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Fair treatment in farm transitions may require conciliations by everyone

Resolving how the farm operation passes to successors is difficult to accomplish but usually necessary if the next generation is to have the opportunity to farm. Stubbornness often develops among everyone involved in the transition, such as the land-owning parents and any children who farm; non-farming children can also become stubborn about estate matters.

Stubbornness can be defined as intense desire to succeed and persistence in the face of adversity; it is characteristic of successful farmers, according to Fiona Judd and her colleagues in a comparison of 371 Australian farmers and 380 non-farming Australians in a 2006 article in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. While stubbornness can contribute to success, it also can serve as an impediment to settling disputes about estate matters when farm owners and their children quarrel over succession plans.

The land holders sometimes choose to be stubborn because they believe they earned the land “the hard way” and the next generation should experience what they endured and shouldn’t own any part of the family farm until they die. Their motives are altruistic: they want to teach their successors and to improve their character, but the outcomes they hope for might be unrealistic.

The successors who are farming already know how to produce crops and animals, because they have usually carefully nurtured any rented family farmland and perhaps other farmland; they see little virtue in practicing additional patience. They want to own land while still in the prime of their lives and to begin planning their own estates well before retiring themselves.

The farming children also may want expenses to offset income for their tax reports, such as interest on borrowed money, property taxes, insurance and costs they pay when they make improvements on a farm they own. Ironically, this is what their parents usually want them to grasp.

The farming children often are already in their 50s and 60s. They may have resisted buying other land, knowing they would inherit some or all of the family farm eventually, or because they couldn’t afford other tracts of farmland and cling only to inheriting land. Refusing to take a chance can also be a form of stubbornness.

Even the non-farming children can become stubborn, for they may have aspirations of an equal share of their parent’s estate. Holding out agreement to their parents’ estate plan can be a maneuver to acquire as many assets as possible.

Retired farmers and their successors are motivated by the same urges. The aging landowners want their agricultural heritage to continue, and their descendants in the next generation and sometimes several generations later want to continue the heritage. But their different viewpoints must be reconciled.

Can differences between parents, farming children and non-farming children be settled to everyone’s satisfaction? This depends on how much each is willing to conciliate, which is necessary when there is a stalemate.

Conciliation, according to my web dictionary, is “to overcome distrust, hostility and anger among two or more parties by everyone conceding something.” Resolving standoffs about retaining the farm in the family requires willingness to compromise, courage, humility and fairness.

Sometimes families can reconcile differences on their own, but often it is necessary to bring in outside input, such as a professional who can help sort out the issues so the family so they can move toward resolution of the succession plan. Following guidelines for conducting farm business meetings helps.

I wrote “Recommendations for Conducting Farm Business Meetings” in late February 2013; I will summarize key points here:

  • Bring together all the involved parties in a neutral place, such as a back room of a restaurant.
  • One person who can maintain decorum and fairness should run the meeting; it might be necessary to bring in an outside professional for this purpose.
  • Appoint someone to take the minutes and share them with everyone prior to the next meeting.
  • No one should leave the meeting when upset, use profanity or purposefully insult anyone.
  • Take breaks for refreshments and personal needs, but no phone calls to allies for advice.
  • Discuss and resolve one issue at a time, using consensus, not dictates, before moving on to another issue, or table unresolved matters until subsequent meetings.
  • Provide options rather than only adhering to a firm position or polarizing with the intent that others will conciliate.
  • Sometimes brainstorming ideas helps everyone become more flexible.
  • Keep in mind the principle that the more proposed solutions there are, the more likely the best solution will emerge.
  • Assume that everyone in the family wants a solution that benefits all.
  • Legal resolution should only be the last resort.

Conciliation brings out the best in us as individuals and resolves family disagreements. We may have to put aside stubbornness in favor of leading family discussion with humility and openness to change, regardless of our age. Only then we become better people and achieve true family harmony.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: