FARIBAULT — There's no handbook for managing difficult conversations with farmers, but the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and University of Minnesota Extension are working on it.
Extension Educator Denise Stromme, who taught six "Navigating Conflict and Tough Conversations" workshops across the state this summer, said conflict is a disagreement of needs, wants and opinions. It's not about the people themselves.
"When you start looking at it that way, there are things that we can do to make difficult conversations a little bit easier to have," said Stromme. "The outcomes won't always be what we were expecting, but they're outcomes we can all live with."
The tough conversation workshops were geared towards lenders, mediators, agency staff, clergy, educators, farmers and other agricultural professionals.
When conducting an unannounced inspection at a farm or contacting a farmer about a past-due bill, the perspective and needs of the farmer should be always be considered first, said Stromme.
Melisa Bauer, a dairy inspector for MDA, was at the July 9 workshop in Faribault. Bauer's husband farms dairy with his family and she was raised on a farm, but she said that doesn't make the hard parts of her state job any easier.
Her biggest workshop takeaway: "Learning how to put yourself in other people's shoes when you're in a hard conversation with them or they're in a difficult place," she said.
Her work occasionally puts her in tough situations with farmers.
"Sometimes we are giving bad news or you're just showing up when they've had a bad day," Bauer said. "And then you have to tell them something hard on top of their bad day, and you don't even know what happened before you got there."
All conversations are different, but preparing for tough conversations in general can help people react when they arise, said Stromme.
"It's working more on ourselves, our perspectives and our needs," she said.
Tanner Sanborn, district field manager for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said he and coworkers attended the workshop to learn what to do if they encounter a conflict.
Sanborn learned that preparing for a difficult conversation can include reframing his words to be more acceptable to those involved can ease the situation.
"Just knowing what your goal is going in is important," said Sanborn. "But then also being an active listener, because you can't just wait for someone to stop talking so you can talk again."
The only farmer who spoke iat the Faribault workshop was Debbie Mills, who farms dairy with her husband in Lake City.
"Nobody wants to pay their bills on time more than we do, and we don't want the stress of owing you money," said Mills. "But what's not going to work with us are threats and intimidation. We're already stressed to the max."
She said what farmers need from lenders and others doing business with them is kindness and a willingness to work together. Mills said her husband has made a habit of complimenting bill collectors when they are kind to him. He tells them that he appreciates their patience.
"When you ask us when we're going to pay this bill, and we tell you we don't know — it's because we really don't know," said Mills. "We don't know what the milk price will be next month, and we can't anticipate a cash flow that's going to balance out."
Farmers are natural planners, said Mills, so if they have a plan for payments, they would share it.
"We've never not paid anybody, but maybe we haven't paid you on time," she said. "That's the worst that's going to happen."