How to build a stronger business-first farm family

Keeping and building family connections across generations is the single most effective way to reduce conflict.

Written for Farm Futures and originally published 2/23/23 

The ties that bind us together can get frayed over time. How connections are strengthened makes all the difference.

Surviving and thriving in any business is hard. Difficult decisions are often made, and there is bound to be conflict in a multi-generational farm enterprise. How a family farm navigates conflict is a large factor in its success.


Here is some good news:  The family enterprise, or farm, has many strengths that not all businesses possess. Family ties, a shared history, ancestors, and family traditions are a foundation of strength. But, a family business, really any business, can't be 100% tethered to the past with "this is how we have always done it around here." Businesses thrive on change, and the "business" component of the family business requires alignment around a shared vision for the future.

That is why a family business is a curious and tangled mix of history, tradition, family, and future aspirations, while working together in the present. It's no wonder conflict arises from such a complex system.

Let's talk about an often overlooked tool that can help almost any family defuse conflict.


Connections: Past, Present, and Future

Families are connected to the past through blood, traditions, and a shared history. This holds true on the family side of the family business. This also holds true on the business side of the family business.


A typical story goes like this.

"Grandpa got off the boat from Norway in the middle of the Great Depression. He was nineteen and had $123.33 to his name. He jumped on a train and ended up in our hometown. He married Grandma, and they would have starved except for the potatoes and wild rabbits. He made the farm what it is today on gumption, thrift, and taking a risk."


These stories, traditions, past struggles, and successes tie the family together with many common threads. This is the past, and keeping these past connections alive in the memory of current and future generations is very important for the present and future.

The present is where the family farm is today. The present consists of present owners, present operations, and present family. The present is the day-to-day whirlwind, and it's where most conflict arises. Conflict in the present often comes from the neglect of connections and assumptions.

Why? It's assumed that everyone knows what everyone else thinks since everyone is family. The story in their heads goes like this, "We grew up together, and we work together. So I understand how they think and what they want."


This story is often not accurate for several reasons.

When children enter adulthood, they tend to chart their own course and have their own ideas. They marry whom they want, and they raise their kids how they want. They create their own identity with their spouse and kids. Each generation forms its own ideas on work, life, vision for themselves, ideas about the farm, and core values. This isn't to say that each generation throws out the old or should throw out the old ideas. Still, each generation makes subtle but significant changes to how they think.


If any of the generations assume nothing has changed since childhood, it can lead to conflict.  The solution is quite simple, but it takes deliberate actions and consistency.

This applies to the family and business sides of the family farm.

Solutions require action

Keeping and building family connections across generations is the single most effective way to reduce conflict.  Often, I see spouses, daughters-in-laws, and cousins blamed for family conflicts. The genesis, the beginning, is often haphazard and inconsistent connections as they integrate into the family.

As families get more extensive and more spread out, there is a tendency to not talk to each other as much. Not get together as much or turn family gatherings into a check-the-box item that only happens at Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas.


While these events are essential, be deliberate and consistent in keeping the more minor family connections alive. This can be as simple as going out for dinner with spouses and ensuring the hunting and fishing trips happen. Connect on a personal level by keeping in touch with a non-work related phone call, a birthday wish, or having a lady's night out shopping. Don't forget spouses and the next generation, either. Cousins and spouses have less in common than brothers. They have different blood and were raised by other mothers, to name a few. If cousins will someday work together in the family farm, then cousin connections shouldn't be overlooked.

One last tip

Don't talk about work at family events. There will be people attending who aren't part of the farm and have little interest in discussing the latest equipment, estate planning, or how to finance the latest purchase. Some of these topics are emotionally charged, and family gatherings should be a safe place for connections. They are just being family and creating relationships together.

Earlier, we talked about the importance of family traditions and history. Keep the stories alive and keep the traditions alive, especially for the family side of the family business. These connections to a shared past will help maintain commitment when the family or family business encounters a tough time.

Don't discount your farm's business relationships

Business connections, or relationships, for a family enterprise are often underutilized. Unlike family, there aren't traditions surrounding business connections. The thought is often, "We see each other every day and work with each other all day, and we know what each other thinks and wants."

Business connections align everyone on what is currently happening and what needs to happen on the farm. It's also critical that the business, employees, and family are aligned and connected to a clear vision of the farm's future.

While family farms may underuse business connections, non-family businesses believe business connections are critical to success. They have staff meetings, retreats, strategic planning sessions, operational huddles, and events to build relationships. These all create alignment around values and vision and build accountability, to name a few benefits.

How does a family business stay connected to the present and the future? Through a consistent cadence of structured connections.


That is a mouthful, but it's simple to understand.

Some of these connections are meetings; some could be simple, like a weekly meet-up at a café. Sometimes these are daily huddles. Some connections are monthly or quarterly farm performance reviews. Other times the connections are an off-site meeting of owners and the next generation. These are focused and facilitated strategic planning meetings where deep thinking and planning multi-year planning takes place. Maybe an annual shareholder meeting that is part business and part fun event that includes spouses.


A thought might be, "We have never had to have these meetings, retreats, and connects before...look how successful we are." However, while the current success is real, much of the past success can be attributed to past connections that need attention if you believe they are important for the future.


A strong family farm should focus on building connections with traditions and family.

Celebrating the past keeps the family culture alive. All the while creating a consistent cadence of connections in the present while building a shared future. These connections, these common threads, are not easily broken and are a powerful advantage for your farm, your family, and your future. How you keep connections alive makes all the difference.

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