Family, Farming and Business: The Iott Orchard and Ranch

Family, Farming and Business:

The Iott Orchard and Ranch

by Debbe Skutch

It was my pleasure to visit the Iott Orchard and Ranch in Petersburg, Michigan.Marilyn Iott took the time to give me a brief tour of the more than 90 acres of apple orchards and fields of tomatoes, cabbage and corn.I witnessed innovative farming techniques and traditional values of business, family and farming at work.The following is a conversation with Marilyn about the past, present and future of her family’s business.

Tell us about the history of your family and your business.

In 1960 my husband, Cork, and I moved from 7 miles south of here to begin our own family farm.Cork grew up on his family’s farm.We have five children, three boys and two girls.Kevin is 36 and is in the business, Kerry is 32 and also lives nearby and works here.Our youngest son, Kory is a senior in high school and plans on attending college and then entering the family business. We have two daughters, Kim, 33, a travel agency manager and Katrina, 27, who owns her own computer consulting firm.

All our children grew up on the farm and worked many hours from an early age to help it succeed.They have sacrificed much. The girls had no interest in staying on the farm and Kory’s contribution will be different than his brothers’ because of changes in generation and farming.

What is the greatest challenge facing your business?

The greatest challenge is evolving the family farm to the family business farm.Our farm, even though we are family owned and operated, needs to be professionally managed.We are constantly moving more in that direction.Cork, Kevin, Kerry, and myself all bring different strengths and preferences to our positions. Cork is the consummate farmer who loves the land and the process.He has a vision and is very innovative and creative as well as maintaining traditional values.Kevin and Kerry each bring unique talents to the table.They have farming in their blood and spirit yet they have different ways of approaching their careers.

I bring much of my business background to the farm.I am a consultant and have worked in various management positions in business.Estate planning, succession planning, management, finance, and marketingare all aspects of the family farm that make it a family business.Kory will go to college and bring even more high technology and futuristic, efficient ideas to see our farm into the future.Non-family members will continue to have an impact on our growth.

What do you see as the very best aspects of working a family farm?

The work ethic is one, although sometimes that can be too overwhelming.The sacrifices need to be balanced by the outside world and the overall big picture.Family closeness is enhanced which enables us to share a vision and work for the best for everyone.We now have 4 grandchildren who work part-time and two daughters-in-law who work outside their homes.My grandchildren grow up in a household where everyone has an outside interest.I think that is better than being solely dedicated to the family farm.

There are more choices with each generation.The farming industry is ever-changing as the world is shrinking. Internationalization plays a role in our competition, as well as government regulation and the laws of supply and demand.That’s why professional management and training is so important.

What specific activities will insure your success?

We are working on an advisory board to bring different perspectives to our business.We have held family meetings and will continue to do so.We thoroughly enjoy the forums of the UT Center for Family Business as they provide education in family business topics and a wonderful opportunity to network with others in the same circumstances and the same industry.Kory will be educated differently to address his and the farm’s challenges.

Do you find any gender differences on the farm?

None.Cork and I truly manage our family and our business as partners.My children have always seen me working.Our daughters are independent and productive.Our sons are leaders and very forward thinking.They have brought technology and creativity to a very traditional industry.I think we have a mutual respect for each other.

The Iott Ranch and Orchard is quite impressive.The blend of family, farming and business principles is evident in the land, the products and the people.Apples and tomatoes are still naturally grown, not manufactured, yet, efficiency, innovation, computers, and modern management tools create an environment of productivity into the 21st century.The Iotts have created a good blend of past, present and future in a successful family business by utilizing the talents of each one of them.