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Dairymen discuss farming with family

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 11 September 2015

Dennis Mashek, Lee & Emily MaassenTwo Iowa farm families kept their dairy farms in the family for multiple generations. At the PDPW Business Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year, they shared what has worked well and not so well as the farm business was transitioned to them and now as they begin to pass their farms on to their children.

Lee and Emily Maassen have a 1,250-cow dairy farm in Maurice, Iowa. They farm in partnership with their three sons, Aaron, Adam and Stefan.

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Dennis and Barb Mashek run the 160-cow Hilltop Acres Farm near Calmar, Iowa. Their two sons will be the seventh generation involved in the family business.

When you were the incoming generation, what did you see parents or grandparents doing that had an influence in regard to passing on the farm?

DENNIS MASHEK: When I came back from Iowa State, I wanted to make some changes, while my dad was kind of set in his ways. I give him credit because he bought land and we were progressive that way. We milked 34 cows in a tiestall barn and increased to 68 cows in 1977.

In 1981, Barb and I were married, and we put a trailer house on the farm right beside my parents’ home, which was the biggest mistake we could have made. It was a good idea to have me on the farm to help watch over the cows a little more, but things got kind of rough the first year we were married. My parents tried to control my wife and I, telling us what to do and how to do things. There wasn’t a whole lot of communication.

We had [a mediator] come to our farm one time, and he sat down with my parents and me and my wife, and a lot of discussion got on the table. That was the best thing that could have happened. From then forward, any time we were making decisions, such as me and my wife buying my parents out, we had a team that we worked with – our veterinarian, our nutritionist, our tax man, our extension director. They were part of the team that helped us to be successful.

LEE MAASSEN: In the early ’70s, I became a partner with my dad and my older brother. We had appraisals done, and I bought 33 percent of the farm, excluding a land allotment that Dad did own. I was in partnership with my brother for about 10 years. He enjoyed farming, and we had a good teamwork effort with three of us, but then with God’s calling, he went into the ministry in 1980. He sold out his one-third share of the farm to my youngest brother.

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We farmed together from 1980 to 2007. That was a good relationship until we had sisters-in-law involved, and then things got a little bit more difficult. It wasn’t as easy to think the same and to make all decisions the same. In 2007, my younger brother sold his 33 percent share to my three sons. They each bought 11 percent.

Dad was a retired investment holder in his farmland and the liquid assets of the farm until he passed away about a year ago. Today, my three sons and I own the farm.

Do you hold business meetings?

MASHEK: We usually have meetings with the employees once a week to give everyone a guideline of what’s on the agenda for the week. With our dairy expansion and our youngest son joining the farm full-time, our banker, who’s actually done 30 years in the extension service, is going to sit down with us and moderate monthly meetings among my wife and I and our two sons.

MAASSEN: We try to get together once a week as partners and make decisions for that week. Once a year, we get together and go over all financials and what our vision is for the coming year. That’s with the daughters-in-law and everyone that is involved.

How did you work through in-law dynamics?

MASHEK: [We learned] it was best to get things out on the table and from then on, the communication improved. There was a lot more discussion. We knew if we were going to make it successful, we had to have more communication. I don’t want to have the fights with my sons like my dad and me had. My dad and I get along great today. It’s all about communication.

MAASSEN: You realize when you bring the spouses in the operation, you need to think also about them because they become your partners indirectly. When I farmed with my younger brother as a partner, the way money was spent and time was committed got to be inequitable and unfair. There got to be a lot of dissension there.

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EMILY MAASSEN: In 2001 or 2002, I could tell things weren’t fair; things weren’t equal with Lee and his younger brother. Lee and his dad just wanted to keep the peace. I didn’t want our sons to get into the business and be treated unequally, so we invited a moderator for a farm meeting. It was a day-and-a-half where we just talked and he encouraged us to get our feelings out. That was kind of a turning point.

LEE MAASSEN: Now every one of us, as partners, we log our hours each day. At end of year, we come together and add up all of the hours and divide them into actual working hours or management hours, such as time in meetings.

We have roundtable discussion to try to come up with equalization – and sometimes will pay one son or the other more dollars than the other based on hours spent. We offer 14 days vacation time, and they can take it or leave it. We request they at least use a week because that is healthy family time. We equalize in pay if they don’t take the full 14 days.

What do you have in writing?

MASHEK: To start the year, we set goals on where we want to be for acres, crop production and the dairy herd itself. We challenge ourselves and our employees to reach the goals. We do a lot of different incentives for our team. For our employees, we have a quality premium bonus. If they meet certain goals, we pay them a cash bonus every month. It’s a lot of communication. We try to have everybody on the same page in the direction we want the business to go.

MAASSEN: We need to redo our mission and vision statement again, especially since we expanded a lot in 2013-2014. Monthly, we do goals of what we want to accomplish in the next month. Then, once a year, we do what I call capital items. In 2016, we want to build a new calf barn – or in 2017, are we going to expand again? It’s getting to be harder to express our goals as partners and then getting our employees to see those same goals.

How do keep the lines of communication open? What if there is conflict?

MASHEK: Not just our sons, but from the employee standpoint too, if anyone has a conflict or issue, I want them to bring it to me. We’re going to get it out on the table and discuss it. If it’s the littlest thing, I want to know about it. We sit down and we talk it over. It’s the best thing we can do. I like to review employees on a six-month basis, and that helps them.

I let employees review me, too, and let me know what I’m doing wrong and what they expect out of me to make me a better boss. By 10 a.m. each day, we’re usually done with the feeding, breeding, treatments – and everyone kind of meets in the office. Employees come in because they know it’s break time, and we sit around and have open discussion.

MAASSEN: My sons have really moved into management roles. They each do employee evaluations. We get it done once a year.

How did you know your sons were ready to become partners?

MASHEK: My two sons were raised on the farm. They were out there from little boys on. Our oldest son went two years to the John Deere tech program and worked at an implement shop. He said he couldn’t wait to be back to farm. That was the best thing for him because he really appreciated being able to come back to the farm.

Our youngest son just finished an internship in Switzerland. Our two boys have always had farming in their blood. They’ve always said, “We don’t want to do anything else but this.” The key to it is that I’ve always had a positive attitude and a good work ethic. When you’ve got those two things, it will show through to the next generation.

MAASSEN: My three sons have always wanted to farm. I asked them why, and they said it is because they saw how my dad and I farmed together with my brothers through the good times and bad times and how we were able to find a resolution.

What did you find worked best avoiding conflict with on-farm and off-farm family members in transitioning?

MASHEK: I have three older sisters and two younger brothers. The best thing we did was having two appraisers appraise all of the livestock, machinery and land. My dad took the average, and that’s how we purchased it. All of my siblings got to see the appraisal, so they knew what we were paying for it. We bought it out back in the ’90s.

Now my siblings say how the land is valued at $10,000 to $15,000 an acre today, and it wasn’t fair. We have to look back at what it was then. They could have chosen that as part of their career. We invested our money into the farm. My brothers and sisters all have jobs in town, and they invested their money in stocks in their company or in the stock market. It’s what you chose in life, and you’ve got to accept that.

MAASSEN: My oldest daughter is off the farm. She’s never made a comment that she has ever wanted to come back to the farm. If she does someday, she would gladly be put in. How do you make something fair and equitable for a sibling someday? We’re starting to discuss that in our wills. It depends on how you divide up your estate. One thought is to carry life insurance for the off-farm heirs.

What are the nuggets of advice you would leave with people?

MASHEK: Communication is the number one goal. Don’t be afraid to bring a team in. As I said earlier, I’ve had about five or six different people that I’ve brought all around the table already when we bought my parents out and when we did our first expansion. It’s great to have open discussion and have everybody there so everybody is on the same page. When you’ve got a team like that, you bring in different ideas and different thoughts. It gives you a different perspective.

MAASSEN: Make sure you have as many professional people, consultants and nutritionists on your team. Meet with them regularly as much as you can. Always be aware of what the future holds. We don’t know what the future is going to be, we only know that God holds the future, but we need to think ahead.

We go back and look at the number of times we prayed for our sons before they met their spouse that they would find someone that was going to be part of our team. Today, that’s been given to us as a blessing.

Every day, think of whoever is in your business with you. Be aware of who they are, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and how they fit in.  PD

PHOTO: As members of multi-generation farms, Dennis (left) and Barb (not pictured) Mashek and Lee (center) and Emily (right) Maassen speak up about what they’ve learned from dairying with family members. Photo by Ray Merritt.

Karen Lee
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