My father is turning our company into a woo factory, can I stop it?
September 1, 2011 7:24 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to convince my father not to take our business into woo-land?

Some background: we have a farm, it's not profitable, but my father has been trying to monetize it. I'm no working for it full time, but I will be starting next summer. I have worked in ag for about half a decade now and I have some ideas for monetizing it (CSAs, buying club, social media, farm tours, value added products). Yes, I've told my father about these things.

But under the influence of some friend of his, he has gotten the idea that biodynamics is the way to go. Now I know lots of nice biodynamic folks, but frankly I think the know thing is woo. And from chats I've had with my father, he doesn't really believe it either. Yet his filling our website, facebook, and twitter with all kinds of nonsense like "try our blah blah blah mixture when you plant your tomato plants under the full moon." Honestly, with my background in science, I can't stand it and it's making me want to not participate in the business.

Is it possible to pull him back into sanity? Have any of you had any experiences with family businesses gone wrong?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Bio-dynamics in itself is nonsense but if labelling your produce as 'bio-dynamic' allows you to sell it for three times as much at local whole food fairs you might be able to make it pay. Small scale farming is all about adding value and it doesn't have to be rational to be practical. Whether you believe in it or not isn't really the point, if people buying your stuff believe in it, you might end up raking it in.
posted by joannemullen at 7:34 PM on September 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Two brief thoughts:

1. The first business question is: who is in control of the business, its procedures and its messaging? How are those decisions made? Are there meetings of the business (aka meetings of the family)? It's time for a process, likely. But of course, you know, he's been running the farm and now you're coming in, so... tricky. But it'd be nice to have everyone on board.

2. The second business question is about positioning. In most farm businesses (from wheat to dairy) there's a lot of value to organic or even biodynamic positioning... in the longer term. In the short term, transitioning to organic can be a 3 to 7 year massive loss (or, yeah, additional loss).

Now, you and *I* know that people who talk about hooey in general are annoying, but that's not to say that there aren't principles involved in the organic and hyper-organic world that aren't sometimes both good farming principles and good business principles. Try to stick with that. (Sidenote: I was once at a farmer's lunch with some rich restaurant owner and the rich guy was like: "Wouldn't you say these eggs from these incredible, happy free-range chickens are better tasting than the eggs were back when the chickens were in cages?" And the egg dude was like, "Um, nope. Tastes about the same." I laughed my head off.)

Finally, a third brief thought: your father isn't "crazy." I don't think he's doing these things because he's not "sane." He's doing it for a reason, and you don't get it. It's most likely because, guess what, he's still running an unprofitable farm and he's desperate and tired and will say anything, including things he doesn't believe. Maybe work from there.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:37 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you think honesty is important to your father? When you have these chats with your father, maybe you could ask him straight up if he doesn't really believe it. If he admits he doesn't, you might want to gently broach the topic of how big a priority it is to him to not run a business fraudulently. Admit your qualms in a such a way that you are still on his side. Ultimately, if nothing changes, leave.
posted by matt_arnold at 7:42 PM on September 1, 2011

Why not ask your dad: "Why can't be do both? How does one invalidate the other. Let him run his side, you run yours. If you show him that it's profitable, how is that bad?
posted by filmgeek at 7:57 PM on September 1, 2011

It seems like you two need to get to the heart of the matter. You value science and rationality, think biodynamic stuff is fake, and seem to also dislike it on a sylistic level. Your dad: what are his values and what is his rationale for doing this? I think you have to really try to understand and respect where he's coming from (as well as respectfully presenting your side).
posted by salvia at 8:01 PM on September 1, 2011

I think biodynamics is total ridiculous woo. That said, I feel like there is a point at which the responsibility for "fraud" passes from the snake-oil dealer to the customer. If you hand a biodynamic tomato to a customer and say "This is three times healthier than a regular tomato!", that seems fraudulent to me. If you hand a biodynamic tomato to a customer and say "This tomato was grown with a bull's skull buried near the roots, only watered on days that cross the Sagittarius hemisphere, and I chanted the Paternoster to myself as I harvested it", and you actually did all that, I feel as though the ethical buck has mostly passed to the customer-- they know exactly what's up and it's their choice to believe in things that are not scientific.
posted by threeants at 8:20 PM on September 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

In your shoes, I would just say:

"Dad, this biodynamic approach to marketing could really backfire on us. I don't want to be involved in a business that develops a reputation for bullshitting people. You don't believe in biodynamics, I don't believe in biodynamics - science doesn't support these claims - and nobody with a brain is going to buy into it. We need to invest our time in honest, content-first marketing approaches that many business have had success with instead. The problem with the current option is that even if you believe - and I don't think you do - that this is a high-reward use of your precious time in the business, this is also a needlessly high risk way to go about it. I will have a preliminary proposal to you by _______________ detailing some new approaches we should explore and people we should invite to lunch to learn from. In the meantime, I would really appreciate it if we could work together to focus on getting our brand to talk only about things we're prepared to back up. We're honest people and we work hard; we need to make sure that comes across to customers first and foremost."

Thereafter, if you need to get out, get out. Family is difficult enough to work with even without bad business practices and woo. You have experience and good ideas....maybe you could find work as a consultant or strike out on your own.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:27 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

You could agree with him but use reverse psychology to help build your argument. Otherwise, you are just entering into a disagreement and those usually go no where.

Numbers don't lie, if possible, take a portion of the farm and dedicated to woo. Let it go one season, add up the numbers and see where they go. Perhaps there is a market, people that buy into this stuff and maybe they pay more for it. Up the prices, go after it whole heartedly and see what happens. At the end of it all, add up the numbers and state your case.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:32 PM on September 1, 2011

Could you switch him over to biointensive instead? Assuming that what he wants is a sound-bite-ready thing to say about the farm's big new direction?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:39 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work with farmers at Certified Farmer's Markets and I think you are way way out of line here.

Checking the wikipedia page for this turns up nothing too crazy, even if you aren't a fan of Steiner.

I can see this selling very very well where I am.

Go with it. It's where this industry is heading if you are selling direct to consumers. We want the woo! Otherwise, we would be at Whole Foods paying for over-priced but pretty vegetables conventionally farmed in Mexico.
posted by jbenben at 9:44 PM on September 1, 2011

From Wikipedia:

505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs past.

One to three grams (a teaspoon) of each preparation is added to a dung heap by digging 50 cm deep holes with a distance of 2 meters from each other... All preparations are thus used in homeopathic quantities.

Is all this utter horseshit? Well, of course. They helpfully put the word "homeopathic" there, so you'd know.
Will this actually hurt anyone? No.
If people want to pay money for this, is there a reason they should not be able to get it? Not that I can think of. Unlike homeopathic remedies, your father would be providing a useful product -- compost -- with an added pinch of woo. This is not morally the same as selling straight-up bottles of woo and nothing else, I think. Compost is a good thing. If people will pay extra for a process that's important to them, why not?

However, in my experience there are two constituencies that like farmer's markets, CSAs, that kind of stuff -- rich hippies, and more science-based human-performance type people. Rich hippies will buy your Woo-Enriched Compost. The other kind might form negative views about Anonymous Farms if its name is associated with woo.

If your dad really wants to do this, can you persuade him to re-brand it? Sureilltakeyourmoney Woo-Enriched Compost is made at Anonymous Farms, an X-year-old family farm in Our Town, State. Sureilltakeyourmoney is committed to serving the rich hippy community with a full line of conscientiously-prepared woo products...
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 10:24 PM on September 1, 2011

I do like organic products, but "biodynamic" pings my scam radar and would make me think I was about to get ripped off.

Perhaps you could encourage him to market in that way to a niche group of people so that people like me don't get turned off.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:28 PM on September 2, 2011

It is my impression that biodynamic farming is a method and not so much a product label (unlike organic farming). Like, if I saw two tomatoes and one was biodynamically farmed and one wasn't, I wouldn't have any strong opinion about which to buy. But if a farm seemed very invested in its biodynamic methods, I might become interested and think, "Hmm, how is this farm making sustainable agriculture work for them?" So if you're not into it and don't have a plan for how it might increase your efficiency and/or sustainability, I don't see it making a ton of money for you at the farm stand. (And perhaps not even if you did.)
posted by zadermatermorts at 7:13 AM on September 4, 2011

I know this response is pretty late for this thread, but I am having a very similar experience.

I have been working in a family business for approx. 7 years now. Unfortunately, beginning with the economic downturn of the last few years our business has suffered tremendously. To be honest I do not think it will last it's current form much longer.

Due to the business difficulties and several personal issues my father has embraced all types of woo. He believes in UFO's, US gov't conspiracies, Nazi mysticism, ancient spirits speaking through human mediums. In particular the law of attraction has become his main spiritual belief system. The business plan of our failing business has becoming "positive thought and the universe will provide". Whoa!

I too believe in rationality and science and if I have learned anything from this experience it would be the old "you can't change somebody else". I recently read Leon Festinger's (of cognitive dissonance fame) book When Prophecy Fails. One basic point of the book is that when a person's strong beliefs are challenged, the beliefs are actually reinforced and intensified. You probably cannot convince your father of changing his mind.

Also, it is recommended that children with family business opportunities should always gain some outside experience before joining the business. This gives you the opportunity to "individuate" from the family and learn from others how more formal companies operate. This should help inoculate you from ideas deeply ingrained in your family's business culture and help you make better decisions in the future. It might even gain you more respect from your father.

As I am making preparations to leave the family business due to differences in opinions about the business and my distaste for the woo. This might be the best plan for you as well, at least before you join the biz as a full time employee.
posted by Che boludo! at 8:37 AM on September 29, 2011

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