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Bulletin #4804, Understanding Roles in the Farm Family

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Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance

Understanding Roles in the Farm Family

Adapted by Associate Extension Professor Leslie Forstadt and Associate Extension Professor Tori Jackson, University of Maine

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This series, Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance, provides a starting point for farm families to think about issues that range from family conversations to managing stress and sharing ideas about life and business balance. Titles include:

Family members pick fresh produceBeing part of a farm family requires each person to assume a variety of roles. Each member of a farm family will play different roles on any given day, and often play multiple roles within a single day. For example, adults in the field and at the market often have children alongside, helping to move, wash, process, and sell products. This requires the adults to be business people and parents at the same time, and requires the children to be farm-team members and children at the same time. Parents must see that young children nap when it is time; older children may be working on homework alongside parents balancing the farm budget on their laptop. Adult children, in navigating their multiple roles, may find themselves struggling to be heard if their parents have always been in charge of the farming decisions. While all farm families juggle a variety of constantly changing roles, each family is unique in how the business is handled and how roles develop.

Roles Involve Expectations

Roles involve beliefs about who does what and how people ought or ought not to behave. Your farm and family roles are based on expectations among both family members and nonfamily. These expectations affect the behavior of individuals within the family business, because behavior will change depending on which role is being assumed.

For families who do not have farms, or do not run family businesses, work and family roles are easily separated. At work, it is easy to take on the role of supervisor or employee. At home, it is easy to take on the role of parent, spouse, partner, or child. However for farm families, work and family systems overlap, which is a wonderful way to become fully immersed in life on the farm. It also can be confusing at times, as roles can shift and be blurred. Individuals must take on different, often-competing roles simultaneously. Many roles are juggled: parent-child, coworker-family, management-labor, founder-successor.

Family Roles Develop Early

The roles people play in a family business are often an extension of the roles they play in the family.  Communication is an important and sometimes missing component of life on the farm. Keeping the lines of communication open can help maintain clarity about family business roles.

  • As partners become parents, having young children on the farm may require changes in the roles each person plays. Discuss ways to divide the tasks that must be done on the farm and in the home.
  • As children grow, each person’s birth order in the family has implications for what they want to do or are allowed to do at work. There is often an expectation that the oldest will help with care for younger siblings. Eventually, it is often the eldest who is identified to take over the business whether or not he or she is the best choice. It is best to begin having conversations about farm ownership and management transition early so that there are no surprises when it is time to make a change.
  • In many families, the role that each member is expected to play becomes solidified when the children are young. Families may have, for example, the “serious first-born” or the “carefree baby.” While these may have been characteristics the children exhibited when young, the expectation that they will continue to play these roles often stays with children into adulthood. While the youngest may indeed still be the one who enjoys a good time, he or she may also be a highly competent adult, ready to play an important role in the business. It’s important that family members are allowed to become the person they want to be—within the family as well as within the farm business—and assume roles (even if they are off-farm) that match their skills and abilities.
  • Many family farm businesses have deeply entrenched traditions for financial management. For example, in many family businesses, the mother assumes the role of bookkeeper, even if she might make a better harvest manager or retail supplier. Even in a family business, it is important to allow individuals to assume roles for which they are well-suited.

Communicate for Clarity about Roles

In order to create a successful and dynamic family business system, roles need to be discussed. This includes discussion about expectations for each person, and expectations of oneself. Through discussion, each person has an opportunity to share his or her opinion and feelings.

Here are some questions for each farm family member to consider and think through. This is just a start; you and your family members will have other ideas about questions to add to your list.

  • Do you see yourself as an organized person?
  • Are you social?
  • Do you enjoy working with people? With retail customers? As a supervisor?
  • What job have you not done on the farm that you would like to try?
  • Are budgets something that make sense to you?
  • What does your family talk about at dinnertime? (Note: Some families include farm talk at the table; others find other topics to discuss at this time.)
  • Are you comfortable operating large machinery?
  • Do you prefer working with animals or crops?

Thinking about these questions on a regular basis (see Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance bulletin #4802, Running Successful Family-Farm Meetings) will inform discussions that can help increase family members’ satisfaction with their roles. Although roles will change depending on the day, family members will be more satisfied when there is clarity about the following:

  • what is to be done,
  • when it is to be done,
  • whether they feel comfortable in the role,
  • whether too much is being asked,
  • whether other family members have reached agreement about roles, and
  • whether individuals will have the opportunity to grow into their roles.

The greater the fit between family members’ roles and skill sets, the more positive an experience each family member will have in their role(s).

Relationships and Farm Succession

Many individuals—as well as the relationships among them—have an impact on succession in the family business. Two key roles are prominent in these relationships: the “leadership founder” (the person or persons who started the farm) and the “leadership successor” (the person or persons who will eventually be taking over the farm).  Simply put, if the people in these two roles get along well, then managing succession and negotiating challenges becomes much easier. Assessing the relationship between the founder and the successor, as well as other key individuals, will greatly help in facilitating the succession process. It is good to ask questions such as these:

  • Does a founder have exclusive relationships with suppliers that are vital to the business?
  • Have good relationships between a successor and important buyers been promoted by the founder and the business?
  • Will the founder be available after the farm is transferred if questions arise?
  • What will the role of the founder be after the transfer?

Factors Affecting the Farm-Business Planning Dialogue

Communication Styles

Open, honest dialogue must happen if participants are to successfully explore and deal with all of the issues that arise during daily farm business or succession planning. Finding a way to communicate is important, especially if the styles of each person are different. Being able to express ideas, manage conflict, and build in ways to take “breaks” from conversation are important.


When the family members are not psychologically ready to talk about issues like farm expansion or succession planning, the process can be unsuccessful. The same is true if a family member is not prepared for possible growth of the farm that may result from changes.

Life stages

The life stage of everyone involved plays a major role in the way each person communicates. This is true for parents, new farm owners, and farm founders ready to transfer the farm. Whether or not both are at the appropriate stage of life to facilitate transition must be addressed. In farm succession, the founder may not be ready to “slow down,” and the successor may not be ready to step into leadership.


Identifying individual, family, and business value systems up front can assure that options and solutions most appropriate to the identified values are incorporated.

Adult Children in a Family Farm Business

As discussed above, one of the more striking features of family businesses is the overlap of roles. In families who are not in business together, children generally emerge into independence when they grow up and leave the house. In family businesses, however, parents typically supervise their children as they grow into adult work roles: parents continue to guide the business as they learn to share leadership with their children over time, and assist them in expanding on their own strengths on the farm. If parents continue to assume a “boss” role, and expect children to be “employees,” the children do not have the opportunity to rise to their full potential and the parents do not have the opportunity of benefiting from the contribution. Relationships can suffer if adult children feel hurt, angry, or resentful toward their parents.

Among adult siblings, there may be rivalries or competition: this is an inevitable feature of life in family businesses. With good communication, rivalries do not have to be destructive. The family business can be effective because the siblings are motivated, are able to express their individuality, and are still willing to cooperate in the best interests of the family business. Rivalry can become destructive, however, when siblings lack the freedom to express their individuality in choosing their business roles, resulting in feelings of resentment toward one another. Parents can benefit by allowing children opportunities to explore their strengths and solve their disagreements.

New Parents in a Family Farm Businesses

The sometimes-conflicting roles of farmer, business owner, and parent can overwhelm new parents. Know yourself, and understand the expectations for each of your roles. Here are some tips about keeping things in perspective:

  • Consider whether you will be able to meet the expectations of each role you play in the farm family, and prioritize these expectations.
  • Realize that as the seasons change from winter to spring, and the work goes from planting to harvesting, your other roles will also flow and change. Similarly, the needs of your children will change with the seasons, and with their development from infancy to toddlerhood, to school age and beyond. Your ability to meet your expectations will change as well.
  • Consider the division of labor, and utilize help in the form of farm workers, apprentices, babysitters, or nannies, if possible.
  • Find ways to engage children in the work of the farm so they become part of the daily flow of activities.

Adapted with permission from Randy R. Weigel, “Complex Roles and Relations in the Family Business,” Farm and Ranch Survival Kit 3 (Washington State University and Oregon State University): 3–4.

Special thanks to the following reviewers:

  • Extension Professor Rick Kersbergen
  • Extension Professor Gary Anderson
  • Erica Buswell (Maine Farmland Trust)

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2014

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