Multi-generation farm families have a bigger challenge than most businesses, and sadly, the rate of failure is often high. Family relationships are never easy, but always worth working at. It’s doubly hard when sharing a life’s work and making room for multiple personalities and differences of opinion on how things should be done. The very people you love the most are also the ones you may not agree with on how the crops should be planted or the cattle managed. When you add spouses to the mix, there can be many different voices.
Day-to-day differences often get in the way and may provide tinder for a serious blow-up. This is where farm families often go wrong in letting mundane (though important) farm management decisions cloud and overshadow the most important thing — the love and care that was the reason you wanted to farm together in the first place. We need to get priorities in order so we can work together without sweating the small stuff.
It takes a lot of commitment. Sometimes a family is unwilling to put forth the extra effort to be tolerant (knowing when to bite one’s tongue and be silent, and forgive the other person when they spout off, and let it slide, knowing that the common goal is larger than the petty difference).
In my own family (ranching in Idaho), it took a near-tragedy 20 years ago and another major adversity to get our priorities in order and spur us into making a more concerted, constant effort to keep those priorities in order. When you nearly lose a family member or experience a torn relationship that’s hard to mend, you realize how uncertain life can be, and how fragile a family is. You can’t take it for granted — it needs love and care. After you nearly lose something, you work harder at keeping it.
It took a crisis
Two extremely difficult situations faced by our family stripped away some unimportant baggage in our lives (including pride, concern about image or how the details of our work should be accomplished), changing our focus. They enabled us to realize that family relationships were much more important than any hurt feelings, any need for being “right” or our inability to see the value in another person’s view that’s different from our own. It made us more humble and forgiving.
We all still have bad moments or bad days when we let a little thing loom larger than the big picture. But we all know where we are heading now, and it’s easier to get back on track. We may not know the final direction our ranch operation will go, but we know that we will arrive at it together because we know we are pulling as a team.
The teamwork is what’s most important — the family rather than the ranch. If a person puts the operation first (ahead of family) there is eventually trouble. If you take care of the family relationship first, the other things seem to take care of themselves.
The family is what’s important, rather than who makes the decisions or what those decisions actually are. We make it work because we care about one another. Our goal in agriculture is to survive as a cattle ranch, be creative enough to live on the land and somehow make a living. But the truly important thing is that we are doing it as a family (that’s why we decided to ranch in the first place!) and have one another’s best interests at heart.
If we have a misunderstanding, or in a rush of emotion or impatience say something we shouldn’t, we are not too proud to say we are sorry (and admit we made a mistake). We are also more able to forgive the other person when they upset us. We can get back on the same page and continue.
Back from the edge
We know what’s at stake and don’t often lose sight of our true goals. We know what it’s like to nearly lose someone you love, and to nearly have an un-mendable family breakdown. We’ve been there — hanging on the edge of the cliff, looking into the abyss — and we do not want to ever again get that close to falling into it. This kind of resolve makes us all work harder to not let the little things mar what is truly precious in our lives.
Families (especially those who have to work together) are notorious for rifts, and it is usually some petty thing that sets it off. Pride (and lack of communication) keeps the impasse alive. After teetering on the brink of family destruction, we realize what we almost lost, and work harder to make this family relationship work, not only in our day-to-day operation but also in the long term, as my husband and I ponder how to turn it over to our children.
We are working with our children, enjoying the opportunity to interact with our grandchildren as they grow up. We all help each other. There is strength in numbers when needed during haying, working cattle, moving cattle, etc.
One of the keys to making it work has been to let the kids have their own identity — their own cows, their own place. We work together, but separately, like good neighbours. We are striving for a peaceful and amicable passing of the ranch to the next generation, able to let go and let them do it, which is just as important as figuring out the legal and financial aspect of it. The human element can sink or float the boat, and we want our ship in good shape.