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Lace up your boots

Andy Junkin for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 May 2021

About 12 years ago, a guy named Jack called me up and, although no one in his family knew it, he had terminal cancer. Succession planning had suddenly become a priority, and he didn’t know what to do.

His youngest son Ken was 29 and had been working on the farm for eight years and did a great job at what he did. The problem was: He only did a great job at what he did. The son did two milkings and fed the calves before and after the noon milking. He hadn’t missed a day of work in eight years, except for one weekend when he went to a friend’s wedding. He always did a great job at the things he was told to do in his job description and clocked in and clocked out every day on the dot.

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The dairy was a large operation with a lot of employees. Jack was a dominant patriarch, and Ken’s older brother had been kicked off the farm years before because of constant father-son bickering. The first year Ken was home to farm was rough. Not wanting his brother’s fate, Ken just stopped caring and made the decision to never cross swords with Dad. He’d just do what he was told and have a life beyond work after his eight-hour shift.

I had Ken give me a tour of the dairy, which was obviously falling apart as Dad’s health became problematic. There was a dead calf floating in the manure pit and I asked Ken, “What happened here?”

Ken said, “I told Dad that the electric fence was broken, and he never fixed it.”

“But why didn’t you fix it?”

He blurted out, “That’s not my job,” and went on a rant on how he worked over 45 hours in the last week. Those were not the words I wanted to hear from a successor taking over a $30 million business.

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Jack had a successor who was a good employee – but not a good manager. He didn’t own the problems on the farm and thus wasn’t suited to become an owner himself. I’ve found this predicament is common on farms.

The more successful you are as a farmer, the tougher it is for you to let go of control and teach management wisdom. Jack had made a big mistake in not successfully grooming his successor into a management role; he simply had a son who acted as a regular employee.

Instead of going down the rabbit hole of telling you how we rewired Ken’s thinking so he became a successful successor (which he is today), I want to tell you what I personally learned from that experience.

At the time, I was milking cows (water buffalo actually) for a farmer who I often think of as an eccentric genius. Although modest, Henry Koskamp successfully farms Holstein cows, poultry, cash crops, has a biodigester and yes … has the largest herd of water buffalo in Canada.

Believe it or not, my starting up a business with the mission of “saving family farms” was a quick way to lose all of my life savings. Those beginning years of consulting, I often did work to earn produce out of the farmer’s garden or beef out of the farm’s freezer. I had to milk cows morning and night to pay the bills while I got my business on its feet. After my business’s cash started flowing, I kept the job milking the water buffalo at night until I got married. You may laugh, but after dealing with dire farm debt or farm succession cases, milking water buffalo became my yoga. Over the years, Henry and I have grown to become close friends.

The day Ken told me, “It’s not my job,” I was with Henry while he was lacing up his boots, and he made this offhand comment: “Do you want to know a mind trick I play with myself? Every time I lace up my boots, I’m thinking of that 100-dollar bill out there in my barn, waiting to be picked up. Whether it is a slightly sick cow that needs to be treated, a pipe that was leaking or a feed ration that needed to be tweaked, there is a 100-dollar bill lying out there tonight. I wonder where it is.”

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I challenged him on the idea, and he said if he didn’t find a problem, he’d spend an extra 20 minutes walking around the barn until he found a problem to fix. He had the internal discipline to never unlace his boots until he had found at least one $100 mistake, problem or opportunity and attended to it. I thought this was genius and was a core reason why he had grown the operation 10 times from what he inherited from his dad.

While milking water buffalo that night, I got to thinking: What if every farm kid who came home to work on the farm in their 20s applied this concept? What if every farm had a journal beside the boot rack, where he or she wrote down one $100 mistake they had fixed prior to unlacing their boots each night?

Instead of the son or daughter thinking like an employee, they would start thinking like a boss.

Each month, at the successor’s monthly performance review, this “boot journal” could come out and be evaluated. If the successor found and actually solved a $100 problem on the farm each day that month, then the farm should reward him or her with a $100 bonus. If not, $100 should be deducted from his or her check. This only has to happen a few times until you either have a successor taking a keen interest in the success of the farm beyond their job description, or you have a kid looking off-farm for a different career direction.

Over the past decade, I’ve recommended this with hundreds of farms – and it works. The successors take a keener interest in the operation and don’t walk past mistakes; they fix them. This is the first step toward your son or daughter taking pride in the operation and considering its success their responsibility.

This is not the be-all-and-end-all of grooming a successor. However, it is an easy-to-do first step toward creating a successor who has a keen eye for details with the mindset of a successful manager.  end mark

PHOTO: Staff photo.

Andy “Bobcaygeon” Junkin’s niche is helping stubborn farmers work better together. To get a free copy of Andy’s book Bulletproof Your Farm, just go to Agriculture Strategy or call (800) 474-2057.

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