On a sweltering July afternoon, Gelfius Farms, near Hartsville, Indiana, is humming with activity; but none of it is taking place in the corn and soybean fields. A "Welcome" sign has been placed out front of the main house, and this diversified operation's family and staff are gearing up to entertain guests.
Most of the visitors are among the nearly one dozen landowner families from whom the Gelfiuses rent land. Equal parts "thank-you," fun picnic and educational opportunity, this appreciation event helps strengthen a connection between farmer and landowner. The family believes it is the right thing to do, in addition to being good for business.
"We appreciate all of our landowners a ton," said Chatney Gelfius, who jump-started the effort to conduct this event three years ago after picking up the idea at a farm conference. "We believe we have a great relationship with our landlords, but everybody likes to be told they are appreciated. That's what this is."
"The great thing about this is the education we get about the farm," said landowner Norvella Miller, who was attending the event with husband, Mike. The landowners get a rundown on how the farm has been doing, any new ventures, conservation measures being used and updates on research occurring on the operation.
"The Gelfiuses keep us informed, and we get to meet the people they do business with," Norvella said. "We talk to them one-on-one during the course of the year, but when you're taking care of the specific business of the property, you miss some of the things they are talking about today."
Norvella Miller's family has rented land to Gelfius Farms for 50 years, and this event only strengthens that bond. "As long as the Gelfiuses are farming here, and our kids have kids, I think it will be passed on," Mike said.
Justin Gelfius, the third generation on the farm (and Chatney's husband), said they squeeze this event in during the summer after wheat harvest and a week before they begin harvesting 100 acres of processing tomatoes.
"This is a lot of work and some stress to doing the event, but it doesn't have to be perfect to be successful," said Justin, who manages the farm with his wife and parents, Bill and Norma Gelfius. "This has been a learning process every year, and we continue to refine it."
Their large machine shed is cleared and cleaned (as well as the machinery), dining tables are set up and food is brought in or cooked. At the latest appreciation event, family and employees fried catfish. A machinery dealer donated the use of a large bouncy house shaped like a combine for the young—and young at heart. There are gift baskets for the landowners and door prizes for landowners and employees.
A quirk that marks the Gelfius event unique is the fact that they honor their employees, as well -- even though employees set up and work the event with the family.
"We don't chain employees to the welcome desk," Justin explained. "We try to give them opportunities to participate with their family. We make sure we thank each employee publicly during the presentation in front of the entire group, and it is important for landowners to understand this farm goes beyond just the family."
The multiple purposes for this event were the result of a "happy accident" the first time around, Chatney explained. "We had all these sponsors -- vendors, dealers, business partners -- give us great door prizes, but a lot of them weren't something that a landowner would necessarily want [such as tool sets, bar stools, flashlights], but our employees did," she said. "We thought we should make that happen, so that's how it became an appreciation for everyone."
There is no one single way to conduct a landowner event, said Dave Bryden, manager of business development for FamilyFarms Group, a national farm-management consulting organization. "But, the first reason to have one should be as a 'thank-you' to your landowners and to foster relationships."
Beyond that, a dinner, open house or farm tour can also serve the purpose of educating landowners about the operation. "You can talk about market prices, farming practices or input costs," said Bryden, who has helped advise a number of the group's more than 80-member operations as they planned landowner events.
Landowners may be more than a couple of generations removed from the farm, Bryden explained, and may not follow or fully understand commodity markets.
"Providing some education may make landowners more understanding when we have a situation like we have now, when a producer may need a rent reduction," he said. "You can't just show up one day, tell them commodity prices are half what they were three years ago and that you need a rent reduction," he said. "It doesn't work like that. Operators need to keep their landowners informed all along the way."
There has always been a line of thinking in agriculture that maintains you don't put landowners together for fear that they'll compare notes about your operation, or -- God forbid -- their leases.
Those who have held these events say that worry is unfounded.
"That is the biggest fear for every operation," Bryden explained, "but, it just plain doesn't happen." He added that FamilyFarms Group has had 25 or 30 members hold such events during the years, and trouble with landowners has never been the result.
"If you are treating your landlords fairly and equitably, you shouldn't have a problem," Bryden said. "If you aren't doing that, you have bigger issues." The FamilyFarms Group provides members training, tools and checklists for putting on a landowner event.
Ryan Speer, who farms row crops and cattle in a partnership with Steve Jacob and Jacob Farms, in south-central Kansas, said they have often used their annual landowner event for education.
"We explain to them why we are doing what we are doing and how that benefits them directly," Speer said. "We've done soil demonstrations and explained why we are doing cover crops and no-till, and what new technologies we're using."
Jacob Farms has had its annual event for eight years, and it has involved either food catered or Speer cooking at the grill. They also make homemade ice cream. "We want to build a personal relationship with our landlords [less than a dozen]," Speer said, "more than just the occasional phone message or email."
The relationship-building works. "We have landlords who drive hours from Iowa to be here for it," Speer said.
Even though she couldn't attend last summer's Gelfius Farms Appreciation Banquet (she lives in Florida), landowner Sheridan Marr made it a point to tell us how much her family values the get-together.
"Their efforts go far beyond what would be needed for a well-received thank-you to the landlords," said Marr, whose family has rented land to the Gelfiuses for more than a decade. "It is fascinating to see this next generation with Justin and his family, and what they are doing with the land ecologically," she said. "It is so impressive."
As evening descends at Gelfius Farms, a handful of landowners continue to chat with family members and farm employees about the crops, the new hog buildings to come and their families. Children and grandchildren play in the temporary "sandbox" that uses corn rather than sand. Pretty much every bit of the 10 pies Norma Gelfius baked -- her pies are kind of a big deal around here -- have been eaten.
Longtime farm employee David Buzzard said it's gratifying to have this time together. "It is neat to see and talk with the landlords. Most of the time, we are just going into their fields to do work and don't ever see anybody. This way, they know what we are trying to do to help their land."
Said FamilyFarms Group's Bryden: "People will not remember what you said or what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel."
A Checklist for Landowner Event:
-- Plan in advance. Gelfius Farms sets the date for its Appreciation Banquet a year out. Save-the-date cards are mailed in April for the July event. "You have to set a date and start planning on it," Chatney Gelfius said. "There is never a convenient time to have a party with 80 people in attendance or to clean out the shop and barn of all the equipment."
-- There is no perfect time for such an event. Gelfius Farms has its event in late July. Jacob Farms, in Kansas, has a picnic in May. "Usually, we have 80 to 85% in attendance," said Ryan Speer, of Jacob Farms. "Trying to get everyone available on one day on the weekend is almost impossible."
-- Divide the duties. For instance, at Gelfius Farms, an employee's spouse is in charge of drinks -- they serve no alcohol. Chatney and Norma Gelfius, along with Bill Gelfius's sister, Kim Wolford, handle myriad duties such as the welcome table, name tags and preparing gift bags. Justin Gelfius is in charge of the presentation to the group, along with any presentations given by others working on research at the farm.
-- Solicit donations early. The Gelfiuses ask vendors for monetary donations to cover the cost of food, drinks, photographer, childcare, etc. Barring cash donations, they ask vendors for door prizes that go beyond staid pens, caps and coffee mugs. Their donations have included GoPro cameras, Yeti coolers and mugs, a garden wagon, patio chairs and picnic items. Local businesses have donated gift cards for plane rides, food and salon services.
-- Give credit. Donations are recognized in the program for the event and online.
-- Time is money. The sooner you start planning, the less the event will likely cost, Chatney Gelfius explained. The most they spent on their appreciation event was the first year, in 2014. The second year, they spent half as much. In 2016, the event only cost them about $300. Door prizes, gifts for baskets, food, drink and even play equipment were donated.
-- Who's invited? While some farmers opt to invite just landowners and their families, others include the operation's suppliers and business partners. The guest list might even include other area farmers or potential landlords. Care should be taken inviting potential landlords given the unwritten code among farmers (though sometimes ignored) not to go after another farm's landowner.
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