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Top 5 Family Farm Conflicts

  • Farming can create high amounts of stress, anxiety, and depression, especially when commodity prices drop. Ted Matthews (320/266-2390) is a rural mental health therapist who counsels Minnesota farm families. He identifies five topics he hears most often, and gives advice on how to solve the conflicts.

  • 1. Labor

    Larger farms mean more hired labor, and that can be a management nightmare. "Many farmers find it difficult to supervise workers, including their own children," says Matthews. "They can't understand why workers leave."

  • He visited one farm that was having problems retaining employees. "The amount of work the father and son did was intimidating; employees couldn't keep up. No matter how hard they worked, it was never hard enough."

    Hispanic workers present additional challenges. Farmers often give employees who speak the best English the most say, even if they are not the most qualified. Other workers leave.

  • Solution

    Set realistic expectations. Employees want reasonable work hours and time off. "When you expect employees to have as much energy and enthusiasm as you, you will be disappointed," says Matthews. "They aren't part of the farm decision-making and profit."

  • 2. Prenups

    Prenuptial agreements are such an ugly concept for people, says Matthews. "They think, if we think we're going to get divorced, why get married?" However, it is an absolute necessity with farmers, he says. "If the couple gets divorced and they own a family farm, it'll end. You can't split a farm 50-50 and keep farming."

  • Solution

    The future of the family farm and what prenuptial agreements mean need to be discussed with children long before anyone talks of marriage. It is important they understand the value of this agreement as it pertains to the future of the farm, without adding in the emotion. So remember, sign the prenup; It doesn't mean the spouse gets nothing in a divorce settlement.

  • 3. Retirement (or not)

    Today, there are many active farmers in their eighties, but adult children do not want to wait until they are 60 to take over. There are conflicts with spouses, too. Mom retires from her job in town and wants to relax. "She's ready to live that retirement life, and she deserves it," says Matthews, "but Dad won't leave the farm."

  • Solution

    Establish a long-term goal for passing on the farm. Work with your ag lenders and farm business management experts to create a workable plan.

  • 4. Inheritance

    Inheritance and sweat equity are huge issues, says Matthews. "Fair is a four-letter word." There was a time when the oldest son automatically had first crack at the farm. Now parents try to make it fair to other children, even if they don't work or live on the farm. This can break apart families, because everyone has a different concept of what's fair.

  • Solution

    Mom and Dad have to make a decision whether or not they want to maintain the family farm. If they do, they must realistically look at the costs involved in the continuance of the family operation. After that they can look at fairly dividing all that is left, assuming there is something left. If they don't wish to maintain the farm, they can simply divide all the assets equally. 

  • The problem lies in parents trying to keep everyone happy, because this is not usually possible, says Matthews. "They do nothing and postpone their decisions year after year. That does not mean that the parents don't want a solution, it simply means they want to make everyone happy. They cannot."

  • 5. Gender Equity

    Many, if not most, women work off of the farm now, says Matthews. "A lot of them are working in jobs they don't like just to get insurance, giving energy to a job they don't enjoy. They get home and want to relax, because they've already put in a full day." Often, however, they are needed to keep the farm books.

  • With the advent of women doing the finances comes a new problem, says Matthews. "In decades past, the male made the decisions. Bookkeeping wasn't as critical or time-consuming as it is now. Today, when women see the numbers, purchases, and decisions made, they can't help but have an opinion on these expenditures. Why a new tractor? Why not a smaller or a used tractor?"

  • Solution

    Stop looking back. The world has changed. Women need job satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, too. "It's not possible to be the perfect farm wife and work away from the home," says Matthews. Men need to listen and try to understand the difficulties women have working off of the farm.

  • The farm can only succeed if both spouses work together to create a successful operation. Defining what that means can vary greatly. "The farmer is doing what he WANTS to do," says Matthews. "The wife is sometimes doing what she NEEDS to do, and he must acknowledge this. Both need to respect the other's difficulties and fears.

And How to Solve Them

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