New ways of thinking and acting
Although changes are the only constant in our lives, they are hard to accept. In 2020, the pandemic forced us to make changes at all levels and in all sectors, including the agriculture sector. But, the challenges that now lie ahead can also be an opportunity. An opportunity for family farms too. The strongest link in any farm is its family members, for whom farm work is not just a job, but a way of life. Their relationships with each other are very important, especially when several generations live and work on the farm. It may therefore be time to analyse the way the farm has been run so far and decide on a new step in the farm’s development.
You could say that a family farm is almost like a small business. Its members have to carry out many of the tasks that companies do: production, processing, marketing, sales, promotion, investments, introduction of new technologies, administrative and legal matters, etc. The smaller the number of family members on the farm, the more tasks one person has to carry out. This requires a very wide range of skills and experience. The fact that there are more and more highly educated farm managers on family farms (in 2017 they managed 12% of all family farms; SURS, 2017) is very encouraging, but a little less so is the fact that the average age of a farm manager is still quite high at 57 years (source: https://www.stat.si/statweb/Field/lndex/ll/58).
This raises the question of whether the increasingly difficult economic and social situation is also “pushing” family farms to make decisions about their future. Farm succession is a sensitive subject, and it is therefore very important how the conversation between family members takes place, and in what timeframe and in what way the succession process will be carried out. It is important that each farm has a vision and clear short- and long-term goals. If the established way of running a farm is no longer working, young farm successors can be the ones to make the necessary changes on the farm. Since modern times require us to change both the way we think and the way we act, the farm manager has to make business decisions very quickly. It is therefore essential that there is trust between the family members and that when the farm is transferred, the successor is given a ‘free hand’ in its management.
The Hecl farm as an example of good practice
A good example of successful take over and farming business is the Hecl farm from Orehova vas in the Municipality of Hoče – Slivnica. In 1996, Peter Hecl took over the farm whose rich history dates back to 1850. After graduating from secondary agricultural school; he joined Agrokombinat Maribor, where he worked as a farm foreman in the agricultural plant Rače. He became more actively involved in livestock breeding and farm work after his marriage, when he and his wife took over the farm she had inherited. As the farm’s owner, Peter was free to decide how to continue its development, as all the necessary management and running of the farm had already been arranged before the wedding. “It seems important to me that I came to the farm unburdened, without a past. I have had the opportunity to put all my ideas and innovations into practice,” he points out.
In the past, there were not many changes in the market, but today, they happen very often and very quickly. That’s why the Hecl Farm also responds to them quickly. Otherwise, the competition can quickly overtake us,” says Peter, a little jokingly. That’s why it takes some time before he decides to implement strategic changes. But when he does, the implementation of an idea has to be fast. He’s always thinking about new products and their taste, advertising, and a different approach to customers. His decisions concerning strategic changes are based on product prices, raw materials and consumer habits. Consumer and retailer demands are also increasing. We are aware of the fact that we have become a consumerist society, craving new things that we quickly get tired of and throw away. It’s about pure capitalism and there are very few people who know how to stop, look around themselves and how to be aware of their actions …
The farm has undergone several changes since it started. From 45 dairy cows in the beginning, there are now 35. Peters’ wife is still working. In the beginning, Peter had one person to help him, nowadays there is also a student who is helping him.
In 2011, when the milk price was very low, they made a major step forward, opting for a processing plant and later for the opening of their own shop next to it. Today, the farm is slightly larger, more open-type and adapted to direct sales. The exceptional quality of the milk is attested by numerous awards and certificates.
According to Hecl, the differences in the way he and his predecessors thought and ran the farm were that they had more time in the past, and had a more social life. Now the pace of life is much faster, there is less physical work, but the mental pressure is greater and there is a lot of administrative work. Today, most people are struggling to find a certain economic position which, on the one hand, allows them and their children to live comfortably, but, on the other hand, takes a lot out of them, because they invest almost all their time in work. Peter’s character as a meticulous, reliable and responsible farmer helps him to run the farm. Over the years, he has also acquired some communication skills.
He also sees differences in his own thinking and decisions from the beginning of his farm management to the present day, partly because of his age and partly because of the experiences life has given him. Running a farm also requires more and more knowledge and skills, so you need to keep up to date with new ideas and keep your knowledge up-to-date. He points out that we must not forget that people working on farms are also fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, etc.
As we know, this year has been a challenging one for many of us. The idea that Peter Hecl had in mind two years ago has come true in 2020. He signed up for Lidl’s »Lojtr’ca domačih«. This has opened up a new sales route and new customers from other parts of Slovenia.
He advises young farm entrepreneurs to be guided in their management and development of their farm and their way of thinking by a good business idea, a vision for the farm and making the most of EU funding. But most importantly, they need to be different.
The example of the Hecl Farm teaches us that we must also be aware that agriculture and its providers must take responsibility for their work and their decisions, as results do not emerge overnight. The development of Slovenian agriculture and the countryside relies on the younger generation, which is perhaps more courageous in certain situations by daring to try new things. Even if they fail, they realise that they also learn from their mistakes and that working on the farm is a continuous process of development.
It is therefore critical that the older generation passes on its knowledge to the younger generation, and that the younger generation continues the work of its ancestors with know-how, new approaches, perseverance and networking. New times give us the opportunity to rethink, to act and, above all, to seize the opportunities that lie ahead. In doing so, sincere cooperation, trust and respect between all generations are appreciated.
Author: Mag. Daniejela Kocuvan
Photos: Jernej Srebrnič
Source: Revija Viharnik, oktober 2020