When Farm Kids Come Home From College

NOTE: This article was originally published in Progessive Dairy magazine. It was voted as the Top 3 article of the year!

The day I left for college, my mother showed me our farm’s financials and told me if I didn’t come back and improve the farm’s profitability, she was leaving my father.

While my friends drank in their dorms, I punched the clock like I was putting in a 12-hour factory shift in the university library, trying to figure out how to save the family farm.

Now, I have to clarify that I caught last call at the university pub daily as I walked home from the library at midnight and had my share of fun. However, I was jealous of my friends from successful farms who drank all day in the dorms and didn’t have the stressors of having to turn around their family farms.

I spent two years working on my business plan for capstone class in farm management, whereas most of my friends spent roughly two hours the night before the project was due. Their dads took their business plans and ran with them, buying combines and building barns. Even if they didn’t make sense, the parents didn’t want to say no to their kids’ dreams. My dad threw my business plan in the fire and then, later that summer, ploughed my crops under in a fit of jealousy after my uncle commented they were looking good.

My dad would not listen to any of the changes I presented to him; rather, he let the world change around him. One day, my dad bought a manure spreader after my mom told him to stop buying farm equipment – and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back; she left him. I guess you could say the “fit hit the shan.”Advertisement

In a small rural community, a story like this got out. A few years later, as my friends started to have problems working with their parents, I became the “go-to” guy to have a beer with when they wanted to vent their problems. This led to doing what I do today.

For many years, I wondered why my dad would plough down my crops? Why were my friends’ parents becoming abrasive to any suggestions for change? These questions became an obsession for me.

And I came to realize this ….

When farm kids come home from college, they’ve got a ton of ideas on how to improve the farm. And usually the parents are embracing these ideas for improving the operation. But at some point in time, whether it’s idea No. 12 or No. 312, suggestions for change are perceived by the parents as a threat. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why the parents are being abrasive to suggestions for change, but they are.

It comes down to this: Farming parents spend their entire lives building up the farm to pass on to their kids. It may be tarnished or dented or pristine, but it’s there because some good decisions have been made in the past. But at some point in time, these suggestions for change are perceived by the parent as a criticism of past management decisions. It’s like looking a gift horse in the mouth. It’s like taking that gift and just throwing it on the ground and trampling on it. It’s like saying, “Mom and Dad, what you’ve done in the past is not good enough for me.” It’s like saying, “I’m smarter than you and I’ve got better ideas than you … move out of the way.”

And that just hurts to the core. For some parents, there is nothing more insulting than this.

For most farmers, being a good farmer is the center of their identity. Being insulted for what you take the most pride in is a vicious attack. And in a knee-jerk reaction, you do whatever it takes to defend yourself. You might not comprehend these defensive reactions. They might be subliminal, and you might not even know what you are doing because you are making decisions with emotion. Suddenly, you make irrational decisions backed by rational excuses. And it leads your farm down a rabbit hole of bad decisions being made by everyone.

If the son says black, Dad says white … just because. At some point, if the son and daughter have enough of their ideas shut down by family members without good reason, they get equally abrasive. Soon, if Dad says white, the son says black … just to be spiteful. Then decisions start being made based on pride – and soon after you’ve got a farming environment nobody should be proud of.

So how do you prevent this ping-pong game of emotionally charged decisions?

You have a time and place once a month to listen to each other’s ideas. It’s truly that simple.

Think about this. If your dad is fixing a combine and you pitch an idea right there in the shop, how do you know if he is listening? If your daughter is rushing out of the shop to go home after a long day to feed a brood of hungry kids, and you throw an idea out right then, how do you know she is listening? Did the fact you showed up 20 minutes late to work influence your partner’s attitude toward an idea you had that day? How do you know the idea is being objectively weighed? If I asked your partner three days from now what the idea was, would they be able to recite its pros and cons to me the same as when you pitched it?

What would happen if your farm’s partners sat down once a month and everyone had to come to the table with one idea on how to improve farm profit? How would your partner’s attitude toward listening to your idea change if he knew he or she would have their ideas listened to by you? It would change, wouldn’t it? Reciprocation.

By everyone coming to the table with ideas, it’s perceived as brainstorming instead of criticism. New ideas aren’t seen as an insult to past management decisions, but the family continuously improving how you do things together as a team. Although it seems insignificant, this is a game-changer.

My suggestion is: Your family sits down for an hour on the first Monday morning of each month. Everyone comes to the table with one simple idea that can improve farm profit greatly without significant capital expenditure. If you have three partners and monthly meetings, that will lead to 36 ideas in a year. Think about the improvements made if you only implemented half of those. It will not only result in significant improvement to farm profitability; it will result in everyone feeling their ideas are being listened to and respected.

There is a time and place for everything. Your family needs a time, place and better method to discuss ideas with each other.