Is your farm ‘too family?’

Guide Life: Put the emphasis on business, family experts say. It will reduce conflict for everyone

For as long as there have been farmers in Canada, we have pointed with great pride to “The Family Farm.” Maybe, however, we’ve been taking too much pride in the family part of our family farms, and by doing so, we may actually be creating more conflict.

Winnipeg business adviser and psychologist Pam Paquet suggests there would be fewer problems if we trained ourselves to think of our farms as farm businesses owned by a family instead of as family farms.

Having worked with family businesses for years, Paquet finds that when we put the focus on the family instead of the business, the business often survives, but the family may end up divided, with family members who are no longer on speaking terms.

When you add inherent generational differences into the mix, the potential for conflict gets even nastier, adds Paquet. “Family plus money equals trouble,” she says.

The problem, Paquet says, is that when we put the focus on family first, we can become lazy communicators and we can also fall into the trap of operating on assumptions.

By treating the farm as a legitimate business with policies and proper documentation, however, you can avoid the resentments that build when family members feel they are not being treated fairly.

In fact, your first step may be to actually accept that such tensions aren’t inevitable. There are lots of tried and proven tactics for preventing them. For instance, having a job description that details the abilities and skills needed to do a job can help prevent adult children from developing a sense of entitlement and assuming they’re going to take on a certain role just because of their birth order.

“Children need to earn their positions,” Paquet says. If you make decisions based on business metrics that are clear to everyone, it avoids the accusations of favouritism that will otherwise swirl in the background.

Paquet says we often assume that if a family member doesn’t have the skills needed to do the job, they will simply pick up the necessary skills as they gain experience.

This can be a dangerous assumption, however, and the fallout can be serious.

If, on the other hand, the farm has clear, written job descriptions, then knowledge gaps can be identified and a plan for upgrading skills can be implemented.

Having job descriptions also helps those coming into the business to be clear on expectations. For example, if a farming son marries, it shouldn’t be assumed that his spouse will know what needs to be done and have the necessary training to do it.

A lack of formal planning is another problem in many family businesses, says Paquet. Business and succession plans are even more important in family businesses, she says. The business plan includes a vision for how the farm will operate, and the succession plan stipulates how the farm will be transferred to the next generation.

“Going through the planning process helps you to get it clear in your own head,” says Paquet. “And writing it down kicks up the level of commitment.Talking about it isn’t enough.”

The planning process helps family members to see where differences in values and ideas may cause problems with plan implementation. The planning exercise will also clarify the needs, wants and expectations of everyone involved; and with a plan in place there are goals, so progress can be measured.

Then, Mom and Dad can also begin to see themselves as the CEOs, says Paquet.

Communication is another important piece for harmony in family businesses, says Paquet. There need to be regular and frequent meetings with agendas and minutes, and with all the key players at the table, she says. Those regular meetings should also generate to-do lists with concrete deadlines and measurable expectations, plus clear accountabilities for those who are expected to do the work.

For family members not directly involved in the day-to-day operation of the business, three or four board-style meetings can be held each year to keep them up to date on the farm situation, says Paquet.

But they must be real meetings. Simply having a conversation over the family dinner table doesn’t count.

Elaine Froese, farm family coach from Boissevain, Man. and author of Farming’s In-Law Factor, agrees it’s important to separate family and business. Some families are so enmeshed, there’s no privacy, she explains.

Young couples need to be able to do things differently if they want, she says. For example, a son may want to change the routine by spending time with his young children after dinner before heading back out to the barn.

Other family members need to respect their family rules, Froese says.

Also don’t assume that when a son or daughter marries, the new spouse will be automatically aware of the unwritten codes that exist on the farm, says Froese. For example, the spouse may not be aware of when you’re expected to take vacations, or who is expected to say what to which family members.

It can also happen that a mother will have a hard time finding her role in the new dynamic when the son marries. There may need to be negotiation around who performs what jobs.

Froese encourages mothers and daughters-in-law to talk about the jobs they do. For example, who is going to do the record-keeping, pay the bills and take meals to the field?

Froese recalls a situation where the mother-in-law was picking up groceries for her son and his wife. While her intent was to be helpful, the daughter-in-law felt it was a criticism of the job she was doing. Froese says it would have been better for the mother-in-law to explain that her intent was to help and to ask for permission.

A mother-in-law can be a mentor for the daughter-in-law, says Paquet, who suggests the mother-in-law write a job description for herself then ask the daughter-in-law what role she would like to play.

Paquet urges mothers-in-law not to judge or make assumptions. The daughter-in-law may not know how to prepare meals for the field or drive a stick shift. And don’t expect the son to show the daughter-in-law the ropes, she adds. “He has never done that job.”

Froese agrees. She encourages women to have open communication, avoid assumptions and to have a learner mindset rather than a judger mindset. “Be gracious, loving, clear about intent and open to change.”

Family meetings are a good place to discuss family traditions and where you will spend the holidays. “This can get even more complicated with blended families involving step-parents and step-grandparents,” says Froese.

Froese also encourages farm family members to have support networks outside of the farm family. “A lot of people who are unhappy are isolated,” she explains. Froese encourages the use of technologies like Skype and Facebook to stay in touch.

When tensions increase and communication breaks down, both Paquet and Froese recommend calling in professional help. This should be an objective third party who is not connected to the business, says Paquet. “If a family member tries to step in, usually everyone will end up mad at that person.”

Paquet also recommends a mediator or counsellor who has been trained, because family issues on the farm can be complex, and the stakes are high. “Make sure the consultant you hire has the credentials and understands farming,” she suggests. “Ask around for a word-of-mouth referral. Bankers are often in the know.”

Some people may balk at the cost of hiring professional help. But, points out Froese, the costs of family collapse can be so much bigger.

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