Communication is an essential tool for farm transitions

Conversations surrounding farm transitions are bound to be uncomfortable.

Ted Matthews

Conversations surrounding farm transitions are bound to be uncomfortable.

They typically involve people of different generations with different goals and personalities. Communication styles might cause some involved to shut down and walk away, harboring ill will.

Effective communication is essential to a successful farm transition. Atina Diffley, co-owner of Organic Farming Works, a consulting business, said different people really believe specific things to be true. Our culture focuses on being right or wrong, rather than accepting differences of opinion, she said.

Farm transitions work best when people accept differences.

"I think it's really important upfront to be really clear about everybody's needs and expectations," she said.


She likes to start the transition discussion by having the individuals involved write down their needs and expectations individually. Next, she'll bring the individuals together with their partners.

Oftentimes, couples have a more dominant member who tends to control the conversation. However, when the expectations are written down, the less vocal partner tends to be more assertive. If the expectations aren't aired, it will cause problems later, Diffley said. Sometimes, the expectations can be met; other times, they can not.

Lastly, the entering and exiting couples are brought together for a discussion. Everything is laid on the table.

The entering couple might have dreams about the farm that are contrary to the dreams of the exiting couple. It might be difficult for the entering couple if the exiting couple stays involved, but it can work with clear boundaries, good communication and clear lines of responsibility and decision-making.

To facilitate conversations on difficult topics, she teaches people to use "I statements." Rather than saying, "You are an unsafe driver," say, "I feel afraid you will get hurt when you're driving."

There's no attacking, rather it's how a person feels. An "I statement" is about how the speaker feels. It's something the other person can respond to, rather than an attack. It keeps the judgment out.

"We really just know how we feel," Diffley said. "I can't know another person's intention."

It's complicated


Transitions used to be simple, said Ted Matthews, director of rural mental health for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Dad's body wore out from all the physical labor, so the farm went to the oldest son.

Now, dads can and do farm into their 80s. That can be a transition nightmare for the next generation who find themselves working as hired hands in their 60s.

"When are they actually going to retire? When are they actually going to pass on the farm? It's not as simple as it used to be," Matthews said.

Matthews gets calls from family members, lenders, farm business management instructors and lawyers seeking advice. He missed five calls during a half-hour interview.

He's called when people can't resolve the issue themselves, when they need a fresh set of eyes to help them over a hurdle.

Many disputes resolve with one four-letter word.

"It is amazing how confused people get without the word fair," Matthews said.

Chances are, the person who first uttered "fair" is the person who wants to get the most for the least.


Parents will say they want to be fair to everybody and maintain the family farm. That can't happen and still maintain the family farm, Matthews said. Either parents maintain the family farm or they are fair, he said. There are very few farms in the state of Minnesota that can be divvied up into more than one and still remain a family farm.

"What happens with that is the parents don't want to do anything," he said. "The don't want to make anybody mad at them so what they do is nothing."

Doing nothing is the worst solution, Matthews said. Dying and leaving chaos is not a good solution.

What To Read Next
Get Local