Choosing Not to Farm

Growing up, the only way she could get time with dad was by being in the barn. The only way she could gain his attention was by working hard on the farm and “being of use.” She dreamed of being on the basketball team, but she sacrificed her teenage years saying she was helping out the farm during a crisis when milk prices were low and the farm couldn’t afford an extra hired hand. The truth was: She just did it hoping to get quality time helping her dad. She was one of five kids, and the farm was small. The farm could only support one extra household, and it wasn’t her. Had she been a boy, it would have been different. However, she wasn’t, and although it wasn’t right, her brothers got the opportunity to farm, not her. It was an extremely frustrating situation to witness because although she wasn’t a gifted mechanic like her three younger brothers, she was 10 times the herd manager her brother was and would have been an amazing farmer. 

When You're Not Farming

Where am I going with this? It’s probably not what you think. This article isn’t about issues with chauvinistic estate planning. It’s about the unintended hurt a child experiences when the farm is the “parent’s baby,” and he or she isn’t the one taking over the farm. Do you ever experience the feeling that you aren’t good enough because you’re not farming?

This is a problem that impacts both genders and is a huge unspoken problem for many non-farming kids.  

Are any of these situations familiar?

  1. Brian was extremely upset when his dad didn’t take the time to drop him off at college or even visit because he was too busy farming. Brian was valedictorian and had kept it a secret from his parents because he wanted to see the proud expression on their faces. He had worked his butt off for this moment. He could barely hold his composure to get through the speech when he found out his parents didn't make it. The farm had another emergency his brothers couldn’t handle.  
  2. Kelly was really good at her career. She was a rising star at a major advertising firm with several Fortune 500 accounts and had just won awards for her work for a project advertising Coca-Cola. Yet her dad couldn’t explain to anyone what she did. He told everyone she had a career in computing, even though the only software she knew how to use was Facebook and Twitter.
  3. Danny’s brother was taking over the farm, and his mom doted on him, doing everything from cooking his meals to cleaning his house and doing his laundry. However, Danny had bought a house in the suburbs with his fiancé two years ago, and his parents hadn’t once made the effort to drop by for a meal. They lived an hour away but claimed they were too busy at the farm to visit.
  4. Molly lives in the suburbs and has three daughters. She lives a half-hour away from her parents, and her dad still mixes up her girls' names. Her farming brother has a little boy who is grandpa’s pride and joy because he is taking over the farm someday.
  5. Emily founded a successful engineering company and, within a decade, she grew it to 12 employees working under her. Her younger brother took over her dad’s $40 million farm. A couple years ago, Emily had a cashflow crunch with her business where she contracted $2.5 million in billable work that was due in six months but needed a $250,000 short-term operating loan to cover payroll and operations while her team delivered on the contract. She went to her dad, but he didn’t spend even five minutes considering the investment and firmly said no. The next thing she knew, he went out and bought a $300,000 tractor for her brother to avoid paying taxes at year-end. Emily had to sell her company at a fire sale price to a competitor due to this cash-flow crunch. The entity profited $2 million the next year when they delivered on the contracts she closed.    

There are farmers who make the effort to get to know each of their kids for who they are. They make the effort to call their kids often and to be interested in what they are interested in. They don’t just expect their kids to show up to the farm for Christmas but make the effort to go see their kids in their habitats, even if it means buying a plane ticket. They phone often and try to get to know the names of their kids' friend’s. Even if it is a different lifestyle their children have chosen to live (which they may even disagree with), they make the effort to form a relationship. They learn to appreciate their kids for what they’ve become, not what they aren’t.

However, there are farming parents who are a stark contrast to that. They see the world from their view, and if something doesn’t fit into it, they aren’t interested. They struggle so much to get through the “blizzard” of keeping things together on the farm that they have no time to really invest in their non-farming kids.         

Playing Second Fiddle

This article isn’t about judging parents who are one way or another. In the chaos and demands of a family business, it is very easy to fall into this trap. (If this article makes you think, then it’s a win.) This article is written for the kids who fall victim to being a secondary priority to the family farm and are second fiddle to the farm’s successor.

Over the past 15 years, while mediating the most bitter family farm disputes, I have seen many sons and daughters who feel second-rate to the successor who is taking over the farm. I’ve seen envy and resentment develop between siblings that at one time were best friends because, over the years, parents paid more attention to the successor’s life rather than the equally talented kid who chose a life beyond the farm. I’ve seen people with such amazing talent experience depression and self-esteem issues because their parents don’t take the time to recognize their talents off the farm. A lot of farm kids feel unloved because the farm takes priority over family relationships.

Succession Battles Aren't All About Greed

Folks often say that family farms are ripped apart by greed during succession battles. Sometimes this is true, but many times non-farming siblings in their 40s fight over the estate for other reasons. I’ve seen many situations where non-farming siblings resent the attention their farming siblings got and feel that getting equal share of the estate is a way to prove to themselves daddy loved them equally.

I saw Emily the engineer (example No. 5) take her brother to court when their dad suddenly died with an unclear will. It wasn’t because she needed the money but because she resented the farm. Her brother didn’t back her business, so why should she back his? Sometimes that fight over an extra 1% share has nothing to do with needing a bigger boat but a deeper emotional need to fill a void of neglect they felt over the past 20 years.

Many siblings grow to resent the farm and their farming siblings for robbing them of the time and attention they craved from their parents. Some succession battles are about trying to get compensation to prove to themselves their parents loved them equally. Other battles are vengeance against the farm, trying to ruin the business that ruined their parental relationships.

There is the way things should be and the way things are. You can spend your life being infatuated with how your situation is unfair. You can try to change your parents, but ask yourself, how realistic is that? Therapist offices are filled with grown adults complaining about how their parents weren't fair. The truth is: Life isn’t fair. The family farm dream is often painted in movies as idealistic, but the dark truth is: Sometimes it’s not an ideal childhood for some and often turns darker during adulthood. Like an alcoholic, you must learn to accept self-absorbed workaholics for who they are. No matter how much you yell at them, if they are self-absorbed, they won’t try to understand things from your view, only theirs. So why waste the mental energy to fight a losing battle?

For the kids who don’t farm, I have these three recommendations:

  1. Realize that your upbringing on the farm gave you an incredible work ethic and skill set that you can take with you wherever you go. Many farm kids resent the long hours they invested into the farm while their friends played football or went to band camp. But even if you choose a career in advertising, skills you learned on the farm have given you a competitive edge with a relentless work ethic, excellent problem-solving skills and high self-confidence that a degree from Harvard couldn’t buy. You could choose to regret the past, but what good would it do you? You can’t change it. Focus on the positive benefits of your upbringing and celebrate fond memories. Make being a farm kid part of the bedrock of your self-identity and, regardless of what life throws at you, realize you can handle anything because that is what you learned in your early childhood back on the farm.
  2. Often, when a farm kid chooses to pursue a career off the farm, they in some way disappoint parents. Subtle guilt and shaming happen as parents directly or indirectly encourage the kid to come back to work on the farm. With most farm debt situations I’ve turned around, it comes down to the farmer living the parents' dream, not his or her own. This lack of passion 20 years later results in a spiral of bad decisions being made because the kid’s heart wasn’t in it. There is nothing worse than having to move your parents’ furniture off the farm and into subsidized housing because you lost what was once a successful farm due to your lack of passion. I’ve witnessed it. So don’t feel guilty for not living your parents’ dreams because those dreams can easily turn into a nightmare for everyone. Live your own dreams.
  3. Don’t live for your parents' approval because it might never happen. Don’t set yourself up for failure. What is important is that you know you. “Know thyself” is inscribed on ancient ruins around the world for a reason. Don’t live your life jumping through hoops for your parents' approval; create a quality life you approve of. Just make sure your goals are positive and healthy, not hedonistic. Define what heaven on earth looks like for you, not your parents. Define for yourself what your mission and vision in life is. Set realistic yet audacious goals, and then make sacrifices and eliminate distractions to achieve them. Condescending words from your parents might be one of those distractions; don’t let that cause you to get off track. Set goals and personal rules for yourself, and use a dashboard (external frame of reference) from which you can measure your success daily and annually. Set your compass to your own true north.  

Anxiety and Depression After Leaving the Farm

It's an unspoken truth, but there are a lot of farm kids who are miserable because this issue is a bigger problem than what is discussed openly in the community. It influences the probability of anxiety and depression. You can’t control what your parents think, but you can control what you think. Once you realize this, your life will change for the better.   

And for the siblings who remain farming with their parents – you don’t have it as good as your siblings might fantasize, do you? Don’t get into arguments about this. Try to empathize with your siblings and instead of looking down on them (as many farmers unintentionally come across as doing), build them up. Celebrate the success your siblings have in their careers and lifestyles. Sure, the life they chose might not be what you’d choose, but try to understand why they chose it, and make them feel good about it. Get your siblings thinking about themselves in a positive light. Encourage your parents to be encouraging. If your little nephew’s birthday is in the city during spring planting, and it’s important to your sister, drag your dad by the ear to his truck and force him to go. Make sure the seeds of resentment or doubt aren’t planted in your sibling’s head, or else your dreams might not be realized as a result due to a succession mess. Don’t just say it – make family relationships a priority. Put family first.

If you have a non-farming friend who struggles with this issue, share this article with them. It might make a difference in his or her life.