Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Successors Make Parents' Retirement Easy - er - Easier

September 17, 2007

"You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something new." – John Irving

No retirement plans. Some people aren’t interested in growth. They want to keep on doing what they love and know they are good at. A strong-willed, work-oriented father who has lived single-mindedly for the farm or ranch will not prepare himself for retirement.

Farmers and ranchers like this slow down only when their physical body gives out and the required long hard work is reduced. They don’t like giving up control of major decisions and may have difficulty trusting or letting go of management even if the next generation is fully prepared to take over.

Who retires? If a couple has lived a well-balanced lifestyle, they will have cultivated interests, hobbies or specialized talents. Retirement represents an opportunity to shift goals and priorities from the routine demands of work to a new set of goals and endeavors.

It is leisure and interests that excite and entice them off the farm or ranch. They are not necessarily looking for freedom from responsibility and duty but want to stay engaged - to take pleasure in doing something worth doing. Parents who look forward to retirement are drawn away by the excitement of their dreams. They retire with grace and purpose.

So what can a son or daughter to do to encourage their parent’s retirement?

Not much. Primarily, they can only make it easy for parents to explore other options to being a full time farmer or rancher. Here is some advice:

- Volunteer to take over while they leave on vacation, a winter trip, family visits or to attend winter meetings. Encourage them to take leadership positions in their church, community, or in rural organizations. Hopefully they will find enjoyment in these activities. When they return and find that everything is in good shape, then their trust and confidence will grow and they will find it easier to leave the next time.

- Enlist Mom’s help. Mom may be just as frustrated as the younger generation about the strong focus on the family farm or ranch. She can influence Dad to try things for her sake. She can insist on activities such as square dancing, visiting the grandchildren, travel or other interests. However, these activities need to be a part of their lifestyle long before retirement or she will encounter resistence.

A lack of trust in the management capabilities of the next generation can mask the fear of being displaced and having no meaning or importance outside of their farming roles. Sometimes it is Mom who needs a retirement agenda of her own in order to let go.

- Work toward open-democratic decision-making. If there is a history of shared decision-making, then Dad will be able to phase out of his management role without feeling he is losing control or identity. He will trust his ability to influence decisions because of a past pattern of mutual respect and give-and take.

Semi-retirement can become feasible, workable and will represent the best of all possible solutions for everyone. The shift from owner/operator to consultant will be seamless and natural.

A farmer or rancher with a strong need to stay involved can find a management niche that suits his interests while relinquishing control of the rest. He needs to be busy and productive. He needs to be needed and appreciated. That way control issues or meddling will be minimal.

- Be prepared to take over. Until parents take responsibility for their future happiness without the farm or ranch, they will tend to see the next generation as "not quite ready." However, partners from the next generation can demonstrate their competence, skills and motivation through their dedication.

Successors can negotiate areas of responsibility where they have management control. They have a place to try their ingenuity and initiative.

Sons and daughters can specialize in areas where the father appreciates the help and where it complements his abilities. Examples include marketing, computer applications, machinery repair, chemical applications or an enterprise Dad tends to neglect. Successors can make themselves invaluable and gain respect, even if it is grudgingly given.

- Develop interests away from the farm or ranch. Successors can volunteer and take leadership roles in the community where they can develop managerial prowess. When their expertise is recognized by others in the community, they will also gain in credibility in the eyes of their parents.

- Try better communication. Instead of letting anger and resentments build, younger farm couples can approach their parents with a clear description of what they need. Too many times people shy away from communicating about areas of conflict. They don’t give communication a chance.

The more open they are about frustrations, the better. Even if it is uncomfortable, it is better to get issues out in the open. Of course, using courtesy, tact and good listening help ease discussion without arousing defensiveness.

- Be prepared to leave. Young farm couples need confidence to leave farming if the situation is untenable. By being educated, having competitive skills, and showing an openness to other options beside farming or ranching, a couple will be objective matter-of-fact negotiators. It is when they feel trapped that they become intimidated by the stubbornness of their parents and shy away from resolving conflict