#3 Plows and Pitchforks/ Entre arados

By Matt Bernau

Former President Harry S. Truman led with the motto “The Buck Stops Here,” He believed in it so much that it was engraved on a placard that sat on his desk in the Oval office. According to the trumanlibrary.org website, President Truman stated: “The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.” That statement also holds true for every family farmer. Once a farmer fails in the decision making process and makes a mistake, there is normally no-one to fire, as the farm owner/operator, there is no one else to step in and take your place. You’re stuck with the bad decision and its consequences.

A quick internet search of farm decision making showed that the advice for farmers as decision makers is sorely lacking. The scientific journal articles mostly deal with models that define and measure farmers’ decision making processes. The University Cooperative Extension Services state the most basic decision-making process steps and then advise farmers to follow the steps. As determined by Florida A&M University Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FM-1, “It is important to analyze personal situations and goals, and then set a strategy to achieve them.” While that is sound advice, it does not help you address what to do if you fail.

It is convenient to place blame for failure on the bankers, neighbors, suppliers, buyers, kids, and the weatherman on TV, however, in most cases, the only person deserving the blame is you. Farms are typically family businesses, which makes it hard to fire your employees and middle managers, because you are related to them. During my unscientific internet search, I did not find any conventional literature regarding the scope of gravity with which a family farmer has to bear when deciding what to do. Each farm management decision has the potential to lead to great success, or great failure. This fact gets downplayed in the literature. The West Virginia Extension Service has a Decision Making website where they acknowledge the mistakes made by farmers by stating that “management errors and bad decisions can be a function of time” (http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/farmman/decision/). There again, the weight carried by the maker of a bad decision is left unaddressed.

My internet search turned toward a group of people who are charged with making decisions similar to every family farmer whereas they alone are held accountable for failures and often are rewarded with a healthy bonus if production and profit metrics are met. The Chief Executive Officers in the corporate world typically use advice regarding decision making from different sources than farmers, yet they are essentially performing similar daily managerial tasks.
Found on ChiefExecutive.net is an article from April 6, 2012 titled: “4 Lessons from the CIA for CEO Decision-Making.” The author actually offered practical advice which was pertinent to the realities of the family farm. Departing from the Extension convention that everyone has time to spend to become a better manager (Florida A&M FM-1), the article from ChiefExecutive.net admitted that most CEO’s don’t have enough time to sit and evaluate past decisions, given that the end results are often unclear.

The CIA recommended that the Chief Executive Officer follow these steps when engaged in decision-making:

“1). Be skeptical in evaluating information

2). Be more cautious in drawing conclusions

3). Avoid ‘top-down’ influence

4). Beware of over-compensating for past errors and previous experience”


Remaining skeptical with information and asking the question from different
perspectives before reaching a conclusion are good ideas. Practicing them will help a farmer to make impartial decisions while avoiding the mission creep presented when pre-conceived emotions take over the thought process. The third suggestion by the CIA of avoiding top-down influence is the pivot point between the ability to make informed holistic decisions that affect the direction and overall outcome of the farm’s productivity, and micromanaging daily operations to the extent resulting in mental anguish and physical exhaustion.

There is a balance to be had between running production, and running every action made by every person at any given time. Perhaps problems common to daily activities could be outlined in an operations manual that includes the good management practices that you strive to accomplish. This manual could also include simple flow charts showing best second outcomes if conditions arise which prevent the preferred method from occurring. An example would be if you ran out of a feed ingredient and the Elevator truck couldn’t make an emergency delivery, then, a reasonable substitute is ‘x.’ Simple written instructions would help prevent your phone ringing in your pocket each time an employee becomes confused. The problem can be recorded on paper by the employee and turned in at the end of each day for your review.

The fourth recommendation by the CIA, over compensation, stems from the immediate panic attack that occurs in a manger’s head with the full realization that a major mistake was made. It’s not the end of the world, but it sure seems like it when it happens. This is when a written contingency plan can bring you back to the ground, even if the mistake itself hadn’t occurred before, you’ll still have a framework whereupon a new plan of action can be formed for next time.
Be safe and take your time during planting season 2013. My e-mail is mmbernau@gmail.com; twitter @veritzombie.  

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