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Why does your farm exist?

The most successful farm operations have a strong sense of purpose that keeps them grounded, even while moving forward.

Fifteen highly successful farmers sat around the conference room during our latest peer group retreat. I asked them a simple question around the topic of strategic planning. As I presented this question their eyes narrowed as their eyebrows went up. The look on their face told me they thought I had finally lost it.

The question posed was, “Why does your farm exist?”

Several farmers gave the indication they expected me to take off my shoes, assume the lotus position, ask them to sit in a circle on the floor and chant a mantra.

Cornerstone for the future

The reason for the question was to focus each farmer on their own core values and create a cornerstone for all future strategic planning decisions. Without a strong realization of the purpose of the farm, it is too easy to lose focus and stray from the core principles that guide our lives. When that occurs our families suffer, our farms suffer, or both.

And yet, the most successful farm operations have a strong sense of purpose that keeps them grounded, even while moving forward.

I often observe family businesses losing their way over time. Several months ago Dave called from his farm in the Midwest and he was stressed out. He farms over 20,000 acres, has fifteen full-time employees, has a huge net worth -- and is miserable. He lamented that he had more fun, life was more enjoyable, and his family life was better when his farm was a fraction of the current size. He said he never wanted to manage this complex operation, it just happened over time.

Sadly, Dave had lost track of why his farm existed – he had built something that was not supporting his core values. Because he lost that focus he built a farm, that while the envy of many, wasn’t bringing him happiness.

Determine your core values

Before I asked this question to the peer group we completed an exercise of determining our core values. The core values exercise got everyone thinking about what is crucially important in their lives. Family, wealth, religion, health, integrity, and happiness were all common themes. It doesn’t matter so much what are your core values, but rather, you build a farm that is in alignment with them.  

When people understand and live their core values, hard decisions are easier as they pass through the filter of those values. This is especially true in transition planning. Our challenge is to build and transition a farm that holds true to those core values and passes them onto the next generation.

Given the high rate of failure in passing on a family business, this is hard work. Having a common set of core values is crucial for a successful transition or strategic plan.

So why does your farm exist?  We often hear that it exists to support the family heritage, support the family culture, create wealth and opportunity, utilize talents, a great place to educate and raise a family, and a place to work where we are passionate, allow us to be good stewards of our blessings, etc.

I have never once heard the farm exists to grow corn, cattle or sugar beets. It is always much deeper than that. It should be deeper than that.

Answer this question for yourself so you don’t end up unhappy like Dave. How does your farm support your core values and your core values support your lifestyle and work? Can you create a vision, grounded in your values, that builds a future that you and future generations are proud of?  First ask yourself: “Why does my farm exist?”

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.

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