Complacency can Kill a Family Farm

Disbelief and Inaction can result in disaster.
Written for Farm Futures and originally published Oct 2023

The high-performance aircraft engine ran smoothly above the Rocky Mountains on a trans-mountain flight, and the weather was sunny and calm.  Life was good.  The pilot scanned the engine monitor, and it showed the #3 cylinder was a little hotter than usual, but not by much.  After some adjustments to the engine, the cylinder was still running warm.  Was the pilot imagining things?  Perhaps the cylinder always ran this hot?  The pilot told himself everything else looked good, so this little thing must not be that big of a deal.  But it was big.  Even deadly.

In the face of needed change, our first reaction is often disbelief.

We freeze and do nothing.  We often tell ourselves things aren’t so bad and continue to do nothing.  This rationalization is human nature.  But disbelief and inaction when change is necessary is just as deadly on a family farm as in the air.

Sadly, every year, good family farms cease farming.

Often, successful farms fail because past success is assumed to carry into the future, and complacency reigns.  Leading the farm in the exact same way for decade after decade often doesn’t work any better than not changing production methods over time.

Just as farming practices evolve, so do management practices.

I recently visited with all the family members of a farm that experienced rapid growth in operations over many years.  Now, the children, most in their forties, were being prepped to take over, but they had reservations.

Yet when this next second-generation management team brought up some concerns about murky financials, conflict between some family members, unclear employment policies for the family, unclear business plans, and no formal transition plan, it was dismissed.


  • “What we face is not unusual….Everyone has these problems.”
  • “It’s not too bad.”
  • “Give it time, and it will get better.”
  • “We have too much work to do.  We can’t spend time in meetings with this stuff.”
  • “This farm has worked well for years like this.”
  • “Our farm is the envy of the community.  We must be doing things right.”
  • “I built this farm to run this way, and I like it as is.”
  • “Now’s not the right time.  Let’s deal with this later.”


Most of the family observed the challenges and were ready for a change, but not all.  There were a few individuals who wanted things just the way they always were.  That’s a natural response but sometimes not the best one for survival.

The net result of inaction and not dealing with the issues, or even talking about them, was surely squeezing the energy out of this proud family farm.


Back to the pilot with the hot cylinder:  Pilots are taught that complacency kills.  So, they actively look for anomalies and small problems; and it keeps the pilot and passengers alive.  First came the observation of the slightly hot cylinder.  This small anomaly wasn’t ignored, and the plane went to the mechanic.  The mechanic kept looking and asking questions until he found the root cause.  On inspection, he revealed a cylinder with a broken ring, which could have been a killer had we done nothing.

Strong family farms can also proactively look for small anomalies and issues.  Then fix them before the small problem becomes true emergencies.
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