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Surprise! I am coming back to the farm

Elaine Froese for Progressive Dairy Published on 28 June 2019

“Elaine, we are not sure what to do: Our son who never had time for the farm has just informed us that he is planning to come back to farm with us. Problem is, his brother, who has farmed with us for 11 years, is not happy about this.”

As a farm family coach, I don’t like surprises. I definitely am not a fan of family secrets that eventually rise to the surface with deep conversations.

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Summer is busy, so farmers deeply appreciate many hands on deck. Successful farms know their numbers and how many families can be well supported by the farm’s profits.

The problem with people who swear they are never going to come back to the farm and then return when their other careers go soft is: The farm successor was counting on not having to deal with siblings sharing farm equity.

As a parent, do you feel obligated to let all of your children farm with you regardless of when they choose to stay or come back?

Farm management specialist John Souman of CanEurope Consulting recommends parents give adult children until age 25 to declare whether they are in or out of the farm business.

This gives a clear deadline as to when the choice is made. It also gives brains a chance to grow into fuller maturity and time to work off-farm to gain new skills.

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FCC’s transition specialist Patti Durand sees a trend of older adult children giving labour on weekends, using their time spent on the farm to test out whether there might be room for them to be a future shareholder.

Some siblings generously contribute labour for the “good of the family farm” without any hidden expectations. The “undiscussabull,” the bull in the middle of the room, is: “Who is allowed to be part of this farm business, and who will have to find employment elsewhere?”

Joint ventures with non-family members are an option for farm kids who cannot find a welcome mat at their home farm.

I have seen this work well for a young couple whose parents refused to give up monetary control and treated the next generation with tons of negativity.

The young couple found a successful farmer down the road who was happy to “adopt” a non-family successor with well-written legal agreements.

A recent distress call from Ontario revealed an aging father who was confused why his farming son was unhappy about 100 acres being titled to his non-farming sister.

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When I asked if there was a group discussion about this decision with a trusted adviser, the answer was “no.” Surprise! Your non-farm sibling now has control over some of the land you thought you had in your farm package.

Why is this happening?

1. Conflict avoidance. People still have not embraced the mindset of having transparent, tough conversations in order to create solutions and share intent. This is basic conflict resolution 101. If you do conflict well, you will be unstoppable.

2. Assumptions. “Love does not read minds.” You really need to ask questions and get your business plan written into agreements that have clear timelines and well-thought-out consequences. Stop guessing what the rest of your adult children are thinking, needing, feeling or wanting. Get a good facilitator on board, and explore everyone’s desires and expectations.

3. Set boundaries and say no. Expectations can be a shortcut to discontent. Unrealistic expectations are alive and well with families who don’t communicate what they want as founders and what they can financially accommodate as profitable ventures. Increasing your yield is not as important as increasing your profit. What does the financial snapshot of your farm predict? How many families can realistically draw income from your farm business?

4. Family living income streams. Get really clear on what the next decade or two looks like for you to live at the level you desire. Don’t tell me you can live on $18,500 when the real number is $55,000. Dr. David Kohl likes to compare a typical farm family of four needing about the same amount as a new Corvette ($87,000 in Brandon, Manitoba … I asked the dealer.) A robust financial transparency conversation using facts, not just feelings, will give you a starting point for tough conversations.

5. “But Dad, you promised.” And Dad says, “That was then; this is now.” Things change. Change is inevitable, but growth is optional. People get sick, injured and tired. Cattle get sold, bins are purchased, and the business plan changes. It’s hard for parents to change their plans, but it helps when you can explain your “why” of how you have made certain business decisions. Explaining your intent is helpful when you listen to the effect of your actions and words. Learn to sit, listen without interruption, and explore new solutions to the current state of affairs.

6. Get ready for a different chapter. Use your network to find out where you can match your skills to a keen employer. Prove your work ethic and farm smarts. If the family farm conflict is unresolved, it may be a key indicator that you need to get ready to invest your skills and energy in a different farm business. Dr. Henry Cloud has a great book called Necessary Endings with tips about what to do when things don’t work out.

7. “Where is it written?” This is the communication tool of Susan Forward, who authored Emotional Blackmail. Where is it written that all of your children are entitled to work and share equity in your farm business? If this is an unwritten rule, it’s going to cause deep anger when one sibling is far ahead with years of sweat equity only to discover his younger sibling is coming into the business a decade later with equal compensation. Ouch.

8. Fairness is helping everyone be successful. Yes, but your future may be elsewhere for employment, not on the home farm. What do you need help with to be successful? Watch my YouTube video, “Finding Fairness in Farm Transition.”  end mark

Elaine Froese, CSP, CAFA, CHICoach, is the 2018 recipient of the Wilson Loree Award for Excellence in Farm Business Management and 4-H Canada’s Most Distinguished Alumna Award. Visit her website and glean her free farm family toolkit.

Elaine Froese
  • Elaine Froese

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