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Large farms need better communication tools

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Scaling up a farm is a balance of embracing tools that will work in the future and letting go of tools that will hold you back.

Communication is often the missing ingredient as farms try to grow. Maybe your communication isn't completely missing. But in the recipe for success, the ingredient called "communication" is needed in a larger quantity and quality.

For several years we have surveyed owners and employees on various topics as part of the Executive Farmer Network peer group. Communication is always listed as a top item that everyone believes needs improvement.

Most farms are at a size when everything from long-term strategies to daily activities need communicating. Sounds simple enough, and we should be great at communication by now. Never before have we been more connected to each other via social media, texting, video calls, and even telephone.

So why do farm owners and employees alike consistently list communication as the one thing that needs improvement?

Because being a good communicator is not easy. Managing large-scale farms is hard. Finding and keeping employees is hard. Working with family is hard. Growing a family farm is hard. But all of this is much harder when communication isn't up to par.

Would you use a tractor that was too small for your farm? Would you use a livestock facility that was out of date? Are you using communication tools that you have outgrown?

With better communication you will also improve your ability to delegate to your employees. They need to understand what they need to do, and you need to know the work is getting done. It sounds reasonable and straightforward.

Yet how often are farm managers and owners overwhelmed trying to keep everyone aligned for the day? What we are looking for is complete and efficient communication with your employees so you can focus on higher-level tasks.

The following are tactics we have gleaned from large-scale farms in our Executive Farmer Network.

  1. Daily huddle with key employees and/or owners: This is a short, face-to-face meeting at the start of each day. It helps align everyone's focus on the most important thing that needs to happen that day. Sometimes this is done via phone, but it happens every day and only lasts about fifteen minutes. Daily huddles drastically decrease the number of interruptions from employees asking what needs to be done. As a result, everyone will fully understand the priorities and get more work done. This seems so simple, yet many farms don't do it. But those that do wouldn't think of stopping them. If you would like more information on how to get the most out of a huddle, click here.
  2. One-way communication tools: When the wrong tool for the task is used, communication gets complicated and takes too much time. If someone texts you, how often does the text get lost in the dozens of texts you receive in the never-ending series of texts? How often are you part of a text thread that doesn't pertain to you? There are tools to help you avoid this

Many farms are using their phone apps such as GroupMe, WhatsApp, or Slack. These phone apps are often free, easy to learn and allow you to group people, topics, and work areas together. They keep your communication tidy. For example, you can group your row crop harvest team under one chat channel. Maintenance items have their own spot. Spraying and agronomy has their group, etc. As an owner, you can easily keep tabs on what's going on without having to ask. Nothing gets lost, and people only see what they need to see. My favorite is Slack.

  1. Shared online task lists: The days of having task lists in someone's head or on a notepad are quickly going away. As the farm grows, it's too easy to forget items or misplace the notepad. Plus, multiple owners will have numerous note pads. Employees have note pads as well, and before you know it, a lot of time is wasted coordinating everyone's notepads.

Many farms are moving towards task list apps such as Trello, Monday, or T-Sheets. These apps replace your current notepads. These allow you, as the owner, to have all tasks in one spot in the cloud and viewable on your phone. You can delegate tasks via the app and see the work is getting done without being interrupted by texts or phone calls. Likewise, your employees can see all or parts of your task lists and work at the items without being told.

When they complete the tasks, you will see it's been done, as it gets checked off on everyone’s device. These are powerful tools, and we haven't scratched the surface. But they are very easy to use and set up. A transparent and collaborative system will save you more time than imagined, and employees love them. Farms tend to like Trello best, and I believe it has the most flexibility while still being easy to run.      

In-person communication

There are times when you need to put down the tech tools and talk face to face. Although the average American spends over five hours each day on their phone, less than 7% is spent talking. My son recently had a misunderstanding with several of his friends. His solution was to start a group text with all of them. Whoa! This is a disaster waiting to happen. This is an example of when in-person communication is best. Visiting one-on-one allows you to read emotions and get deeper context around touchy subjects.

A couple of other examples when in-person communication is best are major purchases, employee reprimands, hirings, firing, and feedback. Deep discussions about estate planning, transition planning, or any other major decisions are best handled face to face.

The best teams don't use texting as a crutch but rather cowboy up and deal with the crucial conversations head-on.  When the stakes are high, use in-person communication. You can't afford to misunderstand what is being expressed.  

It’s about consistency

These tools have one thing in common: They require consistency to work. Too often, communication is on again and off again, based on how busy everyone is. It really does start at the top as employees will take their cues from leadership on communication.

Good things happen when we focus our time and attention on what you can control and what's important. Communication is both in your control, and it's important as you scale up your farm.

 

Tim Schaefer provides specialized advising and coaching to farm and family. He focuses on the core areas of Transition Planning, peer groups via the Executive Farmer Network, and helping farms scale up for growth. He can be reached at tim.schaefer@encore-consultants.net Want notified when Tim writes new blogs?  Join his email list.

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