Will your farm survive into the next generation? If it does, it will happen for two reasons. The first reason will be your lifelong ability to build a financially viable farming operation. This will insure enough assets to sustain your retirement, be fair to your non-farming offspring and to transfer your farming assets to your successor(s).
The second reason is your willingness to groom your successors to be good operators in their own right. The succession and eventual agriculture success of the next generation depends on personal relationships within the family and astute farm management.
Love of the land. By early adolescence, teens have formed their feelings about farming. This is based on their attachments to the land, close working relationships within the farm family, and the independence of farming as a profession and prospects for the future.
Financial strain on the parents affects the attitude of the children. If the parents see no future in agriculture and/or are angry and bitter over their farming experience, their children are not likely to choose farming as their intended career.
Young men are more likely to enter farming or develop a strong preference for living in a rural area if they come from highly productive farms. Parental help is necessary to get them started. This process is easier when there aren’t as many male children competing for family resources.
Ninety-five percent of all farms pass into the hands of male children. Daughters who become full time operators generally do so when there are no male children and when they have a close personal and working relationship with their fathers.
Full time farming. Sons who watch their fathers combine farming with off-farm employment aren’t as apt to identify with the lifestyle or the profession. They don’t like the stress it puts on their parents, their parent’s marriage and on family life.
Children of full time farmers and landowners are taught more, given more opportunity to learn farming skills, are imbued in the work ethic, and have more parental encouragement for their aspirations to farm.
Warm and supportive fathers versus harsh and critical fathers. Young men are more likely to prefer farming when they identify with and enjoy a close supportive relationship with their father in a family atmosphere of minimal conflict. Their relationship with their mother isn’t a dominant factor in this life choice.
Young men who choose to leave agriculture have the same work history and involvement on the farm as the ones who stay. The difference is the type of relationship they had with their father. Sons develop a strong attachment for farming when their fathers are kind teachers. These fathers give plenty of “hands on” experience, teach skills, delegate well and tolerate mistakes.
Fathers who are harsh or punitive in their parenting or who are poor husbands turn their sons off to farming. They are also more likely to have adult sons who are also harsh and hostile in their parenting style. Fathers are role models for how their sons may be someday. If one generation doesn’t turn off the next one to farming, chances are the next one will.
There is another time when the continuity of the farm is disrupted. If the history of the father and son relationship has been antagonistic, their relationship dissolves during times of financial stress. The children with a positive relationship choose to stay even when economic prospects carry a lot of risk.
Relationship skills continue to matter. Parents who are generous in their sacrifices cushion the entry of the next generation into agriculture. They also sacrifice by sharing management opportunities when they are in control and are still responsible for the result. They develop a track record for getting along as a family. They establish congenial and respectful ways of working out their differences.
Parents encourage experiences away from the farm as a part of their child’s preparation and commitment to come back and be a part of a family operation. When the child returns to join the farm, there is mutual trust, respect and appreciation shown for each other’s knowledge and contributions. There is fairness and genuine give-and-take about how problems are solved.
Part of the farm’s survival depends on family harmony outside the actual work of farming. Clear boundaries and cordial relations between the generations, especially including the daughter-in-law as a full partner, is a huge factor in inter-generational cooperation.
Attitudes now, decisions to farm later. The willingness to enter an occupation of high risk and stress depends just as much on the human relationship skills a family has cultivated over the generations as their successful and proven farming practices.
The reality of the next generation’s ability to farm will depend on economic conditions 10 or 15 years from now. However, the motivation to farm is being formed by pre and early teens right now.
What are they seeing and feeling? Will you be successful in passing down your farm?
(This column was based on research by Dr. Glen Elder at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)