Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Communications Can Turn Around Farm Relationships

May 19, 2003

Meek Lee Bigbaas is in a farming partnership with the parents, Tyrant and Segunda Fiddle Bigbaas. Meek, his wife Feminista Wright-BigBaas and their seven-year-old son, Heirold, live in a trailer, 100 yards from the home place of Meek's parents. Meek was given an ultimatum by his wife that unless he left the farm, she would be leaving him.

Tyrant BigBaas has a terrible temper. He also is "rammy," critical and controlling in the way he treats Meek. Things have to be done his way. Ty gives very little in the way of approval and recognition.

Feminista has had a few run-ins with Ty. She doesn’t like the swearing and the verbal abuse taking place in front of Heirold. She has pressured Meek to stand up to his father. This is more than Meek can handle.

Meek is afraid to stand up to his father because he is afraid he'll lose his dream of farming and those years of sweat equity he’s already put in if he challenges his father. Nothing is on paper.

Meek finally seeks counseling.

Meek: Doc, what can I do? My life is that farm. It is all I know. It will be mine someday. I've worked hard. I've put up with stuff you wouldn't believe. My wife is fed up and wants to leave me. She has had it. She says I have a choice between her and the farm.

I wish she'd learn to be patient and go along for a while. Someday he'll slow I down and retire and then we can do the things the way we want them done.

Doc: Really? Does your father have any interests outside of farming? I doubt it. I suspect he’ll still be going strong into his 70s and 80s. You wife won’t give you another farming season, let alone stick around to the retirement years waiting for a miracle.

Meek: So how do I turn this thing around?

Doc: People don’t change until they have to. Or until they are hurting. Or if they are threatened in some way. I bet they want the farm to go to you, have grandchildren around and to stay involved in the farm as a part of their retirement plans. Your leaving would upset their apple cart.

Form a united front with your wife. Go to them as a couple. You be the one to confront them. They won’t believe you unless you’re the one doing the talking. They will take criticism from you that they won't from her. They see her as an outsider and troublemaker.

You also have to mean what you say. It will be your willingness to leave that will give you credibility.

Meek: How can I do that when I don’t know anything else besides farming?

Doc: Believe in yourself. Believe you can have a good life outside of farming and that you can be successful. Take stock of your talents and interests.

Think through your plans and have details about what you are going to do next when you confront them. Staying around under the present conditions will mean losing your family and being under your Dad’s thumb the rest of your life.

You may be better off leaving anyway. The personal changes you need to make won't be easy with the strong personality of your father around. It will be as hard for you to change as it will be for him.

Sometimes the best time to transfer a farm to the next generation is when the need is great, like serious health problems or having the farm pass to you at death. Your dream of farming might have to be put on the back burner for 20 years or so, but that is better than having your family torn apart.

Meek: My Dad isn’t very good at listening. Why would he this time?

Doc: Families like yours really don't have much experience with communications as a way of solving problems. Problems are swept under the rug and hopefully expected to go away. Sometimes underneath the bluff and bluster, parents mean well and can change if they have to. I bet no one has ever challenged your Dad to change the way he acts. Or showed him how. You might be surprised.

Meek: I can’t imagine the conversation going well with my wife and father in the same room. There is too much anger between them.

Doc: Another approach is to have a family meeting between the two families and have a mediator come in to facilitate the discussion. There are a lot of things to change. You'll have to work out such ticklish problems as clarity about long-term commitments, meaningful delegation of responsibilities and decision-making, compensation, respectful communications, separate social lives and lifestyles, acceptance of differences in workstyles and resolving past hurts and emotional wounds.

If your parents consent to be a part of a meeting like this, that is a hopeful sign that they are willing to give up control and work things out with you. See if they are interested in solving this with a third party present. If you run into a roadblock, you and your wife probably need to come as a couple and work through your decision to leave the farm and how to coping with all the changes that will me for your life.

Meek: Make an appointment for my wife and myself. I think she needs to hear this too.