5 GOLDEN RULES FOR BLENDING FARM FAMILIES

By Tricia Sullivan, Case Co-ordinator, Farm Life Financial


Managing In-law Dynamics Without Giving Away the Farm


It’s no secret that relationships are tough.


Families are complicated and working relationships can be delicate. So when these are one and the same, as in a farm family business, it’s easy to understand that personal complexities and financial pressures can foster potential for conflict.


Now, cue the arrival of a new spouse to the farm and watch the worries and fears multiply in the minds of everyone.

I have to admit, that I finally understood my mother-in-law much better once I had two sons of my own. It took time and it was worth it. But we could have been here sooner if I had put myself in her shoes more often. With a farm business, the family’s number one job is protecting the farm, so it’s natural that territorial feelings are stirred. This is why it’s essential to clearly establish expectations and roles to provide clarity in moving forward.

This is where having a thorough succession plan comes in. But long before crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, the most important first steps of the process is understanding and acknowledging the emotional foundations that underpin all family members’ concerns.


In the same way that this will help everyone’s journey through the succession planning process, it will also reduce concerns, anxiety and vulnerability when one or more new family members are welcomed onto the farm through marriage.

Here is a short list of common reactions and important responses to consider when growing a farm family business.


1. COMMUNICATION “Never assume.”

Clear and consistent communication skills pave the way for progress. Check your presumptions at the door because the minute you believe you know how someone else is thinking or feeling is the minute open communication goes off the rails. That also means not expecting that others should know how you’re thinking or feeling. Tell them how you feel, what you think, and encourage others to safely do the same. Leave mind reading to the pros.



A family communication charter is a family-created document that clearly outlines expectations of how family members treat each other and behave in discussions. I can honestly say from my work with families in succession planning that this is such an important step, I encourage anyone interested to reach out to me for assistance in getting started. It’s the essential starting place.


2. RESPECT “Be willing to listen and learn.”

Multi-generations around a kitchen table bring a wealth of knowledge and ability – also a variety of philosophies and priorities. As a newcomer to the farm, being respectful means understanding that the farm is a lifetime of work for parents-in-law; the family home, the land and the business are all powerfully intertwined with their identity. Letting go is hard. Opening up is hard. Welcoming new family members in is hard. Acknowledging this and respecting the history of the farm is a way to earn respect of the family and find a place to fit.


3. AWARENESS “Understand who you’re working with.”

Recognize and appreciate changing times and generational differences. Just as parents were raised within a society of certain values, children have grown up in a new era with new technologies, options and approaches.

It starts with self-awareness, followed by an understanding of others.

Relationships don’t come with an instruction manual but we can take the time to really understand each other’s unique motivating drives that underlie behaviours. In our work with families, we encourage everyone to complete a behavioural assessment: it provides insight into individual needs, communication styles, approaches to problem-solving and decision making, and more. We then walk the family through a group analysis: identifying and discussing best ways for the family to work together to leverage their strengths. This helps with problem- solving, builds more effective communication, assists with role assignment and facilitates a tailored development plan for next-generation leasers.


4. PERSPECTIVE “Don’t take everything personally.”

A new spouse may wonder when the newcomer status will fade, if ever, and if he or she has a hope of one day feeling accepted as “real” family. They may sense nervous vibes from in-laws uncomfortable with change or the vulnerability that comes with it. What does it take to belong?

Parents and siblings may feel genuinely threatened and respond with a protectiveness of the farm, the roles and routines of everyone living on it, the financial sustainability, and the implicit hierarchy that may not be understood by the newcomer. Their sense of the security of the farm and their futures may feel shaken.

If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not about you”, believe it. It’s really not. It is about protecting a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.

No one enters into a marriage counting on it failing. But the risk of marital breakdown is always a concern among farm families – what if something happens, what if we lose the farm or have to buy it back? Spousal involvement is a tricky topic, but one that needs to be addressed following the communication guidelines discussed above. Good planning is an essential part of any successful business. See this “what-if” as not a personal insult to a newcomer, but as a necessary part of good planning for a family farm that has been around for generations and whose caretakers want to carry on the legacy.


5. EMPATHY “Walk a mile in their shoes.”

Try to see things from a different perspective. If we’re being honest, this is a reminder that we need frequently. When we are busy or stressed (or both), it’s easy to be consumed with our own circumstances and blind to what others have going on. Are you, the family, feeling that newcomers are not helping out? Pause, examine, and evaluate your frustrations. Do you remember what it is like to enter a new family? Have young kids? Balance work and family? Are your expectations proportionate with the time you put into training and guiding the newcomer?

Are you, the newcomer, feeling like you don’t belong? Try to remember that people express themselves differently and it can take some time to adjust. If you come from a family of “huggers” it can be tough to be surrounded by one that does not show affection. Learn and understand where they are coming from. If we haven’t been through a situation ourselves, it can be easy to judge the choices and reactions of others.


These behavioural practises take a lot of work and you may be lucky to do just one of these things well. We’re all just trying to get along and sometimes we get in our own way.

Many people are surprised by how much behavioural work is involved with my job, but it’s what I love most about it.

If your farm family is experiencing growing pains, reach out to an expert who can advise you on how putting aside emotions and getting those t’s crossed. In no time, and with great relief, the family and farm will be back on solid ground. ~


No one enters into a marriage counting on it failing. But the risk of marital breakdown is always a concern among farm families – what if something happens, what if we lose the farm or have to buy it back? Spousal involvement is a tricky topic, but one that needs to be addressed following the communication guidelines discussed above. Good planning is an essential part of any successful business. See this “what-if” as not a personal insult to a newcomer, but as a necessary part of good planning for a family farm that has been around for generations and whose caretakers want to carry on the legacy.



The best time to start succession planning for your farm is today.

 

Tricia Sullivan

Case Co-ordinator


Areas of Specialization:

  • Client case coordination

  • Liaison with community partners and professional teams

  • Experienced youth caseworker

tricia@farmlifefinancial.ca
705-775-8000

 


Farm Life Financial was founded in 2015 by Darrell Wade with the vision to help farmers find financial stability

on their farm and ensure the farm can live on for future generations to come. That includes a comprehensive succession plan that builds family harmony while protecting the farm legacy. Farm Life’s approach builds out tax efficient financial and succession strategies to educate and empower farm families to keep farming.


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