Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Family Farming Is Special, But Not That Special

August 20, 2007

I presented a videotape of a farm family discussing their exit from agriculture to a conference of plant scientists. On the tape, an 18 year-old son mentioned he was going to study agronomy in college and choose a profession close to farming. His father expressed his guilt that none of his sons would be able to farm. The mother, obviously emotionally hurt by farming and the farm crisis, expressed her relief that her sons wouldn’t have to farm even though she would have preferred that they had made that choice for themselves.

During my remarks I commented that in the audience there were probably some that chose to be plant scientists for similar reasons. Sure enough, after my talk a few people did come up and tell me how they had come from farm backgrounds and made their career choice after it became obvious that they couldn’t farm.

Parents haven’t failed. Another speaker on the program, agricultural economist Steven Sonka from the University of Illinois, took exception to some of my remarks and we had a spirited discussion after the program. The gist of what he said was that in no other profession do parents feel like failures if their children don’t succeed them in their profession. He feels there are lots of honorable professions and careers and lots of ways to be happy in life. His children won’t go through life feeling like failures if they don’t turn out to be college professors or have a "Ph.D." after their name.

Dr. Sonka felt that reinforcing the message that farmers have a way of life so superior to the rest of society is a wrong message – a disservice and an unfair burden. It leads to deep disappointment and hurt for either the parents or to the children if one of them doesn’t succeed the parents on the farm.

I shared with Dr. Sonka my concern that ex-farmers or farmers contemplating leaving agriculture need to learn that there is a good life waiting for them – that they are good, talented people and can be happy doing other work. They need to understand that living in a city or a town has its advantages and isn’t the "bugaboo" they always thought it would be. They also need to learn that it is possible to raise healthy, happy children in the city and life on a family farm isn’t the only way to turn out good kids.

Emotional baggage. Though not everything could be said during that brief conversation, it got me to thinking. In my counseling career, I’ve seen plenty of emotional baggage connected with keeping the farm in the family:

- Children who feel pressured and guilty if they don’t go into farming and carry on the family legacy of keeping the farm in the family.

- Parents who would like to quit farming feeling pressured to stay on by a child whose heart is set on being a farmer.

- Middle-aged farmers who have become disillusioned with farming but feel trapped by family expectations.

- Farmers who always wanted to try another profession but feel trapped by family expectations.

- Highly successful parents in retirement years feeling like failures because their children chose not farm.

- A few farmers who chose suicide because they didn’t measure up to goals that became impossible.

I’ve also seen parents who are open-minded and consciously encourage their children to try other fields. But their kids aren’t so open-minded. They have a love affair going with the farm already and they can’t wait to farm. Where does that motivation come from if it doesn’t come from the parents?

It comes from children who like growing up on a farm. They enjoy teamwork and the responsibility of being a part of the farm. They like the feeling of competence they’ve gain from learning multiple farming skills and know-how. They enjoy the closeness to nature and animals. They enjoy the togetherness of family life on a farm. Many have positive experiences working with their fathers. They observe a farm marriage bringing happiness to both their parents. They enjoy the friendships and closeness of a rural community. The motivation comes from wanting to raise their children on a family farm.

Family farming has changed. But family farming as a way of life or as a place to raise children is on the way out. Farming is big business. Modern farming is about rapidly advancing technology, expensive land and equipment, huge financial investments and risks, marketing, the lack of control over the weather, prices and high stress.

The farming life the children fell in love with and family farming in the future may be two different things. Children need to let go of their illusions and expectations of what farming should or used to be and instead pay attention to what it is actually turning out to be.

Parents don’t need the crushing legacy of feeling successful only if the farm is kept in the family. It is wonderful if it can happen – when there is a viable opportunity and a willing child who is making his or her own choice to farm. Children don’t need to carry the burden of their parents’ dreams and life as their own. They need to find and live their own dream.

Keeping the farm in the family or family farming can be wonderful goals. These twin goals can also be a two-edged sword that cuts both ways if they cannot be realized. Family farming is special but not that special.