It’s Either Me or Her

Sabrina and Matt had been married for only 18 months when Sabrina packed her bags and threatened to move back to Iowa. She loved her husband, but she didn’t feel welcome on her husband’s family farm.

The trouble had started a year earlier when a feed salesman came to speak to Matt’s father, Norm, about the animals. Sabrina had just finished her chores and joined in the conversation. Because she had a master’s degree in nutrition, she posed some good questions to the nutritionist. Soon the conversation went over Norm’s head. Norm felt that Sabrina had pushed him out of the conversation, and their relationship changed instantly. Within that moment, Norm thought that Sabrina had gone from being the ideal daughter-in-law to the witch that had to go. Deep down, Norm was afraid that Sabrina was going to start bossing him around. He was only 59 years old and wasn’t ready to give up control. “It’s either me or her,” he said. 

Narcissism is a term used to describe people who are extremely self-centered and oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. When it comes to farm succession, narcissism is one of the biggest threats to an operation’s continued success.

Few people understand that for some men, the farm is the center of his identity. The farm is who he is. It is his pride and joy. If there is even an inkling that the farm is being taken over, he may get very defensive. He has spent his entire life building the business, and he is used to having people follow his instructions and trust his leadership. 

Norm was surprised to realize that when Sabrina got involved in ‘his business,’ he felt as if someone had come into his house and started kissing his wife. To watch as someone else took the lead with a salesmen felt like a huge betrayal to Norm, one similar to adultery. He felt that Sabrina had somehow taken what was his and because of that she couldn’t be trusted any more. No longer feeling he could have Sabrina on his farm, Norm fired her.

Sabrina was devastated. She had grown up on one of the largest swine operations in her hometown. She lived and breathed hog farming, was extremely skilled and worked very hard. She loved her husband, but she loved farming more.   

Matt continued to work 15-hour days on the farm and barely saw his wife. This was definitely not the marriage either of them had signed up for. Sabrina became homesick and depressed, and even thought about suicide.  Norm wasn’t open to mediation. He didn’t care about Sabrina or Matt’s feelings. He only cared about his own insecurities and his need to be in control. 

Norm was so wrapped up in being in charge that he was stunned when Matt dropped everything to follow his wife back to her family farm in Iowa. Finding farmhands to complete Matt’s share of the chores caused Norm nothing but headaches. He was forced to sell the sows within 18 months, leaving him with no farm and no family. Dad’s infatuation with his own ego left nobody the winner.

This story shows just how powerful emotions can be. Norm, an experienced, rational and mature man, felt so threatened when someone else seemed to know more than he did about hog husbandry, he took drastic action. In other words, his raw emotions caused him to make irrational decisions, like firing his daughter-in-law who could have been a huge asset to the operation. This kind of thing happens all too often. 

Along with the fear of losing control of the farm, the fear of divorce is a quiet menace to farm succession and overall farm business management. The stress of managing a business and working with in-laws, combined with a more tolerant attitude toward divorce in the younger generation means that the rate of farm divorce is skyrocketing. When huge assets like farms are involved, divorce has a big impact on the rural economy. Divorce could cause more farms to become insolvent in the next decade than the total number that failed over the past century.

Family support is crucial to farm success so it makes sense to think about how to reduce the probability of divorce and increase the amount of quality time a husband and wife can spend together. Everyone has a role to play. Younger spouses and their parents or in-laws need to take some responsibility for making the relationship work, even through the rough patches.  Often in a family business, the in-laws are part of the problem for a marriage to work. Statistics show that whereas society is at a 50% divorce rate, it’s exponentially higher (>80%) for family business owners due to the added stress of in-law relations and stress from the business itself. 

When a new person comes into the family, weird things happen. People who are typically rational, kind, and down-to-earth may suddenly make erratic decisions due to deep-seeded fears that they themselves might not know about. It’s a very good idea to discuss these things with an outsider so that these feelings can stay in check. You don’t want to be the one who causes your son’s or daughter’s divorce. Remember, it’s not what you say, but how you say it. It’s important that your family has a time and place to deal with problems before they fester and grow. If you don’t acknowledge people’s feelings, then any attempts at a partnership will eventually fall apart. 

Farming with family ain’t always easy. But addressing these issues head-on will help resolve the majority of the problems you encounter before they cause too much damage.