Farmers navigate the in-law challenge

While blending family and business can be tricky, finding the right balance can set your farm family – and family farm – up for success.

by Taryn Milton

When Dan and Carol Ohler started farming with Dan’s parents, Neil and Elizabeth Ohler, the younger couple didn’t foresee the twisted – although ultimately positive – journey the experience would lead them on.

Dan and Carol married and moved onto Dan’s family farm near Stavely, Alta. in 1983. The operation included grain and beef cattle, as well as a small number of chickens, pigs and sheep. The family also had a small finishing feedlot.

“Because I wasn't from a farm, I had so much to learn. I was interested but very naive and without any skills that related to the farm. (I had to learn) things like the difference between a swather and a combine,” Carol tells Better Farming.

But she wanted to contribute to the family business in any way she could. Sometimes, she helped with the cattle and drove truck.

“The farm ran quite nicely before I came along. But I loved being outside and being involved in the farm. So, when I helped, (I wondered) whose job I was taking over,” says Carol.

Her involvement in the operation differed from Neil and Elizabeth’s division of responsibility, as Elizabeth focused on managing the household.

“There was a sense that maybe I was pushing Dan’s dad aside, although (Neil) was very welcoming,” says Carol.

Neil and Elizabeth also worried how marriage breakdowns affected family farms.

“They really didn’t know me. They didn’t know, if I got involved with the family and I left the relationship, how that would impact the farm. Would I expect half of everything? There were some conversations that we needed to have that we did not have,” says Carol.

At the time, Dan was also trying to expand the farm, and the family was transitioning the operation to Dan. However, relationships started to break down between both Dan and his parents and between Dan and Carol.

“I had destroyed my relationship with my parents, really. And, at the point we left the farm, I hardly knew Carol anymore,” Dan tells Better Farming.

The couple left the family farm in 1994. They sold some of their farm assets and leased out their half of the cattle herd. Neil continued to farm for a couple of years before he rented everything out.

Dan & Carol Ohler
    Grace Drake Photography

Dan and Carol wanted to focus on their marriage and their relationship with Dan’s parents. From that decision to separate business from family, something strong and beautiful grew.

Now, “Carol and I have the most amazing relationship,” says Dan. “We have such a great, loving relationship with my parents and the rest of our family. So, that was one of the real gifts that came out of” our decision to leave.

“Unfortunately, if we had been smarter, and if we had done some things differently, maybe we would have still been on the farm and still had these (strong) relationships.”

Today, Dan and Carol work as relationship coaches for couples – including farming spouses. Dan and Carol also have a small farm near Samgudo, Alta. where they raise beef cattle and some chickens.

The couple’s story isn’t unique; many farm families experience similar struggles. So, this month, we connect with ag industry experts and other farm couples to learn about their experiences and gain insights on how to successfully incorporate new members into a farming family and farm operation.

The challenge

When you marry “into a farm family, you’re marrying into the family system. You’re also marrying into the farm system. A lot of problems in agriculture happen because it’s very hard for parents to separate the family system from the farm system,” Elaine Froese tells Better Farming.

Froese is a farm family coach, professional speaker and author in Boissevain, Man. She helps farm families when they struggle with challenges.

Since farm families are working and building businesses with family members, the situation can complicate relationships.

“It is really hard for a newcomer because he or she just wants to participate; usually at first in the family system, not necessarily in the business,” Froese explains.

Dan and Carol agree that a healthy separation between business and a couple’s personal life is difficult to achieve on the farm.

“It’s kind of like if you’ve got a sink full of clean water and you dump in a bunch of dirty water. Well, you can’t separate the two; it’s all going to be mixed together. So, I think, having meetings to talk about both” the business and the relationship is important, explains Carol.

Grant Griffith agrees the blending of business and family can heighten tensions and conflicts may affect critical business decisions.

Griffith works as a senior ag partner at MNP in Winnipeg, Man.

His role is “definitely not all about accounting and tax, that’s for sure. … That’s part of what we do (at MNP) – we try to resolve family and business issues, and tax and accounting comes along with it,” he tells Better Farming.

Prenuptial agreements

Given the complexity of blending business and family, the process of welcoming a new individual into a farm family should begin before a couple marries or moves in together.

“Young farmers should meet with lawyers before they even cohabit. They should get an understanding of the ramifications of cohabitation and prenuptial agreements because there is a need to protect the farm asset,” says Froese.

When a new person joins a family farm operation, the discussion of prenups can cause tensions, says Carolyn Seitz. She’s a lawyer and partner at Duncan Craig LLP in Edmonton and was appointed to the Queen’s Counsel in 2020.

“Sometimes people think that, (with a prenup), you’re acknowledging defeat before you start and you’re anticipating the failure of the relationship,” she says to Better Farming.

Although people generally prefer to avoid these discussions, a prenup lays out clear expectations for everyone involved in the business, says Seitz.

“If you’re a member of a particular church, (church leaders) will ask you to take a course before you get married. You’ll have discussions to see how aligned your thoughts are about family, wealth and various other things in terms of how you plan on conducting your lives together. I think it’s good to discuss things like this. The farm is a huge asset,” Seitz says.

If you want to create a prenup, Seitz suggests looking into the relevant legislation as laws vary by province. You should also consult with a lawyer to draw up the agreement.

“It’s always better to do an agreement when you’re happy with one another than to try to sort it out when you’re not happy with one another,” she adds.

Communication

As the discussions surrounding prenups suggest, the biggest key to success when a new individual enters a farm family is open and ongoing communication.

“You’re potentially adding another partner to the operation. So, does everybody in the family understand and communicate all the pros and cons?” says Griffith.

The Ohlers work with couples two-on-two and help them improve their communication skills.

“We never give advice; we never tell people what to do. The process is forward-moving and solution-oriented,” says Dan.

“It’s always about intuitive questions and asking really, really tough questions, so that people come up with their own best ways. Then, they’re more motivated to follow through.”

“Just because something worked for us doesn’t mean that it’ll work for another (couple). However, sometimes by giving people perspectives – could be this choice, that choice, the other choice, or something better – they … (can) choose what would work well for them,” adds Carol.

Families must discuss expectations and what happens when they aren’t met, says Froese.

“As long as expectations are on the table, are clear and are discussed, then you can have communication and creative problem-solving to (find) solutions to conflict,” Froese explains. “If you don't even have communication about the issues, then you’re stuck.”

Successful transitions

Many families, of course, pull together to address the hurdles involved with blending family and business, and successfully grow their farm team.

Matt Kelly, for example, had the opportunity to relocate and join his wife’s family farm operation when he worked in Alberta as a journeyman mechanic. Now, he farms with his wife Lesley, in-laws Garnet and Darlene Martin, and brother-in-law Derek Martin near Watrous, Sask. on their grain farm.

Kelly Family
    The Kelly family pose for a photo near a field. From left: Matt, Jennings, Lesley and Copeland Kelly. - Lesley Kelly photo

“I’d always kind of asked (Garnet) if he would allow (me to join the business). On the production side, he was seeing some good pricing and some good opportunity for young guys to get involved. So, we kind of jumped in with both feet,” says Kelly, who moved from Alberta and started working full time on the farm in 2010.

He grew up on a family farm in near Imperial, Sask. Kelly still farmed with his family on his days off and had some land and other assets in that operation. When the opportunity to farm full time with Lesley’s family arose, he sold his assets to his brother.

The transition into the Watrous-area family farm operation “wasn’t always roses,” Kelly admits to Better Farming. “At the start, … (we had) a lot of challenges with personalities and understanding where everybody came from and what they wanted to see happen.”

While it took some time for the family to sort out the issues, once the family did, they formed an effective team. As a result, they could thrive as a business and family.

“I’m really a strong believer in some of the things, like goal setting, that we’ve done. … If you don’t set goals, you’ll just be stagnant, and you always revert to your strengths. What really makes the business as a farm, and the family as a whole, is if you’re working on your weaknesses all the time. And … enjoying that ride,” says Kelly.

The family recognize the importance of team meetings and communication to help everyone know what’s going on and where they want to go.

Regan Ferguson also came from a farm background and married into a different family operation. Before meeting her future husband Mike, Regan planned to raise cattle on her family farm in Delisle, Sask.

Then, in 2012, she moved to Melfort, Sask. She worked as an agronomist and started farming with Mike’s family near Melfort. They have a 2,400-acre grain farm.

When she joined the Ferguson family’s operation, everyone had to adjust and learn how to work together. Overall, however, the transition went well.

Regan and Mike married in 2014 and she sold her assets in her family’s Delisle farm that year too.

Ferguson Family
    The Ferguson family gather for a photo. From left: Regan, Alyssa, Mike and Stacey Ferguson. - Regan Ferguson photo

“The people made marrying into this family farm awesome. They were good communicators. Everybody got along and was open to ideas,” Regan tells Better Farming. “I really liked marrying into this family farm as well because no cattle were involved, which was a nice change in pace for me.”

About a year after Regan and Mike’s marriage, his parents Bill and Mary decided it was time to begin succession planning.

“We did our succession planning … through professionals. So, some of it was moderated, which helped keep everybody open and talking so everybody – including the non-farming children – was aware of what was going on,” says Regan. Mike has four siblings.

In 2015, Regan and Mike took the operation over from Bill and Mary. While Mike’s parents still work with the younger couple, Mike and Regan now serve as the main decision makers in the operation.

Plan for success

Given the myriad of competing demands on the farm, it’s helpful to allocate a specific time for communication about both the business and the family relationships.

“Have an agenda and the timeframe set out so that on Sunday night, Monday morning, Wednesday afternoon or whenever it is, both people know that the meeting starts at this time and ends no later than this time,” says Carol. “Talk about what’s really important for the week with the farm operation.”

Couples also need to pick “dates and say, ‘Can we just set our business aside?’ If you must, go for a drive so you’re not right on the farm and can really focus on each other,” she adds.

As a new person settles into the family, other family members should strive to discover the newcomer’s strengths and what he or she can add to the operation.

New spouses “can bring a different and unbiased perspective. (They can open) lots of creative opportunity and innovation,” says Froese. “They can also bring in healthier ways of relating, particularly if they come from a family that is emotionally intelligent. (New spouses) can bring new ways of being and doing – especially … new ways of … behaving towards each other.”

The newcomer’s willingness to learn, even if they aren’t from an agricultural background, can help to ease their transition into the farm business.

“I have a daughter-in-law who comes from the city. People would say, ‘Oh, that’s awful.’ And I say, ‘No, it’s wonderful because she loves agriculture and she’s also willing to learn,’” says Froese.

New family members can also offer novel ideas on how the family farm could run, says Griffith.

The new person could “potentially challenge the status quo.” He or she can help push the family beyond “this is the way we always used to do it” to help everyone consider a different approach, he says.

Sometimes the new spouse, as Carol’s experiences show, can help the family become more efficient.

“I remember many, many times building something in the shop or trying to figure out some formula. I just zipped into the house and said, ‘Carol, here are the numbers. Here’s what I’m trying to do. Can you help me figure this out?’ And she’d be able to do that,” says Dan. BF

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