Ep 70: Karmen Mehmen on growing a family farm through 40 years of change

Karmen Mehmen and her family have been farming in Iowa since 1976. As you can imagine, those 44 years have been marked by enormous changes, from the US dairy herd buyout of the 80s, to the arrival of computers and their evolution to the software platforms of today. And closer to home, Karmen and her husband Stan have transitioned much of the farm management to their son Kyle and his wife Kerri, who returned to the farm around 15 years ago.

This conversation covers all of these topics, highlighting how Karmen continually embraced and prepared for change. Her experiences will ring true for many other family farms, and may even challenge some farmers to think differently. And for agtech startups, Karmen’s reflections on the tech they’ve adopted are worth a listen!

A job for every person and a person for every job

Karmen tells two stories that emphasize the need for clear responsibility in enabling effective teamwork on farm. The first story is from a transition planning exercise Karmen and Stan did with their son Kyle and his wife Kerri as they returned to the farm. They were tasked with documenting their org chart across the farm: an exercise that helped them see that with so much to do, there was little sense in overlapping and duplicating work. It also gave all four of them the language to communicate boundaries, something that can often be difficult in family farms. 

“We had to spread out the work. We had to spread out the talents and it also gave Kyle and Stan and Kerri and I a way to say - you don't need to worry, that's my box.”

Embed the change in the culture

The other story on roles and responsibilities that Karmen tells is from their journey implementing Conservis, a farm management software solution. In their first year, they struggled with the platform as often data hadn’t been put correctly or when they needed it, which meant that reports and dashboards weren’t up to date and therefore weren’t useful. To fix this, they brought on a resource whose primary role was to oversee data entry. 

“We hired a dedicated resource, it became her job and she was not an ag girl, but she pretended like she was a private investigator and she would get to the bottom of it.”

Empowering the team to take ownership helped propel their use of the tool forward. They also had to embed the product into the team’s culture and processes. To do this, they committed to the product and held each other accountable  - to the point that Karmen says even today, team members will often ask one another “Did you Conservis that?”

Karmen shares the ups and downs of family farming, and how ensuring that everyone shares in the “wins” helps motivate the whole team to work together and achieve their best. It echoes management ideas Renee shares in last month’s podcast: enabling simple actions that, over time, unlock massive value. 

We so enjoyed this conversation with Karmen and know you will too. Links to the groups and books referenced in the conversation are below!

Links and Resources

Key takeaways