Bulletin #4804, Who Does What on the Family Farm: The Importance of Roles

Maine Family Farms: Life and Business in Balance

Adapted by Extension Human Development Specialist Leslie Forstadt and 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 produce

Being 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 on a single day. How many hats do you wear on a given day? Working in the field, caring for children, going to market, hiring new staff, taking a parent to the doctor, meeting with an accountant, etc. 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

Clarity of roles matters because it helps everyone on the farm know what they are doing and who to go to with questions. Roles involve beliefs, expectations, and agreements about who is responsible for different aspects of the farm. 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 a family business, work and family roles are easily separated. At work, it is easy to take on the role of a 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, co-worker-family, management-labor, or founder-successor. Ongoing communication about roles can help avoid confusion.

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 because questions can be answered as they arise, and confusion can be clarified sooner than later.

  • 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.
  • With succession, the eldest may be identified to take over the business whether or not they 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. Who is interested? How can roles be divided now and in five years in 10 years, in 15 years? What role, if any, will non-farming children play on the farm in the future?
  • It’s important that family members, including partners and spouses, are allowed to assume the roles they feel match their strengths — 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 farmers’ market retailer. Even in a family business, it is important to allow individuals to assume roles for which they are well-suited. Sometimes roles need to be outsourced by hiring a farm manager or bookkeeper.

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 opinions 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.

  • Who is the most organized person on the farm?
  • 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 (Family Farms 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 an agreement about roles, and
  • whether individuals will have the opportunity to grow into their roles.

The greater the fit between family members’ roles and skillsets, 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 individuals are prominent in these relationships: the “leadership founder” (the person(s) who started the farm) and the “leadership successor(s)” (the person(s) who will eventually be taking over the farm).  Simply put, if these two 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?

How to Talk about the Farm Business

Communication Styles

Open, honest dialogue will set a good foundation to 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 the conversation are important. These are skills that can be learned!

Readiness

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. The earlier the conversations start, the sooner a staged transition can begin where the founder can mentor the successor with gradual changes in responsibility.

Values

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

Adult Children and Partners in the 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 and often their children’s partners or spouses as they grow into adult work roles: parents continue to guide the business as they learn to share leadership with the next generation over time and assist them in expanding on their own strengths on the farm. If parents continue to assume a “boss” role and expect the next generation to be “employees,” there can be missed opportunities.

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, able to express their individuality, and 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 from 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 of your roles, and how you may need to make changes. 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. Can you bring in additional help for childcare or farm work?
  • 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 farmworkers, 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 by Leslie A. Forstadt, Child and Family Development Specialist and Tori Jackson, Extension Educator in Agriculture and Natural Resources from Complex Roles and Relations in the Family Business by Randy R. Weigel, University of Wyoming Professor and Extension Human Development Specialist, as part the Farm and Ranch Survival Kit, Working Together to Create a Hopeful Future For Family Farms, Issue 3 (year unknown).

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, 2019

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