Free Service Aids Farm Management Struggles

Market to Market | Clip
Jul 14, 2023 | 7 min

The first call for assistance is often difficult, and producers frequently don’t understand where the problems lie.


Branden Brown, Trinity Valley Dairy: “It came down to in the end that either we were going to make changes or we were going to have to walk away from the business.”

In 2016, Brandon Brown and his wife Rebekah had reached a breaking point with the milk bottling plant they had built in partnership with Rebakah’s parents on their farm outside of Courtland, New York. As the business had grown, each household was expecting help from the other for daily tasks, and defining responsibility became a struggle. New York FarmNet was brought in to mediate the family’s disputes. 

Kate Downes, New York FarmNet: “And so farms call us for a variety of reasons. They could call for financial guidance and coaching. They could call us for emotional support and communication assistance and building better interpersonal relationships among the family. So we really get a variety of phone calls throughout the year.

The first call for assistance is often difficult, and producers frequently don’t understand where the problems lie.

Kate Downes, New York FarmNet: “Oftentimes folks call us asking for financial guidance because that's an easier question or an easier thing to ask for help for and with on a farm. So if you know we get a call from a farmer saying they want financial coaching and analysis, but then we show up and see that, you know, the senior generation and the junior generation are fighting in the driveway. That's when our family consultants, they pick up on what's going on and they're like, OK, there's a little bit more going on here.”

FarmNet’s financial and family consultants work as teams, bringing different skills to the situation.

Kate Downes, New York FarmNet: “Our financial consultants have that farm business management. Some of them used to work in ag lending. They used to be farmers themselves and have retired. on.  So we help them work through the nuts and bolts of the farm business management stuff. And then our family consultants help with that social, emotional, interpersonal communication work because 97% of farms in New York are family owned and operated, and many of those family farms are multiple generations working side by side. And that's often where there can be disagreements and challenges and pressure points.”

Generational disagreements brought the Browns to their emotional limits.

Branden Brown, Trinity Valley Dairy: “So we when we first started our business, we came back to the farm from two different jobs, my wife and I. And from day one, we really never had anything in writing or what everybody's roles were. It was kind of assumed, well, everybody's roles are going to be. But, you know, as the business progressed and got bigger and we decided to do more things, you know, different roles shifted and responsibility shifted.” 

With help from FarmNet, they were able to sort out the details. 

Branden Brown, Trinity Valley Dairy: “So it it turned out to you know, it got us talking and we got to really see where everybody's heads were and like, what did everybody really want to do? We didn't really know where everybody really wanted to do and or where they wanted to be. So it kind of opened up a conversation and allowed us to keep that conversation going.”

The conversations allowed for a formalization of each person’s role in the operation and agreements on how work across the farms would be compensated. The improved communication allowed the Browns to expand the dairy herd and add cheese making to their Trinity Valley brand. 

According to Downes, on many farms, what might feel like financial problems are in reality communication problems. A reluctance to hand over responsibility to a younger generation can compound a farm's challenges.

Kate Downes, New York FarmNet: “So the family consultant picking up on those nonverbal cues can really help grease the wheels of open communication and building those interpersonal relationships and even helping the senior generation turning over the reins to the junior generation. Because the junior generation might be in their 60s and has never written a check or made an actual business decision for the farm. But in recent years we've actually seen more farmers, farm family members, farm employees calling us and asking directly for assistance with emotional support. And you know, some of those mental health challenges that everyone has gone through in the past few years.”

FarmNet receives over 300 calls each year seeking assistance, and can have as many as 800 open cases at any one time. The group serves farmers in all 66 counties, including the five boroughs of New York City.  

But with dairy earning nearly half of New York State’s agricultural receipts, it’s not surprising that dairy farmers form the largest share of FarmNet’s clientele. The daily demands of milking cows can create a special kind of stress.

Enabling families to communicate their thoughts on the operation can help a farm move forward both financially and into the next generation. 

Kate Downes, New York FarmNet: “So really for us, what we love to see when a farm family, quote unquote, graduates from farm, that is a family that can have a functional business meeting you know, as in, everybody has a turn at the table and everybody gets to speak their mind and they're allowed to speak their mind and that those generations who might be working side by side are working well together.”

The renewed partnership at Trinity Valley facilitated expansion on both the dairy and packaging parts of the business. A robotic milker was added, which reduced labor costs for the farm. An on-farm store was opened, which captures some of the retail dollars that had been going to the company’s wholesale buyers. A corn maze on the farm has become both a source of tourism dollars and serve as a marketing platform for their milk and cheese products to the 10,000  visitors each fall. The Brown’s are working on acquiring a nearby farm, adding another herd to milk and more acres for forage.

For FarmNet, turnarounds like Trinity Valley are common. Downes believes their clients consistently improve their operations using the agency’s consultants. In a typical year, their group serves over 700 farm families. FarmNet also receives an additional 300 calls annually from struggling farms across the state.

The families that operate Trinity Valley see the assistance they received as invaluable.

Branden Brown, Trinity Valley Dairy: “We realized that with Farm Net and we've gained that skill set, I guess you could say, and we've just used it over the last six years and we've been able to expand the business and grow the business and different avenues that we never thought we would ever be in. So it's been just that little step six years ago has made all the world of difference of the health of our business and the future health of the business.”  

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.