Silence isn’t golden if you want the family farm to prosper

NAVIGATE Farm family coach and succession planner Elaine Froese says 
families need to get better at navigating their personal relationships and emotions — 
because their farm business depends on it

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Farmers — particularly the male version — have a reputation for keeping their feelings hidden. But anyone who thinks emotions don’t affect business decisions on the farm is just fooling themselves.

Just take a look at what’s in the yard, farm family coach and succession planner Elaine Froese said at the recent Manitoba Special Crops Symposium.

“I know you’re all emotional beings,” said Froese. “How do I know that? Because you all drive green tractors.”

Brand loyalty is just one example of how the heart rules the head, and Froese admits she’s not above it herself — her family’s farm operation near Boissevain features a lot of green paint. Their most recent equipment purchase was another colour, but it took a price that was $30,000 lower than a comparable machine from their favourite equipment maker to overcome the emotional attachment.

Nowhere is the unseen hand of unspoken feelings more evident than in succession planning, said Froese, adding she knows families who’ve spent a fortune in legal fees and been left with scarred relationships or estrangement.

Which emotion is behind all of this stress and upset, she asked. Greed? Jealousy? Sibling rivalry? All might play a role, Froese said, but the main driver is fear.

Fear causes farm families to put off hard discussions, fail to do the necessary paperwork, hide facts from family members, and all sorts of other shenanigans, she said.

Using a clicker system to conduct an instant poll, Froese asked audiences to say if they had a current will or not. About 40 per cent said ‘no.’ That’s pretty typical — and there’s a simple reason why people don’t take this simple and necessary step, said Froese.

“We think that if we have a will, we’re going to die,” she said. “And if we don’t have a will, we’re golden.”

The desire to ignore difficult topics is an all-too-human response and happens time and again in the succession planning process, Froese said. Family members avoid some topics because they fear discussing them will stir up bad feelings. Usually everyone is keenly aware of what’s going on, but the taboo subject is as hard to ignore as a bull in your living room, she said.

“I call these the undiscussabulls,” Froese said. “And they need to be talked about.”

If not, they can take on a life of their own and resentments build up, creating a powder keg waiting for a spark to set it off. The issues tend to be similar from farm to farm and family to family.

“What are we going to do about the girls? What are we going to do about the son in Calgary? How about the son who just came back because you can make money on the farm now?” Froese said.

“This is farming’s golden time right now. But what happens when it’s golden? People fight a bit more and a bit more easily, because there’s something at stake.”

A good starting point is recognizing that all family members, on and off the farm, likely want to understand how things sit. Froese boils it down to the ‘three Cs’ — clarity, certainty and the commitment to act.

Clarity means keeping others informed about routine matters, but also big ones such as how the daughter-in-law would be treated if the farming son were to die unexpectedly — an issue that Froese had to deal with when she, her husband, and in-laws were discussing farm succession.

“Our facilitator said to my in-laws, ‘What would happen if your son died tomorrow?’ and they said, ‘We’d just take the farm back.’ Can you imagine how I felt hearing that?”

But this story isn’t an argument for leaving the unsayable unsaid — the tale had a part B.

“I pointed out that when I came to the farm in the 1980s, interest rates were at 19 per cent, I was a home economist working for the Manitoba government, and I brought a pretty healthy savings account with me,” Froese said.

“I’d also then spent the next 14 years working on that farm and raising our children there. I told them ‘No, if that happens, I’m staying here and I’m farming tomorrow.’

“And do you know what they said? ‘Oh, OK.’”

The key to that discussion was having it, she said.

“That was a potentially very difficult conversation, but it went well, and it probably took less than 10 minutes,” Froese said.

Another situation involved a farmer and his daughter-in-law. Their farm succession coach encouraged family members to write letters to each other as an exercise on how to better communicate.

“The father-in-law wrote a wonderful letter to his daughter-in-law,” Froese said. “He said that his son was happy working in the oilfield service industry, but that he saw his daughter-in-law had the skills to run the farm. Today, she’s running the farm.”

Next up is certainty, and that usually means dealing with the older generation’s reluctance to let go.

“I always hear things like, ‘I’ve been working on this farm for 20 years and I still don’t own even close to 51 per cent,’” she said.

Dad is usually good at giving up tasks involving physical labour, but hesitant to relinquish management decisions, she said.

“And you really don’t like giving up the ownership.”

The final, and most critical, step is the commitment to act, she said. It includes actually stopping in at the lawyer’s office to get that will drawn up and signed, or setting up a family corporation and putting the transfer in motion.

“Talk doesn’t cook rice,” Froese said, gesturing towards the hotel kitchen.

“We’re not about to enjoy a great lunch because the chefs planned the menu. We’re going to enjoy lunch because they took the next step and cooked the meal.”

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