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6 business tips from first-generation farmers

More than Dirt: It’s easier to separate the family from the farm when you’re the first generation.

Mike Downey, Farm business consultant

June 11, 2024

5 Min Read
Three farmers walking together at sunset
Getty Images/StockSeller_ukr

We often ask what we can learn from long-term farmers, but have you ever asked what we can learn from first-generation farmers?

Last month I had the opportunity to meet Dan and Amy Hodges and tour their first-generation blueberry farm in southern Georgia, near Bristol. Dan and Amy are new blueberry growers who affectionately call their farm Wrigley’s Fields after their 9-year-old English cocker spaniel, named Wrigley. 


The labor, economics, and agronomics for blueberries in the South differ greatly from those of corn and soybeans here in the Midwest, or wheat in the Plains. However, the best management practices for running a successful farm business are much the same – no matter the location of the farm or the crop being produced.

Although I can only think of a handful of first-generation farmers, I know they all have something in common: a strong focus on how they manage their farm business.

Consider these six core focus areas for managing your farm like a business.

Strategic planning

During the farm tour, Dan Hodges shared with me a clearly defined goal: “We want to reach 400 acres planted with a minimum of average yields by 2025. This will help us meet the gross revenue targets we’ve established for our business.”

Goal setting and a clearly defined path for where you want to go are important no matter what type of business you are in. Ron Hanson, Ph.D., Harlan Agribusiness professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was quoted in Don’t put off succession planning as saying: A goal without a deadline is nothing more than a dream.”

Financial planning

My grandpa was a first-generation farmer who started our family farm from scratch. Today, the sheer amount of capital necessary to start a new farm is a huge hurdle for many young and aspiring farmers.

All the first-generation farmers I know have some type of plan to access capital, whether it be a family member, friend, business partner, lender, or retiring farmer. The Hodges showed potential lenders their business plan and found one to partner with them in their journey from 17 acres of blueberries to 400 by the end of 2025.    

Dan says, “There’s a huge opportunity to help farmers understand where they sit financially.”

Knowing your key financial numbers is just smart business sense. First-generation farmers can’t afford not to. And as Peter Drucker’s well-known quote goes: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Management and leadership

Like many farmers I work with, Dan and Amy are entrepreneurs who also are focused on family. “If I want to go watch my son pitch college baseball, I want to know the farm can run without me,” he says.

Unfortunately, we all know the negative impact when something happens to the patriarch of the family before management or leadership roles have been transferred. With that in mind, Dan and Amy are already planning the transition to the second generation.

In this case, Wrigley’s Fields has a day-to-day operations manager, and at the top of Dan and Amy’s list of priorities is to start identifying the next generation of leaders within their family and determine how to get them more involved and prepared to take over one day.

Human resources and labor

Dan comes from the car dealership business, so he understands how important it is to have quality and dependable people to rely on. This may be even more critical with blueberries where timing of applications has a significant impact on the quality of the harvested fruit.

A lot of farmers struggle with finding dependable labor, but first-generation farmers seem more open to thinking outside the box and viewing this differently. More and more are open to developing business partnerships of a sort, essentially ways of rewarding employees with some skin in the game rather than simply feeling like hired labor. The Hodges are going so far as to build on-farm employee housing as a differentiator between them and other blueberry farms.  

Succession planning

Perhaps one reason first-gen farmers can more easily run their farm like a business is family emotions from generations of farming haven’t had a chance to enter the business yet. However, a succession plan is important whether you are first-generation or a multi-generational business. Dan knows this but does not want to necessarily obligate his kids to work at the farm or at the car dealership unless they have a true desire to do so.

These are conversations they have begun as they sort out what management, leadership and ownership will look like in the next generation. Strong communication is another key attribute in healthy family and business relationships.

Risk management

Blueberries have risks such as frost and preying birds, no different than other commodities have production risks. As an industry, though, one of the biggest risks blueberry growers face is imported fruit.

Risk management is important, whether it’s protecting against on-the-farm internal risks or not being blind to external factors that can threaten the industry in general. Being aware of risks and acting to mitigate them is a characteristic of any successful business owner.

I’m confident the ag industry will always attract new farmers. My concern is whether they will have the financial means and a strong focus for key best management practices, such as those Dan and Amy share.

Downey has been consulting with farmers, landowners and their advisors for nearly 25 years. He is a farm business coach and transition consultant with UnCommon Farms. Reach Mike at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mike Downey

Farm business consultant, Uncommon Farms

Mike Downey is a farm business coach and transition consultant with UnCommon Farms. His passion for helping farmers stems from his own farm roots, growing up on his family’s grain and livestock farm near Roseville, Ill. He is also co-owner of Iowa-based Next Gen Ag Advocates which facilitates a unique matching and mentoring program between retiring and incoming farmers. He and his wife are also the founders of Farm Raised Capital, an investment community for farmers and ag professionals with common interests in diversifying through alternative off-farm real estate investments. Reach Mike at [email protected].   

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