerships fail or dissolve due to the inability
of such autonomous business owners to yield to another's ideas. It seems
everyone has their own notion of how decisions should be made, which direction
to head, which opportunities to pursue and how to work through business
problems. In contrast, I've seen several collective efforts that have created
significant wealth for business owners when everyone has given up some
independence in return for focused direction and action.
The independent nature of our industry's business owners can also affect our
ability to work together on policy initiatives or consumer opportunities. On
current issues of climate change, food labeling, sustainability and the humane
treatment of animals, it feels as if the agriculture community is often
fighting itself, while simultaneously suggesting the consumer is wrong to ask
questions of the food system. What makes us so great as an industry -- our
independent drive for success -- can become our Achilles' heel when we need to
band together and create a more unified and proactive front.
We all know a farmer or two who talks about how great they are. But as a
group, farmers and ranchers demonstrate a noticeable amount of humility. Most
never brag about sales or revenues, in contrast to many other non-agricultural
businesses, where sales numbers are a standard benchmark of performance. Some
people talk about acres or livestock numbers, but often to give some sort of
reference to communicate the scale of the business. Those who speak in a
prideful way of their acreage usually and rather quickly draw the scorn of
Many farmers and ranchers were raised to not boast of their accomplishments.
The source for this humbleness is difficult to identify, but probably comes
from a combination of religious teaching, close-knit relationships in rural
communities (which might have suppressed boastfulness in order to get along),
the often indirect relationship of a commodity producer to the end-user, and a
feeling that the product of one's labor "speaks for itself" and needs no
explanation for its quality. In any case, the contrast between the culture of
humility among agricultural businesses and the more aggressive, even brazen
self-promotion of more urban, non-agricultural businesses is evident to me as I
work in both worlds.
While humility is important, we also live among an increasingly urban
populace, where others may not understand the farmer or rancher's history,
goals and methods. Political and financial power is wielded by many who may
have no direct tie to agriculture, and the influence we have in those decisions
decreases as more people move from rural to urban communities and fewer people
enter commercial farming.
If our cultural modus operandi is one of reluctance to promote our own
achievements, who will tell our story to the world? While I dislike the
simplistic notion that "all we need to do is tell our story," even this simple
act of narration is something uncomfortable, foreign and awkward for most
farmers and ranchers. We need to find a better balance between staying silent
and humble, and offering our urban friends and our customers a way to
understand the benefits we bring to the American consumer.
After spending a couple of years in Washington, D.C., then moving back to
our family's ranch in western Kansas and working at a cattle feed yard, I often
remarked that if the end of the world were approaching, I'd much rather be at
the feed yard. The people working there (other than me) knew how to fix about
anything, mechanical or biological. They understood the practical application
of science, mechanics, engineering, crop production, meteorology, animal
husbandry, and even cooking. I have extreme confidence in the problem-solving
abilities of farmers and ranchers.
But that Do-It-Yourself mentality, if taken to extremes, can create
unnecessary hardship for agriculture family businesses. It has caused many a
family to avoid using an adviser to help them with difficult issues outside
their realm of knowledge, like estate planners, human resource consultants or
family business consultants. Depression, addiction and other mental health
problems go untreated because "we don't share our dirty laundry with others."
In addition to people issues, risk management and marketing tools, financial
accounting concepts and new crop and livestock practices are avoided because
"we don't do it that way." So while self-sufficiency is a real strength, it can
also lead to significant blind spots.
Many family business leaders share values that have contributed to a sense
of business success. But those same values, in certain ways, can inhibit our
ability to move forward, both individually and collectively. Our strengths can
get in the way of our progress. Being aware of this tendency, paying attention
to the context in which our values can sometimes work against our goals, will
help to make the family agriculture business stronger in the long run.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Woodbury writes columns for both DTN and our sister
publication, The Progressive Farmer. He is a Garden City, Kansas, author,
consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years experience
specializing in agriculture and closely held businesses. Subscribers can access
all of his archived columns under News search. Email ideas for this column to
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