Working With Family

‘I Want Farm Families to See Conflict as a Good Thing that Can Be Resolved.’

By Emily Croft

Most farms in Canada are owned, operated, and passed down through families.

As multiple generations integrate on the farm, it can be difficult to manage the pressures of maintaining a business and family dynamics.

A clear transition plan is one way that farming families can ensure that the expectations and goals for the farm are shared.

The Census of Agriculture in 2021 found that 66.1 per cent of Canadian farms had no succession plan, while 21.9 per cent had verbal plans, and only 12 per cent had formal plans.

Elaine Froese is a professional speaker from Manitoba who focuses on improving communication and conflict resolution in farm transitions. After working with more than 1,000 farming families, Froese says planning is key.

“You want to get clarity of expectations, including labour, management, and ownership. Everyone needs a communication plan, a plan for lifestyle and income streams, a business plan, an estate plan, and a risk management plan,” she says.

Each family has a different experience with farming as a team. It’s important to know how to start these conversations, how to deal with conflict, and what to do when it isn’t working out.

Working with multiple generations

Working on the family farm means that farmers get to do the job they love with people they love. This also has its challenges, particularly when multiple generations are involved. The older generation has spent their life building their dream, while the incoming generation may have a different vision.

Bob Wilson and his daughter Katie run Gilbrea Farm, a beef cow-calf operation in Hillsburgh. They have found that farming with family is rewarding but also has its challenges.

Bob, Lynn and Katie Wilson.
    Bob, Lynn and Katie Wilson. -Wilson Family photo

“We butt heads a lot; we have different opinions, priorities, and ways of doing things. Sometimes you’ll get the brunt of a bad mood and there’s no HR to complain to,” says Katie, acknowledging there can be value in having different opinions.

“Because we are family, there is more motivation to work together and be more understanding of each other. Also, if everyone has the same opinion, you lose some opportunity for growth.”

Bob admits he sometimes finds it difficult to look past the parent-child relationship while farming.

“Just by the fact that I’m that much older and I have that much more experience, I see things through that lens of having more experience – and that makes me think my opinions are more valid sometimes,” Bob jokes.

The older generation can find it unsettling to see specific or widespread changes introduced by younger family members. Legacy is a concept often discussed in transition planning and it can be a source of both pride and complicated feelings for those working on the farm.

“Allen Wilford once said in a CBC interview that ‘farming is like a painting, and you work on it every day.’ You are painting your masterpiece while you’re working. I’ve spent the last 30 odd years working on this painting. How do you continue without destroying it or radically changing it? You have to make sure you are working on the same piece of art,” says Bob.

“I value the work that’s been done differently than someone who is looking at the finished product. No one knows the work that goes in, and it sometimes gets taken for granted.”

Bob’s daughter Katie believes that it’s important to recognize that the work continues for the next generation as well.

“As I step into a role on the farm, if our goals align, I’m just zooming in on the painting more, and then his work is slowly fading to the outside to be the frame that holds the painting. That doesn’t mean the work is any less challenging,” Katie explains.

It can be difficult to ensure that all parties have their goals acknowledged and their voices heard.

Elaine says that adjusting the language and mindset of these conversations can improve the communication of goals and expectations.

“You have to be clearly separating the family system from the business system,” says Elaine.

“Is the discussion happening as a business partner or as a father? Use better language and be clear in your expectations, like, ‘I need to be talked to as a business partner.’

“I want farm families to see conflict as a good thing that can be resolved,” Elaine adds.

Charlotte Wasylik works with her parents, Rick and Johanna, and two brothers, Nick and Alex, on their family farm near Vermilion, Alta. Chatsworth Farm is a mixed operation where they raise beef cattle, sheep, poultry, with the recent addition of pigs and grow cereals and legumes. When they have time, her fiance Rob and her brother Alex’s girlfriend Breanne also help on the farm.

The Chatsworth Family
    The Chatsworth Farm family – Rob, Charlotte, Breanne, Alex, Rick, Johanna, Nicholas. -Charlotte Wasylik photo

Between the two generations, Charlotte says that communication, understanding, and teamwork are a key factor in keeping the farm running smoothly.

“We know how to push one another’s buttons. It doesn’t happen on purpose, but you need to understand and forgive that person after the fact,” says Charlotte.

“Everyone will have their own ideas of how things need to be done. We talk things through and make sure we are all in some sort of agreement, and nothing is too much of a burden on one person.”

“We’ve always had the knowledge to take care of everything on the farm. We can understand and appreciate the work that each family member is doing, and we can do it safely and well.”

Charlotte’s mother Johanna shared that part of her role on the farm is facilitating these conversations.

“As a mother, you know when someone might have something on their mind. I make a point of asking if everything is okay or if someone needs a hand,” says Johanna.

Every family on the farm experiences conflict, and the key to solving that conflict is good communication and empathy.

But it’s important to make sure your needs are met, and the family farm may not be the only option.

Going out on your own

Jenn Doelman farms near Douglas with her husband and children. They grow grains and oilseeds, as well as some forage.

Mike, Jenn, Becky and AJ Doelman.
    Mike, Jenn, Becky and AJ Doelman. -Angela Field photo

After years of attempting to work into her family operation, Jenn and her husband made the decision to end the partnership with her family and farm on their own.

“We started planning really early,” says Jenn.

“I was in high school, and we were going to succession planning workshops.”

Jenn says that family dynamics and financial factors both worked into their decision.

“We did our best for 15 years – we were ‘all in’ with a goal to buy out my parents. We made a lot of progress initially after the formation of our farming partnership.

“Unfortunately, once our kids were born things started going backwards. We were working crazy hours on the farm, which was doing well, but couldn’t make ends meet for our household. Inevitably we knew we had to leave.

“We had a partnership agreement with no expiry date, which meant there weren’t deadlines or natural checkpoints to ensure we updated it to reflect the evolving needs of the partners – the founders or the successors. Eventually the partnership was no longer sustainable and family conflict was at an all-time high.

“We had to leave.”

When farming with family threatened the mental and physical health of Jenn and her husband, it became clear that they had to leave to look after their immediate family’s well-being.

During the partnership with her family, Jenn and her husband had been buying land and renting it back to the farm. When they started farming on their own, they were “leveraged to the hilt,” but had 800 acres to start with and began doing custom work to bring in more money and support the family.

“It took a year to get a lawyer and another year to move forward. We had to file with the court to form a partnership dissolution. I would never wish this on anyone – it was heartbreaking,” says Jenn.

“My parents aren’t bad people, but despite our best efforts, they couldn’t understand why changes were needed, and we couldn’t wait any longer.

“Looking back, I think one of our problems was how close in age we were to my parents – I was only 23 years younger. It was a perfect storm. We needed to plan for our future, and they weren’t ready give up control.”

Ultimately, they decided that a family relationship was more valuable than a business relationship.

Although farming on their own was not the initial plan, she says “now it’s on our terms and it takes some of the pressure off our kids, when the time comes.”

Setting up for success

Although challenges will always be present, there are strategies to make the process of transition planning easier.

“When you’re doing transition planning, it’s a journey,” says Elaine.

“Show up as the best version of you. Be curious, observe, ask powerful questions, listen to what people need, and seek to find harmony through understanding.”

Elaine says that many farmers are “overwhelmed and anxious and don’t know where to start.”

“You start by understanding what you want, what you need for income streams, and how to be fair.”

Starting and continuing the conversation can be the next hard step in transition planning.

“Take photos of everything discussed and have meeting notes to keep track of what decisions were made and why.

“I suggest buying a good flip chart. Always at the end of the meeting, determine the next action steps the family needs to take,” says Elaine.

As families move through planning, most will come up with opportunities and advice that could help the next farm improve their transition.

Doelman says that she has learned “legacy is more about farming skills than property.”

Charlotte Wasylik says that she believes communication is important.

“If someone has an idea, they should write out a proposal and be specific about how and why it’s beneficial. That can maybe help with those conversations and help get that idea across.”

Charlotte’s mom Johanna shares that her “biggest piece of advice is to know when to give more independence and initiative to your kids. But understand that there will be mistakes and successes, and things will be done in a way that may not be the way that you would do it.

“The other advice is to the younger generation. Understand what your parents have done, and the role of the people who started the farm and have had a lot of sleepless nights figuring out how to afford everything and keep it running,” Johanna adds.

Katie Wilson recommends that clear written expectations and plans are valuable for ensuring that every farm member feels valued and supported.

“The older generation needs a formal business plan, not just one that lives in their head. The next generation should have that plan to work off and to make their own.

“All the experience and knowledge should be there, written down.

“Everyone needs a very clear job description. Whoever is responsible for the job should be an independent decision-maker.

“Without the younger generation having any decision-making and autonomy, they are really just a hired hand,” says Katie.

Both Katie and her father Bob also believe it’s important to frequently review plans for transition.

“Just because you have the plan written doesn’t mean you’ve done the job. It’s a process, and it’ll change as it goes,” says Bob.

Katie adds, “Once you’ve got a plan, revisit it often. It should be looked at repeatedly through a year to see what you need to change and improve.” BF

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