The American Farm Bureau Federation says that “young” farmers and ranchers are those age 35 and under. Just because they have less years on this planet doesn’t mean they don’t have wisdom to share.

At this year’s NAFDMA Convention in Austin, Texas, an under-35 panel from three different agritourism enterprises shared where they’ve struggled, where they’ve succeeded and what others in agriculture can learn from they’re experiencing right now.

Representing Wickham Farms in Penfield, NY, were siblings Dale and Paige. Dale is in his first year as a farm owner, and Paige is in charge of the farm’s donut operation. Sisters Audrey Allen and Sarah Henning were from Long Acre Farms in Macedon, NY; Audrey focuses on winemaking, managing the corn maze and events while Sarah became a partner five years ago. She handles the bookkeeping and special events. From Huber Family Farm and Orchard & Winery in Starlight, IN, were sisters Allie Huber (director of private events) and Marcella Hawk (who’s been full-time for 11 years).

The six young farmers first shared what they believe they do well and what they struggle with. Generally, they think they handle special events well and grow and market exceptional produce (and in the case of vineyards, exceptional wines and spirits).

The Huber team said they think they handle communication well on their operation, but it can be a struggle at Wickham and Long Acre. Like many (if not most) farmers, all of them said finding a work/life balance is difficult as well. The Long Acre team also noticed a different work ethic between the different generations – the older folks believe in the grind no matter what; the younger folks understand the importance of strategic time off.

No matter the age of the owners, finding solid employees is a struggle, as is the ever-changing market, both for produce and for tourist attractions. Without an outline, succession planning can be tough too.

“Strategic planning is one of the most fun things we do on our farm,” Dale said. “We’re very candid about our revenues and expenses.” Wickham Farms focuses on both creative and financial planning during the winter months – and they make sure to get staff feedback while doing so.

The Long Acre sisters said strategic planning is a “team process” for them as well. Wresting this part of the business from their parents is a challenge for Allie and Marcella, however. They’re still making the big decisions at Huber Farms.

“The biggest strategic investment you can make is to travel, see other farms and attend events like NAFDMA” for inspiration, Dale said.

The next generation shares best practices

(L – R) Panelists Dale and Paige Wickham, Audrey Allen, Sarah Henning, Allie Huber and Marcella Hawk talked about what’s working for them as they work to establish their presence on their operations. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

And as for the planning issues at Huber Farms, Allie said, “Hound that older generation relentlessly to make those tech advances or other upgrades. They can be little things to streamline things. Just let the old system fail once and see what happens.”

Bridging the gap in regard to work ethic, Allie said she had to explain that she’s a better version of herself when she has one day off a week – but it’s situational. If she needs to work, she’ll be there.

Division of duties can help here. “Look at your job, figure out what makes you happy and try only working that new schedule for three months,” Sarah suggested. “Nothing is permanent. Have that older generation give it a shot too.”

“We all overstate our own importance,” Dale added. “We have to learn to let go.”

Audrey noted that while delegating jobs can be tricky, it can be a very positive thing. She said the key is to have some faith in your employees. Allie added that it can be hard to collect your thoughts in a structured order to give whole areas to someone else, but it does help connect different generations and commit to some standards as you do. “Remember than done is better than perfect,” she said.

Sarah said it’s an ongoing conversation to figure out how to keep those good employees year-round. Paige at Wickham Farms said she and others are salaried year-round, and the pay balances out between the busiest part of the season and downtime during winter.

There seems to be a bigger focus on “company culture” with younger generations. “I love going to work,” Dale said. “It’s a fun business we’re in – and we need to make it fun for our people.” All three operations show their employees appreciation with food and recognition.

Marcella added that there’s always room for improvement, though. They work with their HR for better employee engagement. For example, they use a wellness app which offers both competition and prizes for those who use it.

Dale boiled down one of the biggest differences between the generations. “With older generations, you tend to understand why each person is there. For younger seasonal workers, you need a boss they can connect with. It isn’t about rank – but you need to be competent and confident.”

“Older workers ask why we’re doing something; younger workers tend to ask how,” Paige added. “And if someone isn’t doing their job properly, that’s a reflection on me not preparing them correctly.”

The panel circled back to drive home the fact that clear and open communication is critical. “You grow from those tough conversations,” Marcella said.

by Courtney Llewellyn