Recently I heard from a reader who’d been talking with his pastor about multigenerational farm families in his church who had gone through some ugly splits over farm-related issues. The pastor, who doesn’t have a farm background, said, “Do you know of any farm families that are getting along OK?” Then he added, “Why do people put themselves through this just to farm?”
The obvious answer is that many farm families get along quite well. At the start of the TV show “This Week in Agribusiness,” one of the opening scenes shows a grandpa in bib overalls throwing his arm around his young grandson. Such idyllic images portray multigenerational farming at its best — the opportunity to pursue a career you love in the context of family.
But even in the best of families, there can be difficulties. Even among good, church-going families, behaviors can become decidedly un-Christian.
And it’s not a new phenomenon. There are stories of disputes going back nearly 50 years that caused one brother never to speak to another. Sometimes the next generation works it out; sometimes they don’t.
I’ve heard stories about families who not only find Christmas awkward, but who don’t even get together for Christmas anymore. Families who live on the same road drive past each other’s houses multiple times daily, yet haven’t spoken in years. There are grandparents who have no contact with their grandchildren. Sometimes the end result is selling a farm or getting out of farming altogether.
Divorces happen, too, sometimes ruining a farm operation. Heartbreaking scenarios like these don’t have to be. Another pastor who helped me write a series on avoiding marital crises during the 1980s farm recession said, “Even if you don’t feel loving, you need to act loving. If you act loving, many times the other person will eventually act loving, as well.”
There are attorneys who specialize in setting up succession and estate plans specifically for farmers. Many have farm backgrounds themselves and know the unseen land mines that can blow up a family operation.
They often work with the farmer’s accountant and financial planner as a team to set up the most appropriate overall plan. And they can help set up exit strategies. Then if someone says, “I want out,” it can happen in an orderly, agreed-upon manner.
While such plans will not eliminate disagreements, they can greatly diminish the damage that can happen when a disagreement arises. As I’ve heard one ag attorney say: “The main reason we do what we do is to try to keep farm families together. While it may not be cheap to set up a good plan, it can be a whole lot cheaper than not setting up one.”
For the future of your farming operation and your family, consider getting some things down in writing before you run into rough waters. Find attorneys or get a recommendation from a member of the Purdue University Extension Succession Planning Team.
Above all, use this special time of the year as an opportunity to forgive and forget. It won’t be easy, but if you can sit around the dinner table at Christmas again and remember what made you family in the first place, it will be worth it.