Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Important Is It To Pass On The Farm?

November 20, 2006

One of the compelling satisfactions of agriculture is feel the love and commitment of parents who sacrifice to build and leave a viable farming operation to their offspring. The farming children adopt that goal for themselves and feel it is their legacy to do the same for their children. As the number of generations adds up that have made this successful transition, the commitment and legacy grows even stronger.

There are other benefits. Children grow up being needed, taking responsibility and seeing their contribution being valued from an early age. The farm becomes a part of them also. 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.

The goal of passing on the farm has another important consequence. Stewardship of the land is important. Better business and financial decisions are made in terms of long term planning and consequences. Persistence and tenacity are a part of the formula for success. Motivation, a necessary ingredient for a tough, demanding and stressful profession, go far beyond economics. Sometimes too far.

Emotional baggage. 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 who feel like failures because their children chose not farm.

A few farmers who chose suicide because they couldn’t measure up to "burden" of passing on the farm when the farm debts make farming no longer tenable.

Pressure and guilt. It is hard to find another profession where parents feel like failures if their children don’t succeed them. There are lots of honorable professions and careers and lots of ways to be happy in life. Whether it is consciously undervaluing other professions or deeming farming to be so superior as a way of life, or a combination of both, the net result is additional pressure and guilt. It can lead to deep disappointment and hurt for either the parents or to the children if one of children doesn’t take over the farm.

When farm finances are too close to the edge, emotion works against best business decisions. Virtues like tenacity and persistence become liabilities and lead to denial, foolishness, and depression. Decisions to stay or leave farming and how to preserve assets should be based on economics alone. The goal of passing of the farm is not as important as one’s mental health or personal survival.

There are other situations where competent and dynamic fathers and sons clash and both would be happier if they didn’t farm together. Farming separately would make for better family relationships. If the goal of having a "family farm" interferes with having loving relationships in the family then the family farm should go.

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 parents fell in love with and lived 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 their own choice to farm. Children don’t need to carry the burden of 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.