How to Farm with Family

Improving communication can build stronger relationships

Family farms are unique amid business entities because the business focus is continually being juggled with the family focus. Intergenerational and sibling relationships mingle in with and run up against marriage relationships and the dynamics of young families trying to mark their own way with children and work.

Negative influences from past and present family dynamics can cause disagreement on goals and the means of attaining them. The farm’s profitability and financial resiliency may suffer as a result.

Stress compounds the unresolved issues and potential for disagreement. “A big problem potentially interfering with family relationships is the level of stress that farm and ranch families are presently experiencing,” says David Brown, behavioral health specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “Stressors like weather and low commodity prices are putting enormous stress on families. Things like that don’t help families get along.”

Acknowledging the stressors perhaps helps us be more forgiving of ourselves for periodic lapses in our efforts to foster productive family dynamics. Cutting through the stress to keep building strong family relationships is the key to the long-term survival of the family and the farm.

“It all comes down to good communication and good planning,” says Brown. “Families need to know what each other’s role is and who is going to make decisions. A lack of good communication can be more stressful than bad weather.”

An effective tool for improving communication and working relationships within a family is to regularly hold family meetings. To make these as productive as possible, Brown offers these suggestions for meetings as well as daily communication.

Set ground rules for meetings and ensure everyone’s understanding of these. “Have respect for others’ opinions; don’t lecture or put others down,” says Brown. “Be willing to consider differing points of view. That doesn’t mean you need to like that point of view, but you do need to try to understand why the family member holds that point of view.”

Keep voice tones and body language consistent with words. Be sincere and free of disrespect or contempt.

Commit to staying focused on the issues being discussed. Setting an agenda in advance focuses the discussion and helps to keep the meeting relatively brief. Potential discussion topics are as varied as the diverse activities and dynamics comprising a family and a farm or ranch. 

Designate a person to record decisions and agreements that are made. These can be revisited at the next meeting to see how well they are working.

Start off on a positive note. “Start off each meeting with a round of compliments,” says Brown. “Starting with compliments and avoiding criticisms sets the tone of the meeting on a positive track.”

Use soft start-ups to introduce issues. “A soft start-up brings up problems gently and without blaming; it doesn’t threaten or hurt someone else or put them on the defensive,” says Brown. “An example of a hard start-up is, ‘Why can’t you remember anything! I told you 50 times to pick up that feed!’ Using a soft start-up you might say, ‘I would really appreciate it if you would pick up that feed tomorrow.’ ”

Be assertive but not accusatory. “It’s important to practice self-care by speaking up for yourself and setting boundaries on some issues,” he says. “Let ‘I’ statements carry the crux of the message instead of ‘you’ statements. An example is, ‘I feel disregarded when you don’t do what you promise.’ ”

Find common ground. When opposing views block resolution or decision making, try to find the common ground that might reroute the discussion. Identify common goals and the means by which these goals are going to be accomplished.

Find strength in differences. Differences in personality and decision-making styles can cause seemingly insurmountable barriers to forming productive working relationships. “Communication and understanding can help,” says Brown. “If you understand how the person reacts and if you understand where they’re coming from and why they do things the way they do, you can use communication to follow a strategic plan, for instance.”

Understanding might uncover ways to turn differences into strengths. “Maybe one person is more suited to the business end of the operation, while one is best suited to the operations end,” says Brown. “Differing personalities bring differing strengths to the farm.”

Restate or reframe issues or prospective resolutions. Restating is a listening tool that enhances mutual understanding. The listener restates to the speaker what he or she understands the speaker to be saying.

Be willing to backtrack. “If you didn’t introduce a topic or a statement in a positive way, you can always say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Please let me start over,’ ” Brown says.

Forgive and accept forgiveness. “When you have a disagreement with your partner or family member, you need to be willing to consider your partner’s point of view, forgive, and move on,” says Brown. “This leads to understanding.”

Take a break. If discussions get heated, Brown suggests taking a 20-minute break to help frustrations calm down. “That’s how long it takes stress chemicals in the body to disperse,” he says.

Engage professional help. To better resolve particularly difficult issues within the family, engaging an outside mediator could help.

Have fun together. Schedule time to set issues and work aside and engage in activities that let you have fun together as a family or as a couple.

In sum, says Brown, “Keep trying to build better relationships within the family. Working together well and enjoying each other’s company can be a healthy way to manage a business and run a farm.”

Reevaluating Roles

Conflict and stress within families often have their origins in the actual or perceived roles of family members working together in a business.

“In farm families, it’s sometimes assumed, for instance, that the men are automatically the ones who make the decisions,” says Brown. “So while sons are assumed to be the decision makers, a daughter involved in the operation may actually be better suited to the decision-making process.”

As family members gain skills, show commitment, and shoulder responsibilities, there comes a time for leadership roles to be reevaluated and the playing field made more equal. Family discussions in which ground rules of respect are upheld can potentially unearth inequalities and establish a level playing field between spouses, between sons and daughters, and between generations.

“For instance, a little sister might have to assertively confront a controlling big brother by saying, ‘Look. We are not children anymore; we are adults, and we’re equals. This is how I would prefer to be treated,’ ” Brown says.

“Good planning can help family members explore and reevaluate roles,” he says. “Discussions at family meetings can help family members decide what each other’s roles are and who is going to make decisions.”

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David Brown


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