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Cut ‘the numbers guy’ some slack

Andy Junkin for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 June 2019

I was a decent fiddle player and often got standing ovations when I let it rip in nursing homes. Yet I hadn’t played for over a decade until I wanted to impress my fiancee. Let’s just say the fiddle should have stayed in the case, and it’s a miracle she retained her hearing, let alone that I’m now married to her.

The reality is: We apply this same “logic” to farm financials. Last year, I asked two different farmers in their early 30s to each figure out the cost of production for their operations. Both had gone to college for an agricultural business education and did exceptionally well in their farm financial studies. Both claimed they were the “numbers guy,” although I realized when they threw out this title they were referring to end-of-year bookkeeping when they looked for ways to minimize taxes or provide a fancy report for their banks.

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One farmer was in a cash-crop enterprise, and the other was a partner in a dairy. Neither knew their cost of production and, in order to turn their farms around because they were both in deep debt and on the brink of losing part of their bank funding, it was necessary they figure this out. This was to be the starting point for our weekly family discussions, so I gave them a week to put together this financial info.

I expected this job of doing a financial analysis (i.e., figuring out cost of production) would be a bit bigger than they realized, and my suspicions were proved right when they continually put off meetings because they had not yet finished the calculations. But what I didn’t expect was the harsh backlash I received in asking them to do this task. They were realizing this task was much bigger than they first thought and essentially felt like they were playing a fiddle in front of, not nursing home residents, but their fiancees – and were doing a poor job of it.

These men’s core sense of identity was that “they were good with the numbers.” That was where they fit into the family dynamics and what their family/community pegged them to be. This was being challenged, and they didn’t like it. I had asked them to do what was a basic task for a college graduate, but it had been so long ago it was an overwhelming task now. But even more so, these farmers were under intense pressure because everyone/everything they loved was riding on the task. It became overwhelming.

As a result, I became their punching bag. I don’t write this for sympathy. I share it because it’s an extremely common reaction. When under pressure, we sometimes attack topic X when the underlying issue is really topic Y.

Most farm chief financial officers (CFOs) may not necessarily lash out at professionals they just hired, but they may instead lash out at family members, making an already dire situation 10 times worse.

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There are a lot of very smart guys who are getting caught in financial pickles in these tough times but, as dire as the situation is, they can’t admit the need for help when it comes to analyzing their financials. This is a moment where their core identity is being challenged, and anyone who threatens this is seen and treated as the enemy. This is especially true the stronger the image the passive-aggressive farmer has about his financial competence.

For both farms, I was able to help get them back on track using some unique methods, but I suggest anyone in a similar situation consider applying three very important concepts:

1. Get a farm financial analysis done by a land-grant university extension specialist or a commercial professional. Even if the CFO is good with numbers, the type of analysis your farm needs isn’t what he or she normally does. Your family member is under a lot of pressure, and critical numbers could slip between the cracks as a result.

2. Insist on family meetings where financial decisions are made as a team instead of reaching decisions as an individual. By doing this, it takes unnecessary pressure off that individual and creates better-quality decisions. As part of these decisions, create detailed action items specifying who is to do what, by when and how.

3. Never undercut or demean your family member who is responsible for the farm’s financials. Their confidence is critical to their performance under the stressful circumstances. They will feel vulnerable, foolish or both if undercut, and it’s important to create the environment where they can admit to mistakes rather than make foolish solo decisions out of pride.

Above all, you need to realize this threat to “the numbers guy” is a big liability. It is a landmine everyone should be aware of. On all farms under financial stress, this landmine can happen at different levels. If you have financial problems, that is a problem within itself and doesn’t need to be compounded by irrational emotions and egos.

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You need to create a family environment where the farm’s financial leader doesn’t feel vulnerable but confident so they can put together the right financial analysis to help your family make the right decisions in a rational (not emotional) way.  end mark

Andy Junkin lives to save family farms. To listen for free to his 90-minute audiobook, “Tough Times Never Last, Tough Farm Families Do”. 

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