Perspective: The Home-Field Disadvantage

September 16, 2016 03:25 PM
Perspective: The Home-Field Disadvantage

Farm succession and transition are challenges for families, but they are the gift that keeps on giving for ag media. As Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No matter how often we write about issues that arise during farm generational change, numerous issues seem relatively unexplored.

One stems from our reluctance to see ourselves as others see us. Because of our unique lifestyle and interwoven business life, farmers are often startled by non-farm family perceptions of how good we have it. These can trigger feelings of unfairness. 

Lost In Transition. Farmers often are unaware or perilously unsympathetic to these differences. But confronting them unprepared during moments of grief and uncertainty can be disastrous for family and farm alike. To preserve both, farmers need to be able to view their situation from a different angle.

Many things farmers take for granted might strike non-farm family members as enormous benefits: 

No commuting. Surveys have identified this daily irritation as the worst and most despised aspect of modern life. Although some farmers understand because of their second job or their spouses’ careers, not wasting much of your life in traffic is a huge gift that has real economic value.

Job security. Occasional horror stories exist, but parents seldom fire children. No anxious annual review, either. Contrast that with finding out your firm has been bought out, your longtime boss moved on or whispers of force reduction. When farmers enviously refer to steady paychecks, they conveniently forget it means steady until it isn’t.

Autonomy. Much of the dissatisfaction for employees arises from lack of ability to control their working lives. Although farmers love to pretend-moan about having lives controlled by weather, et cetera, we don’t have to panic about a lack of sick days when a child is unexpectedly hospitalized. We can choose what to do and when to do it with impunity. Our degree of freedom is staggering even compared to other self-employed professions.

Income. Non-farm heirs often view farming heirs as unweaned offspring. Even if distant children receive help, they usually do not drain constant income from the now-shared farm. Farmers, in turn, are shocked when siblings don’t realize how their efforts have made the farm more prosperous. I suggest a simple rule of thumb: when a generation passes, all uncompensated labor claims vanish. Unless it is explicitly noted in the transition documents, it is a major mistake to accept underpayment for ongoing contributions to the farm in the hope of recompense later. 

Quantity time. This might be most acute among males, but the chance to work alongside parents for years and to earn their respect professionally can be deeply envied by far-flung children. Relationships with parents are essentially fixed when a child leaves home, with only sporadic intervals for parent and child to know each other as more mature individuals. Non-farm heirs often envy how farming heirs evolve a closer, near-peer status with beloved parents. 

Caregiving. Farm family members should expect to be the primary caregivers for nearby parents. In fact, accepting this role gracefully can offset non-monetary benefits. Historically, care of aging parents has often been a responsibility for the on-farm heir.

Clarify Benefits. These blind spots do not just complicate estate settlements. When a generation passes, all parental rules for how the family is to operate come into question. Such unacknowledged advantages become economic considerations that get added in non-farm heirs’ concept of bequest fairness. 

What non-farmers see will not match how we see ourselves unless we revise our accounting to include the disguised benefits we undervalue. Learn to count your blessings accurately. Better yet, have your sister in Phoenix count them. 

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