Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How To Make Family Farming Work

May 19, 2008

How can you build a better "working relationship" and "family relationship" when you are in business with family?

That was one of the topics chosen by a group of farm women to process during a weekend retreat. Every farm or ranch family has its struggles and adjustments as they work out the balance and boundaries between business and family relationships.

Being in business as a family is tricky. There is the usual goal of being competitive in a free market economy where winners and losers are decided by the bottom line. Family or not, the business needs to make money.

The family goal is to have lifelong loving and harmonious relationships with your business partners, regardless of whether the business does well. Business success or not, the family needs to get along.

In my observations of successful farm families, these are some key points on how this can be done.

- With openness, inclusion and acceptance, in-law relationships on a family farm can be rewarding and pleasurable. Too many farm families don’t include the daughter-in-law or accept her need for a separate definable life as a priority. She may not be included enough in the business aspect of the operation. Too many daughters-in-law are too demanding, self-centered and refuse to fit into a family farm with the give-and-take that is required. Relationships between sisters-in-law need to be respectful and accepting. There are responsibilities on every side to make it work.

- Mutual respect and give-and-take are necessary in defining important social and family boundaries. Farm families need to relax and be comfortable around each other. This respect and acceptance extends to differences within each family unit including their social life, lifestyle choices, parenting, spending, and expression of values and preferences.

However, this willingness to overlook differences shouldn’t be applied to business conflicts and differences. In a close family business, it is important to work through differences and not ignore problems. When tensions and resentments are not addressed in business relationships, the business and eventually the family suffer.

- It is important to cultivate a team atmosphere in family farming by sharing goals, giving mutual trust and respect, communicating well, giving recognition and appreciation, and by providing opportunities for growth and creativity. Too many family farms have a top-down style of management that robs their operations of motivation, commitment and ideas that would make for better farming and happier people.

- Many problems in multi-family farming operations can be solved by having a well-organized and well run family business meeting. Too many family farms attempt to run a complex business without a systematic way to bring up and resolve conflict, review performance, share concerns, coordinate activities, resolve thorny equity issues, or discuss short and long range goals. Too many conflicts between individuals and between

families go unresolved because of a lack of communication and a "safe" environment in which to air differences.

The best format of a well run family business meeting allows business conflicts and concerns to be discussed from a business-first point of view without distrubing family relationships.

- When farming with adult children, it is important to be open to new ideas, delegate meaningful responsibility and share decisions in the spirit of a true partnership. Too many farmers stunt the growth and motivation of their farming partners by autocratic, critical and demeaning management styles. The experience of actually working together should be pleasant and enjoyable without rigid opinions, disrespectful judgments or explosive outbursts marring the work environment.

Personal communications should be based on a desire for understanding rather than to argue and prove a point.

As a farm or ranch operation becomes bigger and more complex, managing the human resources, particularly family members, becomes the primary skill that will make a difference between success and failure. Leadership and teamwork is a function of having the right people in the right places, doing what they enjoy, having freedom to make key decisions and cooperating freely with each other.

- Succession on family farms goes smoothly when parents cultivate interests, activities and goals that extend beyond farming. This will prepare farm families for transitions to retirement or semi-retirement. The foundation is laid for a collaborative relationship where farming goals are shared without competition or control issues spoiling relationships.

Successful retirement planning is a function of a balanced lifestyle all the way through life. Retirement is sometimes resisted and reins held tight because of a fear of giving up the old life rather than anticipating the beginning of another satisfying phase of life.

- Clear commitments and openness about estate and succession planning create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation in working for long term goals. Too many farm families delay estate planning until too late. Hardships and inequities are created through poor or no estate planning. Farming and non-farming heirs benefit by knowing retirement and estate plans. They can give important input that makes for better decisions and future family relationships.

There is great power and commitment in a family business. Successful family businesses separate business and family concerns so that the business benefits from creativity and accountability that might be inhibited by the family’s need for harmony. If done well, usually in a family business meeting, a family business can have the best of both worlds.