How to fix family dysfunction

farmers hands on tool

It is wintertime which means the Ohio State University Extension programming season is in high gear across the state. Recently, we offered a four-part evening webinar series titled “Planning for the Future of the Farm.” During this series, attendees learned the basics of creating a farm succession and estate plan. 

Two of the major topics discussed in the series were how to overcome family dysfunctionality and how to improve family communication as we talk about the future. Over the years I have come to realize that every family has some sort of dysfunctionality. This dysfunctionality can then be exasperated by working together daily in the family business.

 In fact, you don’t have to turn many pages in the Bible to find evidence of the first farm family with dysfunctionality. Remember the two brothers who farmed? One a tiller of the soil and the other a shepherd. The cropping brother became jealous of his livestock brother. Tensions arose, ending in the death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain. 

Of course, this an extreme example. I know it is the goal of most to improve their family relationships through this planning process. 


So, what are some of the stressors impacting farm families? In our recent class, some of those identified included: work taking priority over family, the interplay of business and personal finances, fatigue or health issues, work ethic differences, different goals for the farm’s future, lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities and relationships between family members involved in the farm with those who are not. 


Communication is tough. Tougher yet is to talk about our mortality. After all, death is not a romantic topic or one which many are comfortable talking about. However, I would contend this conversation could be one of the most loving and thoughtful discussions which a family can have. 

Personalities, genders, and generational differences can cause stress and strain communication within the family. What is fair in estate planning rarely means equal which could lead to major conflict. One of the most difficult decisions to make in succession planning is determining how to be fair to off-farm heirs without jeopardizing the future of the heirs who have remained with the family business.

 Other tough discussions include deciding who will manage the business in the future, how to distribute assets, how and when the senior generation will retire, and how the business will deal with unexpected issues such as divorce, disability, family discord, or paying for nursing home expenses. 

Moving forward

So, how can we proceed? First, identify the stressors and communication struggles which exist. I would recommend that each family member identify these individually and then depending on family dynamics, there should an established time to share these with each other. Once you have identified the stressors and communication issues, you can put together a plan to overcome them.

As an example, a young dairy farmer felt his internal stress building as he was continually missing his children’s sporting, 4-H and dance events because they conflicted with evening milking. He was receiving criticism from his spouse and ached when he saw the hurt in his children’s eyes when he missed yet another event. However, he never said anything to his parents as the farm operates under the “make hay while the sun shines principle.” 

If the trend continued, the young man’s stress and frustration could have grown to a point where he felt he could not please anyone. Thankfully in this situation, his mother sensed tension and had a heartfelt crucial conversation with her son. This conversation turned into action as a monthly family event calendar was created. A part-time relief milker was hired, and now, not only does dad get to attend his children’s events, so do grandma and grandpa. 

Does this example sound familiar? Are you taking time to sense, to ask and to react to the stressors and communication challenges in your farm family? I encourage you to make time for these crucial conversations and take time to hold family business meetings. These are great ways to open the dialogue and to successfully build the roadmap for the successful transition to the next generation. 

And remember some wise advice from Chuck Palahniuk who stated “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” 


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