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Resilient Relational Systems

The Next Build in the Small Farm Sector: Resilient Relational Systems

Originally published in Growing For Market, August 2016.

By all accounts and measures, our country is benefiting from a small farm resurgence. Young people are getting trained and starting their own operations in record numbers; a wonderful trend for the land and for communities, both rural and urban.

As more new farmers come to the profession, many non-profits, state and national programs and grantors are racing to keep up with providing services to them. Traditionally, these services have been one of two types: production information and assistance, and financial information and assistance. For the last forty or more years, scores of organic gardening and farming books have been published. It has only been in the last ten years that the shelves have filled with resources on marketing, profitability, financial management and analysis for the small farmer. In this article, I would like to talk about a third body of information, skills and practices that I believe are necessary for long term sustainability, success and wellness on any farm. Like the stabilizing third leg on a milking stool, this skill set can make all the difference.

I believe that farmers can benefit hugely by learning and practicing relational skills. Hold on. For years I have been talking about “relational skills” but I actually think they deserve a promotion, a new title. Relational skills and practices are no less than a system. We farmers are very comfortable talking about our bed system, our mulching system, our fertility program, our bookkeeping system. I firmly believe that the way in which we relate to the people around us is every bit a system as these other “hard” or conventionally recognized systems. A system is defined as “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.” Yes. Whether we like it or not, each farm business has and can build upon its relational system.

Now, I use the word “relational” rather than “communication” for a very definite reason. Communication, to me, connotes delivering a message, imparting some piece of information. I love the word “relational” because it has the word “connection” wrapped right into its definition: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects or people are connected.” Relational connotes an interplay, a journey, a commitment. So these skills are not about how to “talk to” employees or your partner with greater ease and efficacy but how to connect, how to relate, how to grow in a complex, human system.

On our farm, we have a goal to have healthy relationships with all of the people around us. From the outermost circle, global and national, to our community, our customers, employees, family members and right in our home, we want healthy relationships. The highest dividends are paid closest in. We reap huge rewards when we tend thoughtfully and carefully, the relationships with our children, our partners and ourselves. To this end, we can look at the components of a relational system that when used over time build resilience into a farm’s business and personal spheres.

In future articles for GFM, I will focus in on specific challenges and best practices to support and improve family, employee and customer relationships. What is needed with a child will be different than what skill to put to use with a disgruntled customer. The following list is a grab-bag of skills and practices. Some are useful in all situations, others are quite specific.

  1. Show up. In order to be in relationship, we must agree to show up for the work of the relationship. We keep ourselves from showing up in so many ways. We say that we are too busy. We don’t call back. We text when we should call. We avoid conversations that might stretch our skills or comfort zones.
  2. Be present. The most important (and hardest) skill is to stay in the dialogue in an open and curious way. Pay attention to yourself and the other.
  3. Respectful listening. The body feels grounded and spacious. Sit or stand still. Eyes are soft and in contact with the other person/people. Put your phone away. Don’t “click around” while on the phone and at the computer. Watch your judgments. Notice when you “check out.”
  4. Respectful speaking. Think about how you sound. Plan your words carefully. Ask questions. Keep details to a minimum. Use concise statements so that everyone stays alert and engaged. Attention only lasts for four sentences, so don’t ramble.
  5. Talk about it before it happens. We call this front-ending. Don’t wait until there is a problem, be really clear about potential problems and expectations before anything goes down. With customers, you might say, “I will email you Sunday night.” They know what to expect. With employees, we write an extensive handbook for how we function practically in our farm community. For example, “The porch is personal space for the farm family.” With this simple statement, shared at the beginning of employment in the handbook, employees will (likely) not set up their picnics on your porch each workday. And you won’t have to grumble and then say something to correct the situation.
  6. Speak your needs. Say what you need, not what the other person is doing wrong. For example, “I need clarity about when the tractor is going to be back from the shop. I have a lot of plowing to do.” Rather than, “You didn’t tell me the tractor was going to be so long in the shop. How can I get everything plowed before the rain?”
  7. Tend to your personal needs, daily. Relationships go so much smoother if you have taken your particular form of “self-care vitamin.” Do you need alone time each day? A walk? An early breakfast? Identify and then deliver these particular “vitamins” to yourself daily.
  8. Show gratitude. So important and such a great practice in getting grounded in all the ways others help and assist you and your farm. Speak your appreciations regularly.
  9. Turn up the curiosity. Wonder and uncertainty are great ways to keep any day interesting. Notice something new about a person or an insect. A conversation you have never had before will ensue.
  10. Avoid trying to fix. When listening to a person in distress, it is possible to listen intently, acknowledge that you have heard them, show empathy and not rush in with a solution. If you have an idea of something that might help, it is often much more effective and empowering to bring the idea in later. Of course with customers, offering a “fix” is often just the thing. “I will make it right. Here is how.” So, this skill is clearly better in more intimate relationships in life.
  11. Four step conflict resolution. 1. Listen to and then re-express the other’s position, fairly and clearly. 2. List places where you both agree. 3. Speak anything you learned from the other person. 4. Suggest a way forward. What might change? Is an apology necessary?
  12. Use “I Statements” The basic formula is like this: I feel hurt/concerned/ignored/angry when _________ because_________. For example, “I feel concerned when you drive fast in the lower field because I am afraid the children are playing in the woods nearby.”
  13. Reflect on your part in any conflict. Look at your own assumptions, patterns and recurring struggles in relationships. Over time, you can take ownership for the ways in which these affect the challenge.
  14. Move forward. “Would you be willing to. . .” or “I can offer to. . .”
  15. Revisit in the future. Check back with people. “How has that conversation settled out with you?” This one is so great because it allows us all to mess up and reconsider, apologize, learn a little more.

In order to improve the relational systems on our farms, it is important to have moments in the weeks and years where we take a broad view, an honest look, at what is working and what isn’t. Including relational system challenges and next steps in management meetings is a great way to shed light on what the relational system is and how it could be improved.

We often become aware of the importance of our relational systems “on the fly,” in the sticky messes that come our way. Like a broken seal in a the engine of that much needed tractor, a failure or difficulty in the relational system can alter and sometimes stop the forward movement of a day or a week. As our businesses mature, we have the opportunity to pay attention to our own skills and habits. We can consciously and deliberately use and improve the elements of our relational system to inch toward greater business sustainability.

Prioritizing relationships and learning the skills and practices to tend them will lead to more resilient farms. To weather the uncertainties of changing weather patterns, evolving markets, labor issues, rising fuel costs and production woes, farmers need solid skills in leadership and relationship building. In the midst of all this, farmers are often “working from home” and therefore holding many family commitments to aging parents and young ones, partners, spouses and neighbors. This complexity deserves attention. Humans need tending every bit as much as crops do in order to build a sustainable, responsive and resilient farm system. It turns out, for true sustainability, the relational field needs tending, too.

Relational Skills and Practices #


  • Body scan for physical or emotional turbulence
  • Noticing/mindfulness
  • Gratitude
  • Self-care activities.
  • What is your unique vitamin?


  • Weekly in-season meetings
    • Plan for meetings
    • Keep meetings concise
    • Reconnect/don’t let things build up
    • Speak needs, use I-messages, move forward
  • Curiosity
  • Have fun!
  • Off-season meetings


  • Clear work/family times
  • Keep your promises
  • Take the time to set up for self-sufficiency
  • Make something “new” (wooden swords, cardboard cat house, fort)
  • Family meetings
  • Speak needs, use I-messages, move forward
  • Curiosity
  • Have fun!


  • Front-ending info about farm and family through a handbook
  • Weekly meetings
    • Stay concise at meetings
    • Don’t let things build up.
    • “Can we check in about. . . "
  • Speak needs, use I-messages, move forward
  • Gratitude & noticing
  • Don’t gossip.
  • Keep it positive.
  • Have fun!


  • Don’t gossip.
  • Keep it positive
  • Clear expectations
  • Phone log and email system (tags) to show who returned contact
  • Farm events
  • Weekly emails to CSA and customers
  • Occasional blogging, social media


  • Clear boundaries
  • Clear expectations
  • Speak needs, use I-messages, move forward
  • Gratitude & noticing
  • Reconnect/don’t let things build up