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

From Father To Son In Rural North America

January 20, 1997

Passing on the family farm is the lifeblood of agriculture. Who gets the farm? Why do some children leave and some stay?

These are questions addressed by rural sociologists Glen Elder and Elizabeth Robertson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rand Conger at Iowa State University. They surveyed 245 male farmers, their fathers and their adolescent sons in north central Iowa as part of an ongoing study with the Iowa Youth and Families Project.

The grandparent generation typically grew up on farms in the 20s and 30s and started farming when the demand for farm products soared during World War II and in the post World War II era. Their sons were typically born after World War II and chose farming during an expansionary phase of agriculture in the 60s and 70s. The younger farmers of today had their entry into agriculture during the late 70s and 80s when agriculture went through a devastating crisis.

Elder and his colleagues found that the economics of each era - and each farm - affects attitudes and decisions to enter farming and whether there is a viable farm operation to join. They also found that the quality of the relationship between father and son during preteen and early adolescent years plays a major role in the decision to farm. Here are some of their main findings:

  • Financial stress. By early adolescence, teens have formed their feelings about farming based on their attachments to the land, close working relationships within the farm family, the independence of farming and prospects for the future. Financial strain on the parents affects the attitude of the sons. If the parents see no future in agriculture and/or angry and bitter over their farming experience, their sons plan to leave.
  • Prosperity. Young men are more likely to enter farming or strongly prefer to live in a rural area if they come from highly productive farms and do not have any or many brothers. Parental help is necessary to get them started. This process is easier when there aren’t as many male children competing for family resources.

During times of prosperity, the holdings of the parents and the economic prospects of the farm help sons decide to farm whatever the interpersonal qualities of the father and the harmony in the family.

  • Full-time farming. Sons of farmers who lease or labor on farms do not enter farming at the rate of those whose fathers own and operate their own farms. Children of landowners are taught more, given more opportunity to learn skills, taught the work ethic, and have more parental encouragement for their aspirations to farm.

Sons choose to farm more readily when their father is a full time operator and when the relationship between them was positive. Sons watching their fathers who combine farming with off-farm employment aren’t as apt to identify with the lifestyle or the profession.


  • Warm and supportive fathers. Young men are more likely to prefer farming or a rural way of life when they identify with and enjoy a close supportive relationship with their father in a family atmosphere of minimal conflict. The quality of the relationship with the mother isn't a dominant factor in this life choice.

Young men who leave agriculture have the same work history and involvement on the farm as the ones who stay. The difference is the type of relationship they have bad with their father. Sons who enjoy close contact with warm and supportive fathers develop a strong attachment for farming and prefer a rural lifestyle even when economic times are bleak.

  • - Harsh and critical fathers. During hard tines in agriculture, the personal quality of the father and the quality of the father/son relationship is a major factor in the decision to choose or persist in agriculture even when prospects appear bleak. when tough times are coupled with fathers who have marriage problems and are punitive and controlling in their parenting, sons and their families choose to leave.

Harsh and hostile fathers are more likely to have adult sons who are also harsh and hostile in their parenting style. Fathers are role models for how their sons may be someday. Sons who move away from their fathers have much less continuity of parenting style. Elder and his associates found that transmission of parenting styles are much more prominent in farm families than any other sector of society.

A quick test. Here's a quick test for fathers to see if they might attract their sons to farming as a career choice.

  • Are you personally optimistic about the financial viability of farming?
  • How secure is your financial position?
  • Do you communicate an attitude of relative satisfaction with farming to your sons?
  • Do your sons like working with you and enjoy a warm, close bond without a lot of harshness and criticism - especially as you work together?
  • Do they see a happy marriage and experience a harmonious family life?

The reality of the next generation’s ability to farm will depend on the economic conditions ten or 15 years from now. However, the motivation and decision to farm is being formed by pre-and early teens right now. What are they seeing and feeling?