Who is going to own your dairy farm when you’re gone? Whether you’re going to transition the farm to a family member or liquidate and sell, the decision often involves multiple generations.

Barge emily
Communications and Marketing Manager / Center for Dairy Excellence

At the 2022 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, Josh Keefer from North Group Consultants shared ways to maximize what you have in your hands right now to keep the future possibilities open for each generation.

Key truths about each generation

Keefer opened the discussion by sharing general “truths” from a generational standpoint. Especially for dairy farm families, it’s common to be working with family and team members of all ages.

“It’s important to remember there are no rights and wrongs here; it’s to acknowledge what generation we’re from, what generation the people we’re working with are in, and take that and translate it into your workplace,” Keefer explained.

  • Baby boomers – Typically born sometime between 1946 and 1964, baby boomers are extremely job-focused. They are concrete thinkers, and they value security and stability. They are the most loyal generation and prefer in-person meetings and email.
  • Gen X – Born sometime between 1965 and 1981, Gen X individuals value work-life balance and independence. They want to figure things out on their own and don’t enjoy being micromanaged. Known to be adaptable and resourceful, Gen X also enjoy using digital technology and are comfortable communicating with the latest technological tools, including text messages.
  • Millennials – Born sometime between 1982 and 2001, they enjoy work-life balance and flexibility even more than Gen X. They often seek full autonomy and freedom, and they don’t fear authority. They are willing to innovate and challenge the status quo. The most tech-savvy, they prefer to communicate quickly via text message or instant messenger apps.

While everyone is different, these generational truths can help family members begin to understand one another’s motivations. Mutual understanding is what creates a healthy, open atmosphere where every generation feels motivated to reach success.


How to truly understand people

When trying to understand a younger or older family member, Keefer reminded attendees to throw away assumptions. Take a learner’s posture with family and remember that people are always changing.

“We’ve known these people since they were little, and we may think we know what motivates them. The problem is, as people mature and gain experience, they start to change,” Keefer said. “If we treat them as who they were, we’ll keep them in a box and we’ll communicate with them in a way that never lets them outside of that box. If you’re the adult in that situation talking to a young, emerging leader who is a family member, you will either take the lid off the box or keep it on.”

Getting rid of assumptions can also help family members work through tense, negative situations. For example, if you yelled at your father, you would probably understand the underlying reason you did that and give yourself grace in the situation. When interacting with other family members, instead of assuming their intentions, Keefer encouraged attendees to reflect on that person’s actions in the same way they would for themselves.

“We look at others through a different lens than the very lens we put ourselves through. That’s because we live in our own shoes and our own skin. We understand the environment we’re in,” Keefer explained. “Can we give the grace, make less assumptions about the situation and circumstances the other person is in, and actually communicate with them?”

Even during the interview phase, it’s important to take the time to truly learn the candidate’s motivations, including their integrity and character. These are traits that cannot be taught, and Keefer argued they are often more important than experience.

“In most settings, we look at experience first. Have you ever milked this many cows before? Are you familiar with this equipment? But that should be the last thing. We should not compromise on character,” Keefer said. “You can help to shape and mold their character, but you can’t teach it. Lack of character can be a huge downfall inside a small business.”

Define what success looks like to you

As dairy farm families work with multiple generations, Keefer reminded the group that we don’t drift toward success. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose vision, but you must be aiming for something. Knowing your aspirations for what you want your farm to look like, and articulating them to your family members, is crucial to helping each generation reach their maximum potential.

“If the younger generation is deciding whether they’re coming back, do you know what they find far more motivating than simply perpetuating a family farm? It’s knowing they are carrying on your vision or helping to shape what the vision might look like,” Keefer said. “Your vision isn’t just a cool tagline you put on your sign. It helps create clarity inside our businesses and our families. You don’t want any [family member] to question why we do what we do.”

Defining what success looks like is the first step, but without communicating that vision, family will do it their own way. You might still hold them accountable, but Keefer said you will be holding them to a standard you never communicated.

“They want to know the target they’re aiming for. They want to know they hit the bullseye. They want to know if they’re helping move the ball forward,” Keefer said. “They want to know they’re helping a generation they admire get to where they want to go. That can be very motivational for the next generation.”

Articulating your own goals and aspirations can also give you the satisfaction of building a legacy of success. “It can be terribly deflating, especially in a family business, when someone exits and we realize we never achieved what they were hoping we would do. That’s really deflating for the person you worked alongside for 25 years who never knew what they could contribute to make that dream a reality,” Keefer said.

Be honest about the future

Talking about the future can be scary, especially for family businesses. Starting that conversation can help every generation understand each other’s motivations and discover common purposes you might have in your day-to-day responsibilities. To navigate conversations about the future, Keefer shared some final advice on how to address tough questions:

  • What if you don’t know what the future holds? “I promise they don’t think you’re some kind of fortune teller. They know the future is uncertain. They just want to know what you’d like the future to look like. They just want to know what you think,” Keefer said.
  • What if it was a bad year? “Most of the time, all of your employees and family knew. You can’t hide it, and they probably assumed it was way worse than what you would have told them. If you had a bad year, so what? We all have bad years. Talk about it. If you don’t want to give exact dollars, that’s OK, but don’t use that as an excuse to not talk about it,” Keefer said.
  • What if I don’t have all the answers to their questions right now? “What they want to know is that you’re thinking and talking about these things. You don’t have to have the answers. Just make sure you open the conversation, understand what’s in their head, and allow them to see what’s inside your head. Open and honest conversation can help prevent fractured relationships,” Keefer added.