Planning for the unexpected

by Sally Colby

If there’s no contingency plan for your farm, it isn’t too late to develop one. If the farm has an outdated plan, now is a good time to review and revise.

Dr. Ginger Fenton, Penn State Extension, said it’s normal to not think clearly during a crisis, but having a contingency plan can help when it comes to managing through difficult times.

Fenton suggested using a customizable template as a guide to ensure an organized layout that covers all aspects of a plan. The first section includes contact information and action items to consider. “Think about risks employees are exposed to,” said Fenton. “What could happen if there’s an interruption to the supply chain? Address the market situation and financial risk management, thinking of steps that can be taken.”

Items to include on the cover sheet include names and contact information for the farm owner and/or manager, backup for that person and any others who might step in. “It’s also good to have one person who’s responsible for communications,” said Fenton. “There may be multiple people sending messages to employees and partners, and those may be mixed messages.”

List all employees, including full-, part-time and family members, and the preferred contact method. Include farm partners such as feed and seed suppliers, nutritionist, agronomist, veterinarian and any others who have a role on the farm.

If the farm has a plan for emergency events, such as a long-term power outage or fire, is that plan accessible? Fenton suggested printing and posting the plan, and making sure all employees are aware of the plan. In dealing with the current situation, Fenton suggested employees should be aware of any new hygiene practices, including distancing, alternating breaks and not congregating.

The employee handbook should be included in the plan, with updated information as necessary.  Make sure employees are aware of what to do in the event of illness – who they report to, whether they should stay home and recognizing potential illness in others. Include job descriptions – who does what, and who does that job if the assigned employee is not there. Prioritize tasks and determine which ones can be set aside for a short time. If the farm has housing for employees, determine the procedure if someone becomes ill – will others remain in that housing, and is there a suitable quarantine area?

Phil Taylor, AgChoice business consultant, said that with a good plan in place, reactions to a situation are thought through and not figured out at the last minute. Although there’s no way to determine every “what if,” planning can help farmers visualize how to handle various situations.

“It allows us to make better crunch-time decisions,” said Taylor. “When things do come upon us, we’ve already thought about that situation and here’s the crunch time management decision.”

Another reason for planning is to comply with protocols such as those set forth by the CDC for the current COVID-19 situation. “It gets everybody on the same page,” said Taylor. “We have similar ideas about how we will handle situations after sharing the plan with coworkers.”

Taylor said the current situation spawned a lot of information from external sources such as social media, and most isn’t accurate. “Much of it is anecdotal and hasn’t been tested,” he said. “It hasn’t been tested or researched. We’re relying too heavily on that information to make judgments.”

Farm size and proximity to others will influence a plan. Larger farms may be more isolated, but also have more people moving on and off the farm, creating the potential for higher risk. But farm size can also provide solutions – a larger operation will likely have more people who can work or substitute for those who may be ill or quarantined.

It’s important to determine what employees are doing when they are off the farm. Are they increasing risk by interacting with many others outside the farm? Does the contingency plan ask employees to not spend time in social gatherings when they are not at work or doing other things that might put the farm at risk?

Taylor said working with an advisor to develop a contingency plan provides added perspective that the farm owner may not consider. “It helps organize thoughts,” he said. “We can identify potential ‘what ifs’ the farm may not think about.”

Katie Sattazahn, one of three owner/operators of her family’s Zahncroft Dairy, said it’s important to control the controllable. “That isn’t specific to COVID-19,” she said. “That’s a general practice in business. Do what you can to control what you can.”

Sattazahn said their farm includes three people who manage day-to-day operations, with several part-time employees to fill in where needed. A recent situation on the farm prior to the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in a manager out with an injury and another who was ill. “It put a lot of burden on the remaining manager,” said Sattazahn, adding that the situation pushed them to see the reality of what happens when the major players are unable to work. “If one person can’t work and possibly others can’t work, how are we going to manage? We knew we wanted to prevent that in the future.”

Some of the questions addressed in the Sattazahns’ plan included identifying how various aspects of the operation would be impacted. Labor, supply chain issues and financial issues were the main concerns. “With labor, our main concern is if something happens to one of the owners,” said Sattazahn. “We designed our facility to minimize labor, so it can be operated by the three main owners if necessary. But we had to determine what would happen if one of the managers is sick.”

Supply chain issues should be addressed. “We had to dump milk at the beginning of April,” said Sattazahn. “We were one of the first who had to do it – the demand at the plant was very high so they kept buying in extra milk to meet the demand, then the demand shrunk suddenly.”

The financial aspect of a potentially disastrous situation is ultimately the biggest concern. “We’re a fairly new operation,” said Sattazahn. “We built the dairy complex in 2017 so we’re more vulnerable and can’t tolerate a huge financial risk. We have risk management tools, but ‘how long is this going on’ is a concern.”

A tool for preparing for disasters is available at extension.psu.edu/readyag-workbook.

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