Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Four Challenges Of Family Farming

March 7, 2005

Here are four of the most frequent complaints adult children make when voicing their frustration about working with their parents or other family members in a family farming operation. They are often inter-related.

- Failure to have a long-term planning process and to include everyone in it.

Commitment and trust are built on common goals. Uniting behind common goals forms the basis for teamwork.

The eventual goal of transfer of operating control and equity to the next generation needs to be explicit. Retirement plans and a gradual disengagement help everyone when control eventually change hands.

Not having estate plans or by not being clear about them leaves too much to chance, especially to the on-farm children who have made the farm their livelihood. There should be no surprises.

Care should be taken to screen out family members being involved in business who have problems with dishonesty, selfishness, laziness, rigidity, tempers, or addictions. These problems will eventually drain the farm of the enthusiasm and trust of the core contributors.

Succession planning should screen out business relationships that don't work. The family business isn't the place to rehabilitate children who are struggling with life. These problems should be worked out before involving them as partners.

Even when brothers and their families are involved and get along famously, the goal still should be for an eventual splitting of the operation when their children are old enough to be included in the business. Family goals and commitments will be different enough at this point to justify each family controlling their own resources and business decisions.

- The daughter-in-law is treated or feels like an outsider.

When the daughter-in-law feels excluded from the decision-making process, she will be unhappy. "If she's not happy, he's not happy." The couple needs to be treated as a separate family unit. If the father and son or if the parents and son form the basic decision-making unit for business decisions, the daughter-in-law will react negatively and will try to realign the arrangement. Marital problems are quite likely.

Pressure, guilt, and control over lifestyle decisions will also alienate a daughter-in-law. If she feels disapproval from her mother-in-law, this will hurt and cause her to withdraw or strike back. Admittedly this is a two-way street, but the parents need to make every effort for the daughter-in-law to feel respected and accepted.

- Communications are poor.

There is not an open, two-way process of communication. This may result from lack of trust or from a lack of confidence in knowing how to solve problems. Poor listening skills are a major cause. Sometimes lack of communication keeps the control squarely in the hands of the parents.

When communications are poor, there is often an atmosphere of on-going tension, unresolved anger, and increasing doubts about commitment to common goals. Problems aren't corrected. Long-term planning isn't discussed. Unfairness is perceived.

Often there is criticism, verbal abuse, anger and lack of respect for lifestyle and workstyle decisions of adult children. Management is top-down. If a father, for example, dominates his son and the son passively accepts this treatment, the daughter-in-law feels angry, frustrated, and helpless. Marriage is complicated enough without a third party controlling basic aspects of her life.

Another problem is the lack of family business meetings or regular, long-term planning sessions where vital business ideas, goals and policies are discussed openly and democratically. Issues of compensation, delegation, equity, workstyle differences and unfairness can be worked out. If these meetings are held, the family can maintain its commitment to harmony and love and still have a format for airing of personal differences, ideas and conflict.

- Growth is stymied.

Having specialties will earn recognition by their peers. Decision-making, clear responsibilities, independent judgment and involvement in over-all goal setting all contribute to a sense of self-esteem, control and progression.

People have a basic need to feel unique and special. They need to develop their talents and receive recognition and appreciation for their contributions. Areas of expertise and specialization benefit not only the farming operation but also the self-worth of the farming partners.

Specialties will give recognition by peers. Management that divides responsibilities into specialty areas recognizes the talents and contributions of each individual. It is proof of the mutual trust that exists between the farming partners.

When the management style is open and democratic, then adult children feel like they have a part in shaping their own destiny, and taking responsibility for what happens to them.

Success in family farming. What can parents do to successfully farm with their adult children?

They can: 1) regard their children and their spouses as equal business partners and make long term commitments, 2) delegate meaningful management opportunities, 3) be willing to confront problems and communicate effectively while sharing business decisions democratically, and 4) are willing to accommodate one's dreams and goals to assist meeting the needs and dreams of others.

To do this takes a lot of love and commitment. When it happens, family farming is a rewarding experience.