In-laws & outlaws
By Brandy Harrison
BOISSEVAIN, MAN. Its not unusual for Elaine Froese to field a panicked phone call from a tearful young bride whos being asked to sign a prenuptial agreement by her soon-to-be in-laws.
“I encourage her to sign it and spend the next 25 years proving to her in-laws how foolish it was to think she wouldnt be sticking around,” says the certified farm family coach, adding that a prenup is a business contract and while a good idea, isnt always necessary, especially if the family invests in the relationship, rather than trusting a piece of paper to protect the farms assets.
When farm kids tie the knot possibly parachuting a city girl into an already complex family-business mix the new farmyard order may start to chafe. But when farmers clam up, clinging to an unwritten code that scorns airing dirty laundry, pent-up emotion can boil over, says Froese, who specializes in succession planning and conflict resolution and is based in Boissevain, Man., southwest of Winnipeg. Shes seen fisticuffs, disrespectful text messages and restraining orders. “Two little cousins want to play on the farm together and yet their daddies are not supposed to be on the same piece of land at the same time.”
Froese, along with conflict resolution specialist Dr. Megan McKenzie, break down the reasons in-laws butt heads in Farmings In-Law Factor, available at Froeses website at www.elainefroese.com. Froese has worked with more than 600 farm families in the last 35 years and farms with her husband Wes and their son and daughter-in-law.
Here are a few of her strategies to avoid conflict with the in-laws.
1. Stop pretending nothing is wrong.
Friction can build out of anything. The younger generation feels micromanaged, the father wont let go of control, the mother is tired of mediating fights, or the city-raised newlywed is freaked out by farm debt. Tension may erupt over which family traditions to adopt, such as when to open gifts at Christmas.
Facing conflict head-on is a business risk management tool, says Froese. Pinpoint what she calls the “undiscussabulls” in the room, like succession timelines or compensation.
2. Meet regularly.
Farms that held meetings were 21 per cent more profitable, according to a Virginia Tech study of 400 farms in six states. Meetings spell out what everyone wants and why, says Froese, adding that a facilitator can toss ice water on heated tempers.
She remembers one woman who frequently asked her daughter-in-law if she could pick up groceries. The daughter-in-law felt judged, but they talked it out at a family meeting. “They ended the meeting hugging each other.”
Keep everyone in the loop, she says. Non-farm siblings and off-farm spouses wont need to be at weekly operational meetings, but should have input in decisions that affect the family.
Meetings should have a clear purpose, use a flip chart as a visual, have a talking stick and be accountable with minutes to track assigned tasks and timelines.
3. Get a financial snapshot.
Froese has also seen daughters-in-law with off-farm jobs supporting their farming husbands, who are slaves to the farm for a pittance and unable to leverage debt when its time to buy in. Its financial abuse, she says. “The successors work for almost nothing on a some-day promise.”
Everyone should understand cash flow and debt, says Froese. She is surprised how many young farmers dont know where they stand. Good advisors are key.
“We have young farmers who dont know how rich they are. It sounds like that Scotiabank commercial, but its true,” she says.
4. Clarify expectations.
Separate business and family, and decide who does what, such as taking meals to the field.
“Love does not read minds,” says Froese.
Accept differences and decide what is worth spending energy on. Froese says landscaping was such a point of pride among her generation that one young farmer unwillingly planted a garden just to keep his wife happy. “This caused tears and angst in that family. Where is it written in the farm book of rules that every farm wife has to have a garden?”
5. Set boundaries.
Determine what is acceptable behaviour and what isnt, such as profanity and secret keeping.
But its also about physical space. Froese suggests a half-mile or thick bush between family farmhouses.
6. Take care of yourself and each other.
Conflict wears people and marriages down, says Froese, adding that couples should decide when to fight and when to let go.
Each member of the farm team needs love and respect, she says. “Once your children choose their life partner, you no longer have any option but to bless and not curse. Youre stupid to go the cursing route. It causes a bigger wedge.”
The stakes are too high to get in-law relationships wrong, says Froese. Families stop talking and farmers lose sleep and become depressed. “I have a grandma who said Elaine, I got to hold the baby last night and that may be the only time I get to hold that grandchild.”
But the farm also suffers. “If youre sucking energy out of the business to deal with drama and fights that are never resolved, youre losing money,” says Froese.
On the other hand, farms that work through conflict are more profitable and sustainable with better employee retention, and have more energy because everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“Ive never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. Your richness in relationship is your only legacy.”