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Empathy on the farm

When it comes to estate planning, it is helpful to think about where the other parties are coming from.

Family farms going through succession planning will be well served to empathize with the other parties involved. Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC
We are part of The Trust Project.

I remember learning in school that empathy was trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The actual definition is to understand or share the feeling of others. I never thought much about that word. I wasn’t even sure how it applied to me until my wife was in labor with our first child. She already expressed that she was in a lot of pain, but I remembered Lamaze class, and what the pain number on the monitor would likely get to. I thought, "Oh boy, this is going to get a lot worse!" Of course, I didn’t want to say that. I then understood trying to empathize with her pain. I’ve experienced several significant injuries in my life, so I almost started to say, "I remember when I …" Fortunately, I refrained. I know men will never know that type of pain.

Let me share four farm situations that may deserve some empathy. Sometimes it’s hard to know how the other side feels because there are many angles and things you may not even know, so before blurting out something that you will regret later, just pause for a moment and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Situation 1: Children, put yourselves in your parents’ shoes. Sometimes children comment, “C’mon, it can’t be that hard. Just get your estate plan done. You should’ve done it 10 years ago!” Parents may think, “How can we be fair to everyone? Our farming heir has farmed with us for 15 years. What is that time worth? What if one child sells right away? One child is divorced. Another has a live-in girlfriend. One child doesn’t talk to us and we never see those grandchildren. Another helps us all the time. We would not have bought the last few farms if our son wasn’t farming with us. You think this is easy? Just you wait. Someday you will understand!”

Situation 2: Parents, put yourselves in your children’s shoes. Now parents could say, “We’ve been there.” That is true, but from generation to generation, life changes. Children may think “Will this be a good old family fight when Dad and Mom die? Who will determine rent rates or buyout prices? Could a sibling executor rip us all off when Mom or Dad die?” Could someone be itching to “collect” and sell their fair share of the estate as soon as Dad or Mom dies? How come we don’t all get exact same amount?”

Situation 3: Farming heirs, put yourselves in the nonfarming siblings’ shoes. Nonfarming heirs may be saying, “Why should you get more just because you’re farming? What if they get a break and then sell it? Dad and Mom always help you and your kids. If farming is so tough, how do you have a nice house and truck and shiny farm equipment?”


Situation 4: Nonfarming heirs, put yourselves in the farming heirs’ shoes. Do you recognize the many hours of potentially unpaid or underpaid farm labor? Do you understand the risk involved with farming? Do you recognize the cash flow that it takes to farm?

In farming, as it is in life, we often think that everything is all about us and our viewpoint. Sometimes we must step back and say, "What about them? What would it be like if I were in their shoes?" Sometimes we actually know what it’s like to be in their shoes, and other times we can only imagine. Either way, before getting all riled up, remind yourself to step back and have a little empathy for someone else.

Myron Friesen is the co-owner of Farm Financial Strategies Inc. in Osage, Iowa. He can be contacted at 866-524-3636 or

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