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The ties that bind: Passing on the family farm

Jan Haaken for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 December 2016

Doing business in America is often a family affair. Indeed, Forbes estimates that 90 percent of U.S. businesses are owned or controlled by a family – a truly startling statistic. But this statistic covers a wide array of set-ups. The struggles of the Cargill clan, one of the richest families in the world, are quite different from those of small-town suppliers and most family farms.

The differences reflect an enormous divide in how assets are protected and losses buffered, including in the familial transmission of wealth.

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In returning to the county north of Seattle where I spent summers as a child on my aunt and uncle’s dairy, I wondered what things were like for the surviving family dairies.

My own aunt and uncle had suffered tremendous tragedy over the years, and the farm went under after they died. But it was a different world now from the one they and my cousins inhabited.

In the course of interviewing farmers for Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers, one producer offered his insights into how economic pressures shape relationships within dairy families. Gathering up his final thoughts one early morning before heading out to the barn, the farmer offered his assessment of the dilemma: “It’s a family, but it’s also a business."

"That’s where a lot of the conflict comes up.” In expanding on his point, the farmer described a frequent pattern: “The first generation starts the farm, the second generation builds the farm, and the third generation destroys the farm. I just don’t want to be part of that third generation.”

The first and second generations create the value of the operation (so the story goes), and the third generation risks losing it all. Sometimes this perception of a generational divide was apparent in sibling relationships.

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The elder siblings (usually brothers) often identify most with the second generation, and the younger siblings are cast as less committed to the time-honored work ethic of the farm.

A number of farmers described this change in work ethic as a byproduct of the trend toward expansion as dairies become larger businesses with employees. “Some of these young guys just want to be managers,” one farmer complained.

“They don’t want to scrape manure or go to the barn late at night when there’s a problem with calving.” The pride many of the older farmers expressed was based in part on their readiness to take on the dirty work, to not ask anyone else to do a job they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves.

But this cautionary intergenerational tale may express the dilemmas of every generation. We are all the “third generation” at some point. Farmers may be particularly conscious of the indebtedness of each generation to the previous one – and less able to distance themselves from the burden of history and its accompanying anxieties.

Many people recall stories from childhood of the hardships of their parents or reminders that “you don’t know how good you have it.” But intergenerational farming families may be among those groups that feel these hardships most acutely.

Dairy families are not simply looking at stock portfolios or buying and selling assets. Although technologies have freed farmers from some of the backbreaking work, running a dairy still involves enormous commitment and stamina.

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And it means working in intimate proximity to animals and coming to terms with many of the “facts of life” – sexual reproduction, birth, death, manure, disease – as well as the satisfactions that come with producing food for others. Dairying requires a certain comfort with the messiness of human and animal existence.

In a historical sense, most contemporary American dairies are indeed part of a third generation. Approximately 80 percent of producers who were farming in the 1970s are no longer in the dairy business.

For decades, farmers have experienced the chronic stress of knowing that they could be the ones who lose it all. The sense of guilt over losing the farm may be based on over-identifying with that intergenerational legacy and feeling an excess of guilt and personal failure.

There are healthy coping mechanisms in response to these pressures as well. Producers often spoke of the farmer down the road selling his land on very good terms, enabling the producer to expand his operation. This can create a sense of mutuality and feelings of gratitude – qualities these farmers often expressed.

And it undercuts the American myth of the “self-made man.” Most farmers who were still in business expressed what seemed to be a genuine feeling of humility about their relative fortunes. They are acutely aware of the forces that shape their relative prospects for staying afloat, from dependency on the global market, the shifting and uncertain effects of farm policy, to intensification and consolidation of the dairy industry.

All cultures have some sort of “intergenerational contract” – understandings about what children owe parents and what parents owe their children. In my interviews with producers, taking over the family farm carried both rights and responsibilities. In families with multiple siblings, the process can produce conflict and resentment.

Some families were finding ways of talking about the process of transmission of the farm. “Mom and Dad set us up for the opportunities we have today,” one farmer explained, adding, “But that means we also need to take care of them for the rest of their lives.”

Many elder farmers did express the importance of children leaving the farm for a period of time to decide if this occupation was really right for them. Like other modern parents, farmers honor the right of their children to make individual choices for themselves. “Farming isn’t for everyone,” they often commented. “You have to have a real passion for it.”

But passions are cultivated in children in subtle, often unconscious ways. The eldest son or sons were often taken to the fields with their fathers from an early age or accompanied them when they met with vendors. Daughters were less apt to be mentored into the demanding fieldwork of the farm.

While daughters are less apt to take over the farms than are sons, it is often difficult to untangle the motivations involved – whether the desire to run the farm is experienced as a birthright or a burden.

For many families negotiating the transfer of the family farm, the question of how to value “sweat equity” became a pivotal point of dissension. Sweat labor often eludes standard measures of value for the farm. The Roman Catholic priest and philosopher Ivan Illich used the term “shadow labor” to describe this dynamic.

Shadow labor is recognized largely by the effects of its failure to be carried out. When performed, this work is often invisible to others. Women’s traditional roles within the household are a form of shadow labor in the sense that the work often goes unnoticed and under-valued.

One farmer pointed out that the size of assets, and particularly land value, has heightened conflict over inheritance issues. Sweat equity has been overtaken by capital and land equity. “It used to be a way of life,” he explains. “But now it’s not so much a way of life as it is a way to make money, and it’s a lot of money.”

He explains how money can corrupt family relationships and the values at stake in preserving the farm.

As more family farms become corporations, the gains and losses of history are not easily charted on the available ledgers for measuring progress. And it may be up to each generation of farmers to decide those values inherited from their elders that are important to preserve and which are best left behind. These are among the challenges of the fourth generation.  end mark

Jan Haaken is professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University and a documentary filmmaker. Her recent film, Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers, is available on video-on-demand

Jan Haaken
  • Jan Haaken

  • Professor emeritus of psychology
  • Portland State University
  • Email Jan Haaken

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