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What young farmers wish parents understood

Elaine Froese for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 February 2016

“We wish parents understood” was part of the Twitter feed from young farmers attending the AgExcellence Conference held in Regina, Saskatchewan, in November.

Here is the list of the items they wish parents understood:

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1. Work/life balance

In February, we celebrated Valentine’s Day. I recall one wife finding me at a farm show to say “thank you” for the best February birthday she had ever had.

Apparently her husband was in my audience and heard my encouragement to “date your wife,” show up with cards, flowers and an invitation for a restaurant meal. He followed through for the first time in their 24-year marriage, and she was shocked but thrilled to be cherished in that way.

I often tell audiences that the next generation is not willing to put in the long work hours the parents have, and heads nod in agreement. Unfortunately, I think “balance” is a misnomer, as it is something that is never done and always needs to be negotiated in the family.

It is also tied to the question of farm growth. Is this farm big enough? Can we sustain the pace of work already required? Could we become more efficient with what we already have? How can we get a workaholic father or founder to realize that we are not him?

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As with most tough issues, this one requires communication about reasonable expectations. The urgency here is to protect the marriage and family values of each couple.

If the farming son values tucking his son into bed with stories, Grandpa better stop fuming in the barn. If the marriage crumbles due to lack of attention, you have a bigger threat to handle, and it is called “divorce.” Be intentional about building fun into your farm week.

2. This is 2015

I think this aligns with embracing change or “that was then, this is now.” Some things, like lack of neighbourly visits and parties, aren’t happening anymore in my neighbourhood. It speaks to new ways and approaches to farming.

I see this with the next generation being quicker to outsource tasks like bookkeeping or custom work that pencils out better with the skill sets they want to offer to the farm. It also means embracing new technologies and using the computer to analyze data for better decision-making. Take away my son’s Internet for research, and he would be crippled.

3. Let’s get a plan

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Young farmers have high anxiety and stress with not knowing what “the plan” is for their future options to build equity and create financial security for their growing families. Let’s take the complex and make it simpler.

Break your plans down to communication with one another for clarity of expectations, a lifestyle plan that outlines the income stream needed for family living for both generations, a succession plan with timelines as to when the management and ownership pieces will start shifting, and a business plan for the vision of the farm in the next five years.

The estate plan is for death, so get the wills updated and have an enduring power of attorney with your spouse and an alternate. The plan may also involve a discussion of where the parents plan to live for the next 15 years and who is available to help with childcare on and off the farm. Was that complicated? No, just a series of plans that are inter-related.

4. Parents are entitled to retire

Parents are entitled to retire, but 30 percent of farmers in Iowa never do. I prefer the term re-invention, as parents’ roles change to suit the needs of the new management of the younger generation.

Compassionate farm dads and moms make great mentors, and young farmers appreciate gracious and wise elders who are happy to make collaborative decisions with the energy of youth and the wisdom of experience.

If the parents have been wise enough to create a “personal wealth bubble” outside of the farm’s accounts, they may have funds to play, travel and gift to non-business heirs without creating too much stress on the farm’s cash flow. The main point here is to have a full-blown exploration with the parents as to what a good day to them is like for them on the farm in their re-invention years.

The message from my 70-something audience in Alberta was, “Don’t wait until after 65 to travel; do it earlier while you still have your health to enjoy it.” I enjoy the millennials who tell me their parents deserve to enjoy the fruit of their labour of more than 40 years, and they desire that the parents have fun.

5. Partners get to choose; they don’t have to be involved

In 2016, a good percentage of young farmers have two jobs, one on the farm and one away. Some people who are married to farmers choose not to get involved in the farm business at all. They create a very clear boundary that states, “I married you, not the farm.”

Older people don’t like to hear this. In their perfect world everyone on the farm, regardless of gender or roles, pitches in, especially in the busy seasons of spring planting and harvest.

My coaching conversations have revealed amazing incomes and energy for other careers that young women especially are not appreciated for bringing to the table. Their off-farm income allows the farm spouse to churn funds back into farm growth, yet their contribution of cash flow for family living is not appreciated or recognized by the founders.

Again, the best remedy for this misalignment of values is to have courageous, transparent conversations about what roles work for you and which ones you cannot embrace.

What would you add to the list that you wish your parents understood?  PD

Elaine Froese contributes to her farm cash flow as an author, speaker and coach. Email her for a set of $10 binder tabs to help get your farm plan started.

Elaine Froese

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