Transitioning the farm to your kids and the in-laws

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Jodi:
Let's start out by talking about your family in farm life. Where do you live? What's your farm like? What's your family like?
Elaine:
Well, I've always been a farm kid. So I grew up on a mixed farm right next door to Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is three hours away from here. My father let me watch him pull Hereford calves, and I learned how to drive a combine. I then became a home economist based on my excitement of being a 4-H'er for nine years. And became an extension county agent is what you would call them in the US, worked with Manitoba agriculture for six years here in Southwestern Manitoba. So I live on mile 16 north of the International Peace Gardens. Some of your listeners may have been there. So I'm in the Southwestern part of Manitoba called Boissevain. And I married the local farmer who has a degree in agriculture and has been a seed grower kid all his life.
Elaine:
And so we have a 5,000 acre certified seed farm, a 33 year old son and daughter-in-law with three beautiful grandchildren who live right next door across the shelter belt. We provide wholesale retail services under the banner of Boissevain Select Seeds, which is now the company which our son owns, which has been part of our transition. And we have Froese family farms, which is our family farm. So we're in the seed business and we grow a lot of wheat, barley, winter wheat, fall rye, a lot more corn now, and a lot of soybeans, rotations of peas. We have 86 grain bins, Jodi, just to give you some context.
Jodi:
Oh my goodness.
Elaine:
So the farm yard that I came to 40 years ago with my husband, when we moved into the house that of course his parents used to live in, looks a lot different in 2021 than it did in 1981 when we got married. So we're very blessed, we've had good years and bad years, but we've always been ahead of the game and really have a great team. My son's best friend works for us as our mechanic, we have a couple from South Africa that we've sponsored to come and live here in Canada. And they're working with us, both the wife, she's a seed analyst, and the husband is one of our employees. And then we have another employee as well. So my husband calls it now a dream team, so we're very, very grateful.
Jodi:
You have a lot under your belt right now. How on earth did you find the time, and how did you become a farm family coach?
Elaine:
Well, I told you earlier that I was trained as a home economist. So the way I'm wired is for communication, empathy, lifelong learning, and positivity. So always seeing that there's got to be a solution to whatever the issue is. And in 1993, Dr. Anne Isbradlin came up from Colorado to do estate planning workshops for the department of agriculture, and I was a young mom at the at time. And they said, Elaine, Dr. Isbradlin's going back to Colorado, could you just take your flip chart and start visiting these farm families as follow-up? And that's where I discovered the sweet spot of getting into the family's mindset at the kitchen table, so to speak. And then two years after that, a friend of mine actually got cancer and asked me to start writing in her spot for a farm paper called Grain News, which went at that time to 50,000 subscribers. So I started writing in Grain News under the banner of Seeds of Encouragement, which is the name of my company. And then that morphed into discovering in 2003 that there is this thing called coaching.
Elaine:
My readers were telling me through the column that I've now written for over 26 years. "Elaine, we can't get people to the table, we're always fighting. Everybody talks that this is a good idea to do a transition, but nothing ever happened." And so from listening to the audiences when I was speaking professionally or writing, I thought, "Look, there's got to be a map for this or a way to make this happen. And that's when I discovered the Hudson Institute, which is in Santa Barbara, California, which is a beautiful place to go to school. And I went there, did long distance learning with them, but we had four, five onsite sessions. And in 2003, Jodi, my life changed because I became a certified Hudson Institute coach, which was one of the top six coaching schools in America at that time. And I became a trailblazer in saying, "Look, we've got to get the family foundation communication first. Once we have that built and working well, then we can make all kinds of amazing plans and decisions for the future legacy of the family and the farm." So that's how this has all transformed over time.
Jodi:
Have you honed in on a specific area where you see the tough issues coming up?
Elaine:
Well, and again, that happened in 2003 because we had to have a thesis as coaches. And here he is, it was a beanie baby bull and his real name under the Ty trademark is Ox. But I used beanie baby bull as my talking stick when I'm working with families. And it's become part of my branding as well, because I told you I grew up on a cattle farm. So I chase steers and I know how steers behave. And so you've got to literally take the bowl by the horns. And you have to say, "Look, we can't keep living like this. We have to talk about the bull in the middle of the room that everybody knows is there, but we're all avoiding."
Elaine:
And so at the same time I was getting my coaching designation, I also was wise in taking conflict resolution and mediation from mediation services in Winnipeg, which is only three hours from my farm. And that was an amazing certification because that also led me into mediating for the federal government for 10 years as a farm debt mediator. So all of this to say, if it's divorce, if it's the in-law factor, if it's the "I'm aging", is it not letting go, keeping power and control, whatever the issue is, it won't surprise me, but we're going to talk about it.
Jodi:
So when you sit down with the family, regardless of what their issue is, where do you start?
Elaine:
So the first thing I do with a family is I have a discovery call with them on the phone, just to get a sense of who they are. And I always draw a family map. So social workers call that a genogram, but what the family map shows me is the squares are men, the circles are female, X'd out for death, diamonds mean someone's pregnant. Anyway, there's a formula for doing this. But what I really want to find out first is, who is in the family? Is it a blended family? Did somebody die? Get remarried? Is grandpa still part of the chain of command and how this farm works? Who is farming, who isn't? Where do they live? What they do? And how old they are. And that's the most important question, Jodi. And I'll tell everybody in your audience, I'm 65. Because again, where is it written that it's not socially cool to tell people how old you are? So George is 62, he's married to Betty who's also 61. They have a son named Ryan who's 35 and a daughter-in-law named Tamara.
Elaine:
And so what's happening here is that George is getting older and son and daughter-in-law are wanting to have more equity, but nobody's talking about what the future plan is so there's tons of uncertainty, which in coaching we call the neutral zone. And a neutral zone is the place of high stress and high anxiety, not unlike being in the middle of a pandemic, because you don't know when it's going to end. And so young farmers, what they're looking for is clarity of expectations, certainty of agreements and timelines, and a commitment to action, because they'll phone me on the phone and say, "Well, Elaine, I've been on this farm for 11 years. We were supposed to have this transition five years ago and it never gets done." I said, "Well, that's typical," because I say that procrastination and conflict avoidance are killing agriculture. So the first thing I do with a family is find out their map, find out how old they are. The next thing I do is I find out, what are your key challenges? And I don't ask them questions, I give them this beautiful audit sheet called the key challenge audit.
Elaine:
And they self-identify. And here's what they'll say. "Elaine, finding fairness, having more expertise at financial planning, being a better listener." And here's the key one, "A high degree decreasing my anxiety, Elaine, over the uncertainty of my future." Guess who's checking that off? It's Tamara and Ryan, because they now have children and they don't have enough money to pay for diapers. And they're upset because not only can they not live well, they also cannot even fathom, where are we going to get disposable income to pay for debt to buy mom and dad out of the pieces of the assets of the farm that they're willing to shift to us? So in my brain it works very clearly. What are the income streams? Where's everybody going to live? And thirdly, how are we going to be fair to the family members who aren't farming? You answer those three questions, Jodi, and you're golden because you are well on your way to getting that clarity around expectations, to get agreements and timelines in place, and keep the action going down the rope.
Jodi:
We talk a lot about the hardheaded family member, who is often the 65 year old male in the family. Not a stereotype, but it's often true.
Elaine:
That's right.
Jodi:
And I'm wondering if it's that generation. I know my own father did not want to talk about money, did not want to talk about any of that kind of stuff. And I've talked with friends who say they have had the same type of issues with their own parents. Is this a generational thing?
Elaine:
I think it's a cultural thing, not generational. And I'll use Wes' father as an example. He got lost in a gas station when we were coming home from a family trip from Alberta. And I said, "Wes, something's wrong with your dad. He got lost, he couldn't find his way back to the car." And he says, "I'm on it, we'll make some appointments." And we did. The next week, we were sitting down with the accountant talking about when the farm was going to transition. So in that succession plan, it was driven by Wes' father's health changing. And he literally did have a brain shrinking disease. And so we got our succession done in six months. And so he was willing to give up power are control because he didn't really want to be a farmer anyway, he actually was a preacher and the farm was just his tent making business.
Elaine:
So every family scenario is different as to why. So in answer to your question, rather than saying, "Oh, it's just because he's part of that generation and this is what all men are like when they're 65." No. The question is, "Dad, I'm just really curious. What is it that you're afraid of as you look towards where you want to be in the next 10, 15, 20 years? Are you afraid of losing your wealth?" Because that's a big fear is that you have spent 40 years... Look at Wes and I, we've spent 40 years on this farm. We have a multimillion dollar farm now that we are transitioning to our 33 year old son and daughter-in-law. I have another child who is not part of the farm who also has to be looked after, and she is through our estate and through trust and other mechanisms, but they're never going to be economically equal.
Elaine:
And as a parent, I'm good with that because they have respect for each other and everybody comes home for Christmas or Easter or whatever the celebration is. So where is it written that parents are to make all of their children economically equal? That is a cultural problem because some cultures in the state that you live in that have a certain name. That we are this kind of family and everything will be absolutely chop, chop, chop, divided equally. Well, that's not workable in agriculture 2021. And where is it written that it's your job as a parent to make all of your children economically equal? So I ask some pretty direct, hard questions that make people feel really uncomfortable. The other thing I say is, "Are you afraid? Are you afraid that your son or daughter-in-law or daughter, the successor daughter, is going to flip this farm and just sell it off in the next five years?" "Well yeah, Elaine, actually I am." I said, "Great. Let's have that conversation."
Elaine:
And so I don't care what the fear is, I want it on the table. Because when we can name it, then we can start creating solutions around it. And we can also be emotional, because again, where is it written that men shouldn't cry? I have the gift of letting men cry in my presence because finally they've met someone who understands this is hard to not be transparent about, but I give them permission to be just vulnerable. And like Brene Brown says, it takes courage to be vulnerable, but being clear, she also says, is kind. Because then we're no longer guessing what George and Betty want because George and Betty are actually telling us. And there's the other problem. What if George and Betty don't agree? Then you have conflict in the founders, and your transition plan is stuck until George and Betty start working together in the same direction.
Jodi:
How do in-laws play into a transition? Maybe they can't say a lot, they should say a lot. Now, how does that person get involved?
Elaine:
Well, my question around the in-laws, I've written a book called "Farming's In-Law Factor" with Dr. Megan McKenzie, we spent most of 2014 and researching doing that. It's got a great bibliography, because there's very little written on that entire subject. I had men coming up to me after seminar saying, "Elaine, really great stuff that you shared, but how do I deal with my daughter-in-law?" I go, "What do you mean how do you deal with your daughter-in-law? She's not a tractor, she's a person, she's a human being." And again, it works both ways because I've also worked with daughters who are successors and the son-in-law. So in terms of the in-law fact, again, we want to look at, what are you afraid of? There are men who are in patriarchal cultures of farming who say, "Let's just keep the women out of it and there won't be any drama and it'll be so much easier." I go, "Yikes."
Elaine:
So when you're talking about in-laws, what I want you to think about is the skillset that everybody brings to the table. So your successor's son gets married to someone, well, that person has all kinds of skillsets that could be beneficial to the farm, but you made a very big mistake on the day they got married. You decided after your children are married or maybe they're living common law, I don't know, and Australia they call that almost married, which I think is interesting. Whether they're almost married or married, your children have decided who their life partners are going to be. As far as I'm concerned, the decision's been made and you no longer have the right to curse or cut them out of the conversation. Because in my value system, a married couple is one unit, and it also is a powerhouse of skill and opportunity for the good of the family and the good of the farm.
Elaine:
But the other thing we have to talk about is fear of divorce, because we all know the stats on divorce. And so then we have conversations around risk management. And again, conflict resolution and being good at it is a business risk management strategy. So if you have a fear around your son who's getting married to this amazing young woman, then you have prenup agreements or you have marriage contracts. And the young woman doesn't feel judged by her farming in-law, she says, "Okay, Elaine, I just get to prove to them how wonderful I am for the next 25 or 30 years. And there won't even be an opportunity or a need to pull that prenup or that marriage contract out of the drawer because we're never going to have to use it." It's just like life insurance. You have life insurance for risk and for when people die, but it's where people have their mindset, Jodi.
Elaine:
And that's what I'm working so hard to blow out of the water for agriculture, because Peter Drucker had a saying, "Culture beats strategy for breakfast." So you can have the best accounting plans, the best lawyer plans, people can tell you how to run your farm financially, I really don't care. What I care about is, what do you believe to be true and what you value. And in our farm, a certified seed farm, we have a zero tolerance for dishonesty. We're government regulated, we have errors and emissions insurance, quality assurance is like job one for us as certified seekers. How do we behave with each other? There's no swearing on our farm. There's no profanity. There's no throwing things. There's no drama. You have an issue, let's have a meeting or let's sit down and let's get this solved. And the third piece is, how do we make decisions?
Elaine:
Well, in our farm, I'm married to a 64 year old founder who's gracefully letting go to his 33 year old son, but they still make decisions collaboratively, which is the goal I have for in-laws. So don't shut your daughter-in-law or your son-in-law off the farm and say, "She can have no voice," or, "He can have no voice." I go, "Come on in. More heads for this decision, the better." And that's what really slays me about these old patriarchal, whatever cultural mindsets that are keeping families stuck. And then you have brilliant women in agriculture with PhDs and degrees in agriculture and and all this training. And boy, if you're not going to let them sing a song of harmony on your farm, they're going to find that harmony somewhere else.
Jodi:
On the flip side, when you are that woman with the PhD in agriculture and you've got that hard-headed father-in-law, how does the woman address him and bring him around to her way of thinking or at least thinking for the future?
Elaine:
Well, that's called managing stubborn farmers. And there's a webinar for that. I did it years ago after my coaching training. There's is wonderful man named Barry Johnson who wrote a book on polarities. And a polarity is a problem that never goes away, but just needs to be managed. And so an example of a polarity would be work and play. We all want to work, but we also want to have play time. Another polarity was we can plan, we can plan, we can plan, but talk does not cook rice, is another saying I am. So you have to actually focus and then you have to execute. So for the woman with a PhD who has a stubborn father-in-law, I would come from curiosity. And I would also work really hard on the relationship and coming from curiosity and drawing out from this man, "Wow, this really upsets you," or, "Tell me how you got the farm from your father."
Elaine:
And it's so important to know the backstory or the back channel, because I'll have men who are in their seventies who've been farming since they were 21 because their father died at a young age. I've had two situations where a farmer, he said, "Elaine, I've milked cows for 30, I'm 51. My son is welcome to have it." But the flip side of that is, the men who've never known anything different. And they're afraid of change because in coaching terms, we say, you don't let go of something unless you have something more exciting to move towards and hang onto. So for the PhD woman, I would get her to start really exploring what the father-in-law would be really excited about moving towards. And also just filling his love tank, filling his emotional bank account. Because I'm a big fan of Dr. Gary Chapman's love languages, and his other book called "When Saying Sorry is Not Enough". And I think people in agriculture have to understand, we're not going to keep the emotions out of it, because the emotions are everything.
Elaine:
People make decisions, 80% of decisions someone said, don't know where this comes from, are based on emotions. Why do you drive a green tractor instead of a red one or a blue one or an orange one? In our farm we're multicolored. We're an all inclusive farm for all different colors, doesn't matter. So this woman is saying, "I have a PhD, I am smart, I am able, I am skilled, I am getting shut down in this place." And you may have to be very patient, but I would take the approach of working on the relationship and coming from curiosity. And also doing some more self-assessment as the woman with a PhD on her own conflict skills, because I have a conflict dynamic profile that comes from Eckerd college in St. Petersburg. And it's a wonderful online profile to help you understand, how good are you at sharing emotion? How good are you at creating solution? How good are you at reaching out?
Elaine:
So this daughter-in-law with a PhD is going to reach out and she's just going to be kind and gracious and curious, and she will win her father-in-law over. Because she's not there as a threat, she's there as a gift. And again, that's that blessing and cursing dichotomy, Jodi. When your kids get married, as far as I'm concerned, the day they commit to each other, blessing is the way to go, because cursing is absolute stupidity. I'm not going to say you're stupid, I'm going to say, "Wow, just curious, have you ever thought about all the amazing skills that that woman with a PhD could bring to your operation? She might want to sit on the soybean board, the corn board." And I've met these women and they're amazing, but they're going home and they're heartbroken because they're not being validated in agriculture for what they bring to the table. And there's also people who are so stubborn that the only day that they're going to change is when they're no longer part of the operation. And that's just really, really sad.
Jodi:
So Elaine, there is so much we could dive into here, but I'm coming up on our allotted time. If there's one thing you want farm families to know going through a transition, what is that?
Elaine:
I want them to know, Jodi, that going through the journey of farm succession and transition does not have to be dramatic or hard. And I had this come up last week when I was speaking to the Ontario potato growers. The woman came to the mic and she said, "Elaine, I can't ask that question. I can't ask my kids, what does fairness look like to you as we pass along the farm? Because I'm too afraid of the conflict."
Elaine:
And I looked at her and I said, "Where is it written that it has to be conflictual? Where is it written that it has to be hard? And I'm standing here testimony, I am in my third succession plan. I did it in '92 with the Froese family, I did it in '98 with my own family of origin at that farm near Winnipeg, and I'm now doing it again for the third time with our son and our daughter. And it doesn't have to be hard." So my key line is, it's your farm, it's your family, it's your choice. And I will help you on the journey to find harmony through understanding. So let's work at understanding each other better.
Jodi:
Elaine, can you tell our listeners where they can find your coaching services and seminars if they want to get ahold of you for more information?
Elaine:
Easiest thing to do is just type in farmfamilycoach.com. You'll find me. I'd love you to watch my speaker reel because even if you're not an event planner, you can get a picture of our farm and all the beautiful drone shots. But I have five books, but most of all, I'd really love your listeners to sign up for my farm family coach insights, because that comes out every couple of weeks with a video and an article, just to keep encouraging you. Because we all need encouragement, we all go through these cycles of, "Oh, I'm going for it and everything's great." But then some of you as listeners are in the doldrums , some of you are getting ready for something new, and some of you actually need to do a lot of inner work, which is beyond what I do. But I say counseling is about recovery, but coaching is about discovery. So let me help you discover how we can move your farm family in a forward direction to have the life you've always wanted.

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