Seven steps may reduce stress on family farms

Some folks, who don’t know better, might assume that modern day farm families live idyllic lives in the tranquil serenity of bucolic settings, close to nature and free of the daily stresses that afflict urbanites who sally forth each day to battle traffic, deadlines and unappreciative supervisors. Perhaps on some planet, but not this one.

“Farming is stressful,” says Val Farmer, a clinical psychologist who specializes in family and rural mental health issues and a seminar speaker at the recent Commodity Classic in Austin. The Commodity Classic is the annual joint meeting of the American Soybean and The National Corn Growers Associations.

Farmer says the sometimes harsh nature of farming--dealing with weather, pests and prices--combines with the complexity of running a family business to create an ideal environment for stress.

“(We are concerned with) the pressures of farming and the interaction on families and marriages. Relationships, even good ones, get complicated.”

He speaks of a Pierce County (Nebraska) Syndrome, in which an older farmer continues to manage and make all decisions on the family operation with a son and grandson waiting in the wings to take over. Such situations occur across the United States, Farmer says, “and create havoc. The son and his wife are unhappy.”

In similar situations offspring may leave or choose to live a relatively unhappy and unproductive existence on the farm, just waiting.

But he also sees positives in agriculture and in family farms where an orderly transition of the legacy passes from one generation to another. “A multi-family operation provides the key to success in agriculture,” he says. ‘Intergenerational cooperation becomes crucial as farms increase in scale and size.”

But success doesn’t come without planning, he says. He offers a seven-step template for successful family farms. Steps include:

Number one: The legacy of innovation, leadership and success passes from one generation to the next. Farm families must recognize an operation’s strengths, Farmer says. “The leadership qualities that assure success must be carried on. Families must recognize what keeps profit going.”

He says a lot of leadership and management styles developed during the Depression, when farmers had to devise innovative projects to keep their farms. “Many found that such skills as timeliness, equipment maintenance and debt management kept them solvent. But something happened to allow those ideas to continue on to the next generation and that generation built on it.”

He says adapting technology, being ahead of the curve, and taking risks without jeopardizing the base of operations keep farms on the cutting edge and poised for success. Profit becomes paramount. “Without it, the lifestyle goes by the wayside. Debt creates stress on the family relationship and it’s hard for any family to dig out of debt.”

He says sons and daughters of successful full-time farmers tend to stay on or come back to the farm and continue the success. And the children’s ability to manage stress plays a crucial role in future success. “Some are not good at it and may not be good at farming. “Also, the legacy of positive human relationships is important. Transferring those abilities from one generation to another is key to continued success. Some farmers get so caught up in their own egos and their need always to be right that they drive their children away.”

Number two: A strong marital partnership creates an environment for success. “Farming is a business and must be considered a business,” Farmer says, “but the family must be satisfied with the business and the motivation remains the lifestyle.

“A husband and wife form a farm partnership with shared goals and bonds. Each must have an emotional tie to the farm. And the farmer needs to be aware of his wife’s interests.”

He says a farm couple should live a balanced life with interests other than the farm. “Life is about more than getting the work done. It’s important to set priorities. The goal should be the happiness and well-being of those on the farm.”

Number three: Raising loving, capable, dynamic children who may or may not join the farm supports continuity of the operation. Farmer says the key to having children come back to run the farm is that they have good memories of growing up in a rural setting.

“A good relationship between a father and his children is critical. A farmer/parent must be patient and allow children to grow into greater responsibility. There is a unique opportunity for fathers and sons or daughters to bond and share in the work day.” Farmer says not everyone appreciates the rural lifestyle. And some who do may be turned off by a parent who is “critical, stressed out and demanding. Coming back to that may not be appealing.”

Farmer suggests that farm parents send their children away to “get an education, gain confidence and learn how to handle stress. Have them work for someone else. The experience will be helpful, and then, if they do come back it’s because they want to.”

Number four: Managing human resources, including family and hired employees, is a skill essential to a well-managed farm. Farmer says managers have to learn how to correct employees, including their own children, when they get out of line but in a way that does not place blame or leave bad feelings.

“Recognition and praise are the biggest assets on a job, next to money,” he says. “Play to an employee’s strengths and concentrate on areas of responsibility.”

He says children and other employees should develop specialties and grow into specific roles as they develop management skills. “Also, hiring the right people is an art. Dealing with dishonesty, laziness, self-centeredness and bad temper,” adds to stress. He says addictions and rigidity also pose serious problems.

Number five: Sharing management responsibilities and communicating effectively create a more pleasant and efficient work environment.

“The best management style is a democratic process,” Farmer says. “A good manager strives for consensus decisions and shares decision-making chores.”

He says trust and respect come from good communication. “Make a family business meeting an integral part of the operation. It’s a good place to bring out conflicts in a business setting. Process and solve problems in the meeting and don’t carry them over into family time,” he says. “In some ways, it’s important to take the family out of the business.”

Number six: A commitment to continuity includes grooming children to take over the business. Farmer says children should specialize but also “see the big picture so they can grow into managing the farm.”

He says transition works best when parents move away from management as children master necessary skills to run the farm. Letting go may not be easy but if parents have always had hobbies and interests off the farm, the separation goes more smoothly. Estate planning plays a crucial role, too. “The plan must be open and transparent and stress what’s fair, not what seems to be equal. For example, a child who has stayed on the farm and worked in every day management should be allowed to remain in charge instead of dividing the farm among siblings who moved away and pursued other interests.

“Without an estate plan, everyone gets short-changed,” Farmer says. “We can’t predict when life will end.”

He says loss of a spouse and a remarriage also poses serious problems with continuity. He recommends a pre-nuptial agreement that assures the farm operation remains in the hands of offspring who run the farm and not to the new spouse’s estate.

Number seven: Getting along as a family, including accepting the roles of siblings and in-laws, requires compromises. “A family farm must accommodate individual needs. Each family unit is different and each couple comprises a team and each spouse must be loyal to the other.”

Farmer says young couples need distance from parents, an opportunity to develop their own households and their own traditions. “But it’s also important to celebrate as a family”

The whole clan should enjoy family gatherings and those events should serve as a means to maintain the bonds, traditions and legacy that assure family farm continuity. Farmer says when problems within the farm family business erupt managers should seek professional help. “In every state, farmers can find someone who specializes in farm family issues. “The most important aspect of maintaining a family farm legacy is to groom the next generation to take over,” he says.

That kind of commitment will not eliminate all the stresses inherent in running a family farm, but it will improve the chances for success and continuity.

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