Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Do You Farm With Your Brother?

January 16, 2006

If you think life is complicated, how would you like to be in the farming business with your brother? Or your sister-in law? Family business can be praiseworthy but there are many pitfalls to avoid. Here are some typical scenarios.

1. An older, domineering brother is the driving force in the business. The younger brother goes through life never really making it to the driver's seat. The younger brother feels frustrated. He doesn't know how to assert himself with his older brother who got there first and assumed a leadership role. The younger brother’s wife sees how the lack of respect or opportunity for shared leadership and decision-making affects her husband and learns to resent the arrangement.

Recommendation: The top down leadership style has to be challenged and worked through despite the experience advantage of the older brother. This won't change until the younger brother takes the initiative in redefining the relationship. He has to qualify himself with expertise, experience and skills to complement the older brother and establish his own domain of responsibility and value. When that happens, the transition to equality and true partnership will occur naturally.

2. Dad sits on top of two brothers and decides key issues way late in life. Dad is the one that keeps the peace and everything is OK as long as he is alive. Dad dies and the brothers have difficulty figuring out how to operate together. The brothers throw all the latent sibling rivalry into the leadership vacuum and sparks fly. Both may be hungry to be finally in charge of their own lives and resent each other's attempt to fill Dad's role.

Recommendation: Dad needs to have a democratic style of management and delegate important responsibilities right from the start. Sharing management and decision-making with business partners will prepare them to be independent thinkers and work together so the transition to the next generation doesn't tear the farm or the people apart.

3. Two brothers have lifestyles that clash. The younger brother is low key, easygoing and puts a high priority on family time. His city-raised wife encourages this. He also likes to rodeo and needs time off at crucial times of the year.

The older brother is a workaholic He does the lion's share of the work. His goal is to expand the farm. He worries, makes the tough decisions and does the risk-taking. He and his wife grow more and more angry with the one-sided arrangement. The differences in goals and values are driving each family crazy.

Recommendation: The issues of workload, roles, expectations and fairness needs to be worked through to find middle ground, make agreements and allow for differences in workstyle and family priorities. However, if differences in goals, workstyles or lifestyles are so pronounced, then the operation may need to be split.

4. Two headstrong brothers have tempers and blow up at each other from time to time. Their fights take a long time to heal and then the pattern repeats itself. Resentments and clashes become more frequent.

Recommendation: The key to any successful relationship is to reduce conflict and hostility through a process of accepting differences, positive communication and successful problem-solving. Unbridled tempers can ruin what is otherwise a workable arrangement. Anger management is the key. Both brothers need to learn how to bring up problems in a respectful way, walk away when they are starting to lose control and come back later to work through a problem in a productive manner. Counseling might help.

5. The brothers get along famously and so do their wives. The farm is set up as one big centralized operation. When the children - the cousins - get old enough to farm, the differences in family goals, lifestyles, differing ages and sexes of the children start to drive wedges between the families. Add to that uncles who are hard on nephews and favor their own children. The families are stuck with each other and so are the cousins.

Recommendation: Each families situation is different and so are their goals. Each family will want to pass on their personal assets to their own children. No matter how well you get along now, start a long range planning process. Work toward having the capability of splitting up and to tailor your farming goals to fit your family’s needs.

The brothers chose each other and have a track record for working together. The cousins haven't. Don't force children to be in a business with partners they have not chosen.

6. There are two sisters-in law who have conflicting personalities. One has a full-time off-farm job and the other is an on-farm wife who enjoys outside chores and supports the men in the field. They have trouble recognizing and valuing each other's choices and lifestyle. Add jealousy, anger, guilt trips, spending habits, or a sisters-in-law's irritating weaknesses and you have a formula for tension and resentment. Eventually the brothers start to clash.

Recommendation: Having a regular family business meeting with an agenda and a format for separating work from family problems is crucial. Issues of workstyle, compensation, time off, roles in the business, long term goals, delegation and accountability can be talked out without endangering family relationships. Extra tolerance and respect for differing lifestyles will also help. Having separate social lives will create a healthy distance between the families.