Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships


Here are some of my best insights into why some family farms are loving, cohesive and continue to succeed generation after generation.


Being a psychologist in the Midwest working with farm and ranch families has given me an opportunity to observe and talk with many farm family operations. I have met some families who have captured an illusive ideal - having a combination of two or more families working together in a successful family business. Here are six attributes I believe they have in common.


1. A legacy of innovation and success. It has to start somewhere. It doesn’t take long in climbing the family tree to spot a farmer who was ahead of his time and his neighbors in some particular management practice that brought a measure of success.


These farmers were open-minded and inquisitive. Their attitude about learning and trying things was out of the norm. They weren’t foolish. Their innovations were based on highly calculated risks. There may have been a key idea in the beginning, but this attitude of innovation spread to many aspects of farming.


A successful farm reflects management that pays attention to detail and quality, marketing, sound financial decisions, self-discipline, solid work habits, and excellent reactions to problems.


Children growing up in this family absorb the innovative style. They are aggressive learners. They understand their parents’ special qualities, management philosophy, and business orientation. They see the excitement and are caught up in the improvement of the farm. They feel they are a part of something special. They have tremendous respect for the experience of the older generation.


2. Children develop their own expertise and special talents. The parents support higher education, special training, and skill development that goes well beyond what they may have in a particular farming area. The business is successful enough to capture the love, imagination, and commitment of young adults who are highly focused about their future goals on the farm.


They apply themselves well during their time away from home and the farm. When they come back to farm they are already powerhouse farmers who can immediately contribute. Each sibling has respect for the others' abilities. There are no weak links to work around.


3. The relationship of the children and parents has been respectful and loving. Love and mutual affection underscore family relationships. Father/son work relationships are respectful and patient. The interaction style is courteous and mannerly. There is no harshness or temper outbursts to spoil the working relationship.


4. The adults share management through effective communications and democratic decision-making. The best idea wins and people feel well treated in the process. The “give-and-take” is energetic and challenging yet within proper bounds. There is clear delegation of authority and responsibility.


The family has meetings to solve problems. They have a good business structure and good communications. Some meetings are formal and deal with a whole range of family business concerns as well as long term strategy. All family members are part of the long-term strategy and decisions.

Problems are reviewed, and family members can exchange constructive criticism and work through differences without hurt feelings.


Adding the next generation to the decision-making process can take a lot of trust and human relationship skill. This is probably just as big a factor in the continued success of the family farm as the actual farming ideas that brought success in the first place.


5. The succession process, the estate plan, and the commitments to the next generation of farmers are clear. There is no guess work about who the farming partners are and the goal of passing on the farm as a viable business to those who have shared in its development. The relationships between the siblings and their spouses are positive.


6. The families get along. Family members take pains to clear up difficulties quickly so that feelings don't get in the way of business and family relationships. The family develops strong loyalties to one another and has a united front toward the community. The in-laws are wholeheartedly accepted and incorporated into the family. Despite this loyalty and closeness, each family has its own identity and social life.


The work unifies them. Family gatherings and celebrations unify them. Despite all this closeness, there is room for each family member to be him or herself, have their own friends, and pursue their own agenda without feeling guilt or control from other family members. The women in the operation are keys to healthy relationships between families.


What are the common failings of family businesses that are not as successful?

- Failure to have systematic business communications.

- Unresolved conflicts that add stress and tension to daily living.

- Lack of clarity about goals and commitments, unclear roles.

- Failure to incorporate the younger generation into management decision-making.

- Intrusive and controlling management styles that cause hurt, resentment, and anger.

- The lack of inclusion of the in-laws in the long term planning and decision-making.

- Poor communications (anger, disrespect) and problem-solving skills.


What makes farm family businesses so successful? I believe it is a combination of aggressive business ideas and a family system based on love, commitment, and good communications skills. They walk the tightrope of business conflict and family harmony without falling off. A successful family business combines the resources of several families toward a unified goal. It’s a tough act to beat.