“Our dad is getting older, but I can’t get him to talk about what he wants to see happen to the farm after he’s gone. My sister and I have tried to talk with our brother about it, but he doesn’t want to address the situation either. Something is going to happen someday and the state will decide what happens to the farm.”

“My father has a good succession plan in place, but I still worry about what will happen after he’s gone. One of my four sisters has already said she wants her money right away – if any of the others do, there’s no way I can keep my part of the farm. There are times when I think it would be better if we were left with nothing.”

Statements like these are more often the rule than the exception among farm families. Communication, although essential, is rarely easy, and sometimes those closest to us are the most difficult with whom to have meaningful conversations.

Serious problems can arise for both generations if transfer and succession processes never begin or are never finalized. Everyone has a plan, whether “default” or “intentional.” The default plan is the state law where the farm family lives and the property is located.

The intentional plan is one designed by farm families to carry out their wishes. Proper ownership and management can allow for growth and profitability. That’s why communication between and among farm family members is so important. Identifying issues, developing a plan that is both fair and equitable, and employing the right team of professionals early on in the process can help families realize their goals.

“The art of passing a business asset from one generation to another with minimum business interruption creates its challenges, but can be very beneficial and rewarding to all parties involved if properly done,” says Roy Henry of Henrys, Ltd. in Longford, Kan. “There are many different resources available to help with this process – identify the ones that are best suited to help your family make and implement the decisions that will allow your business to carry on, if that is the goal.”

Individual differences in personality, style, skill and varying expectations will impact discussions with family members directly or indirectly. And when property and other assets come into the picture, a whole new set of dynamics can affect farm family issues and outcomes.

Sometimes it may be best to let issues rest before trying to communicate. Other times, however, issues can’t be allowed to rest, because lack of communication can interfere with daily living. Members of farm families, whether involved in the day-to-day activities of the farm or not, are directly or indirectly affected by farm-family issues and decisions. Each member plays a different role in the family and in the management of the family farm. Each role carries different responsibilities and expectations. Sometimes one person sees his or her roles and responsibilities in one way, while others see them very differently. Different perceptions and expectations can lead to confusion and frustration.

Communication allows for discussion and clarification of roles, responsibilities and expectations that pave the way to more effective, collaborative and supportive relationships within the family.

Active listening is one of the most important facets of effective communication (see sidebar). This skill encourages everyone in the family group to continue interacting in a positive environment.  Other key factors include:

  • Effective interpersonal communication involves putting people at ease, respecting others’ opinions and capabilities, and encouraging the sharing of feelings and perceptions.
  • Rapport allows you to develop a connection, a relationship or an understanding with someone. Individuals learn to “signal” that they are open to the thoughts and opinions of others. They express an interest in what others have to say in a friendly and open manner.
  • Tone of Voice can determine the effect – or effectiveness of your message. For example, if you try to communicate your anger or unhappiness, but do so in a light and jovial manner, listeners will miss your point. Your tone of voice should match the message you’re trying to convey.
  • Nonverbal Cues can add or detract from a message. For example, leaning toward a person, nodding, and smiling all convey interest in and understanding of what is being said. In contrast, shuffling your feet, crossing your arms or looking at a watch or cell phone when someone is speaking can be perceived as lack of interest or uneasiness.

Seek the help of experts

At times, even effective communication fails to achieve a desirable outcome. In those cases, outside help, guidance or support is necessary. Non-partial objectivity is an important component in developing a fair, equitable succession plan. Families may seek support through church, a community agency, or close friend, but trained professionals are experienced in leading families to successful outcomes.

On the other hand, factors such as individual personality, upbringing and culture can influence how comfortable families feel sharing private concerns with others. For families conditioned to believe that personal problems should remain private, seeking outside help may seem virtually impossible.

Consider how you would feel if someone reached out to you in need. Many families find it helpful to ask one of the above advisors to serve as a meeting facilitator. Although it may seem that all answers should emanate from within the family, unbiased and objective viewpoints provide much needed perspective and can help neutralize conflict. It’s critical to identify the person who can serve as a “catalyst” to allow family members to openly share their concerns.

One of the most important steps is getting the right group of interested parties around the table. Start by defining “family.” Does it include blood relatives only? In-laws? What about step-children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and others who currently have, may have, or want to be involved in the farm’s future. Not every family member will be equally interested or qualified, and family farms usually don’t provide opportunities that fit everyone’s strengths and interests.

Ron Hanson, an agribusiness professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an expert on succession from one generation to the next. He tells of sitting around a kitchen table with siblings who won't talk to each other. He relates how a family of five brothers and sisters were joined at the table by seven lawyers.

Hanson says he would never have become a college ag economics professor and an expert in succession management if there hadn't been such discourse between his parents and his grandparents. He would have been farming the Illinois land on which two generations before him couldn't peacefully coexist.

Sometimes rather simple misunderstandings as well as the stress of daily life on a farm can damage the personal and working relationships between family members farming together. Too often, the inability to openly share personal feelings and the failure to discuss expectations can ruin a family relationship. This is often caused by an actual breakdown in communications between family members, especially during periods of stress (i.e. financial, work-related or personal) when individuals withdraw or hide emotions from each other.

Hansen recommends farm families work to:

  • Develop good listening skills to overcome breakdowns in communications
  • Find or make time to talk
  • Block out surrounding distractions
  • Be sensitive to the feelings of others
  • Clearly understand the situation or circumstances involved 
  • Maintain a level of respect for the opinions of others

Remember what’s most important Even the best families are going to have issues. Some kids care more about the farm and some care more about mom and dad, while other kids just see the money. Family dynamics, birth order and life experiences all play key roles in how family members communicate with each other.

“Finding the capacity and will to give to others is perhaps the most important first step in a transition plan, strange as that may seem,” says Henry. “But it resonates, because transition is truly giving something that is yours to someone else. Once this commitment is made, everything else becomes much easier.”

All parties need realistic expectations of the issues that may arise when family members are encouraged and expected to speak freely, openly and respectfully. If disputes over the future of the farm are allowed to simmer, family unity and the long-term success of the farm deteriorate. The importance of focusing on a positive attitude and keeping "family" as the top priority in any farming situation cannot ever be overstated.

Farms can be replaced, and there is a life after farming. But when you lose a family relationship between brothers and sisters, or fathers and sons, or destroy a marriage between a husband and wife who once loved each other and shared a dream together, you rarely get a second chance.