Farm continuity relies on planning


by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Among its many hard-learned lessons, the pandemic taught us that planning for business interruptions is vital for farm continuity in case of emergency. Shannon Dill, Extension educator with University of Maryland Extension in Talbot County, presented “Creating a Farm Business Continuity Plan” as a recent webinar.

She defined farm continuity as “maintaining business functions or quickly resuming them in the event of a major disruption. It assists with loss of income, protects employees and cares for crops and animals.”

Since agriculture is an essential business, it continued through the pandemic; however, planning can make it easier to continue farming during any situation, whether a pandemic or other emergency. She believes a farm’s continuity plan begins with considering four general steps: identify the scope of the plan; develop risk and prevention strategies; develop a response strategy and continuity plan; and sharing, implementing, training, testing and review.

“Think about the agility of employees and resources during a disruption,” she said. “For emergency planning, you think about the what-ifs.”

For example, what would happen if the farm manager is hurt and unable to come back to work for a few weeks? What would happen if a storm knocks out the power for several days? Planning for an emergency includes breaking down the farm’s operations by roles, managers or farm enterprises, depending upon the farm’s size.

“Have a checklist that includes supplies and equipment, the location of data backups and backup sites and contact information for emergency responders, key personnel and backup site providers,” Dill said.

“Additionally, having an inventory of essential farm activities to ensure the safety and health of crops and animals is important. Farming does not stop. There are things that may have to be done or cared for if there’s some type of disruption. This might include necessary operations for the farm such as scouting, feeding, health and irrigation – any of those type of things.

“Perhaps there’s an IPM program,” Dill continued. “Where are the pesticide records kept? It could be part of the food safety program.”

Contact information for all the family members and employees involved with the farm should be listed in case something happens.

She also thinks farmers should include a list of internal and external stakeholders for conveying communication, whether via email, social media or phone calls.

“Be able to communicate with employees, customers, consumers and the media,” she said.

Farmers should also keep records on any legal expectations they have, such as a crop rental or crop share agreement.

“Are these some activities that need to take place to get the business back on track following a disruption in business?” she asked.

Once a plan is in place, farmers also need to share it with employees, implement it, train employees on it and subsequently test it so that it may be reviewed and revised where applicable.

“Oftentimes it’s a very small group of family members, but having something that’s at least printed off, though it may not be a formal, glossy plan, helps,” Dill said. “We have some of those things in case something happens to the family. What are the passwords, what needs to be done, who needs to be contacted? Who needs to know what? That’s an important conversation to have with management and employees.”

After testing the continuity plan, farmers should request feedback from others. Farmers also need to look at cross-training and who would need to open or access equipment, information and other resources. Once the plan is completed and tested, it should be reviewed annually.

“At the beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect,” Dill said. “You’re already doing your taxes and other planning for your crops or livestock. Have it printed out and post it somewhere.”

Dill suggested keeping it both in print and saving it digitally and keeping copies in separate locations.

As for truly sensitive information such as passwords, she recommended sharing that with only a handful of trusted people.

“I have a document that says where things are,” she said. “One is a secure list of passwords. Not everyone has a copy and can log in. But they can open an envelope if something happens to me and my passwords are there.”

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