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Just watch, video conferencing will be a game-changer

Mark Andrew Junkin for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 September 2016

I hope you read the article “How dairy consultants might use video consulting more in the future” in the Sept. 12 issue of Progressive Dairyman. While I was quoted in the article, I would like to add a bit more of my opinion on the subject.

In every industry, you’ve got to recognize game-changers. Just like Uber changed the taxi cab industry, I think Skype and FaceTime are about to change farm succession, farm mediation and any other type of on-farm consultation.

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Here is why: Little changes made more often are way better than big changes all at once.

I used to think that I had to go onto the farm, see the operation and look each person in the eye to consult with a client. While that is nice to do, when you really think about it, it’s not necessary. I’m surprised to say this now, but I’ve often found an on-farm visit to be counter-productive. Here’s why.

I used to drive 1,000 miles to meet with a family, listen to their concerns and then develop a one-page strategic plan based on what everyone could live with. The problem with this strategy is that in one day, there would be a lot of dramatic changes recommended all at once.

Remember, the farm just paid $2,000 just to fly me to their farm – and thus wanted to get it all fixed at once. For a lot of farms, they were biting off more than they could chew and would choke on the follow-through making those ideas into reality.

I started using Skype to help farmers in remote areas where it just wouldn’t make economic sense to drive there to meet them, but now I do this with all of my farm clients, even the ones who live just outside my hometown.

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With video conferencing, I now work with farms over several years and make subtle changes every month. When I switched to video conferencing with farms weekly, on-farm results became even more pronounced.

For example, each week in our video conferences, we ask two basic questions:

  1. Each member of the family is to come to the table with one idea on how to improve farm profit by $5,000 without spending $5,000. This forces everyone to be creative about how they can squeeze more efficiencies out of the operation. You’d be surprised by how much more money you make by someone forcing you to think critically about your farm.

  2. The other thing I do is get the family to identify one way they can improve how they work together. Little pet peeves like sleeping in or being disorganized can really eat away at family relations. It’s up to each man and woman to improve his or her own character.

    Privately, I work with each family member to help them ask themselves, “What can I do to be a better business partner?” If each family member makes one personal improvement in their performance or character each week over the next year, you’d be amazed at what a different work environment the farm is within a year.

Beyond the incremental improvement to profitability and improved working relations, the bigger thing we are doing is getting the family used to making decisions together.

Let’s face it, on most farms Dad calls the shots. Before you run, you’ve got to walk. So before your family is able to make strategic decisions that impact your farm 30 years out, you’ve got to be able to sit down and squeeze out an extra 10 percent of profitability out of your operation.

My rule of thumb is that until you are able to squeeze out an extra 10 percent of profitability each year through better decision-making as a family, you aren’t ready to start the succession planning process.

I once got called out to a farm after three other farm succession “experts” had been out there, and each time the situation got worse. I was a Hail Mary pass; the next phone call was to the auctioneer.

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The problem was: The family patriarch ran the farm with an iron fist, and the family didn’t know how to make decisions together. When the kids had different strategic ideas than the parents about the long-term future of the farm, family relations went off the rails quickly.

When I took this family on as clients, I told them, “Let’s not talk about farm succession for a year and just focus on improving how your family is able to make decisions together.”

In one of our first meetings, we had a 45-minute argument about milking protocols that had nothing to do with milking protocols and everything to do with power dynamics within a family. However, a year later, we had five 15-minute discussions about farm succession over eight weeks, and then we had a succession plan in place relatively stress-free.

Because we got the family used to being able to discuss small changes first, they got past the mental blocks they were having and were able to easily make big changes within a year. Succession was easy and was just a side effect of good strategic planning instead of being a traumatic family event.

By the way, we were using video conferencing technology for our weekly meetings. I doubt if I would have been able to fix their problems using conventional in-person meetings less frequently.

I know that most farmers are standoffish with new technology, such as video conferencing. My grandpa almost killed my Uncle Lloyd when he came home with a W4 tractor in 1957.

Grandpa didn’t see the need for tractors and wanted to stick to what he knew – horses. However, we wouldn’t be farming today had it not been for my uncle’s decision to try something new. I believe that just in the same way, your family might not be farming in 30 years’ time unless you consider using video conferencing and taking a different approach.

As far as I know, I’m the first mediator/succession planner who does farm succession and family meetings exclusively over the Internet using video conferencing, but I’m certain there will be many to follow in the future.

To every consultant in the dairy industry, I’d challenge you to rethink how you deliver your services and to consider whether more frequent/shorter interactions would deliver a higher value of services at a lower cost.

Should video conferencing be a game-changer for you too?  end mark

Mark Andrew Junkin improves how farm families make decisions together in the years prior to farm succession. Get his book, Farming with Family: Ain’t Always Easy! at Agriculture Strategy or call at (800) 474-2057.

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