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By Mike Rosmann, Published March 01 2013

Mike Rosmann: Managing conflict among farm families

Conflict is common among siblings who farm together and difficult to resolve.

After columns on these subjects were published last September and November, many people asked for more information about dealing with competition among their children in the family farm operation and as they developed their estate plans. Siblings in family farming operations also contacted me for help.

Generally, strife among same-gender siblings who work in the same agricultural operation is more serious than among those who farm separately but live near each other or between different-gender siblings. But quarreling can occur among any family members who get entangled in intense competition.

Why are people involved in farming competitive? An inherited drive called the agrarian imperative inclines us to acquire the best farmland and to be the most successful agricultural producers. In other words, our genes program us to compete over opportunities to farm.

Today’s farmers, especially those in the industrialized world, are the survivors of multiple generations of selection of the fittest. Psychological research shows that the traits most highly associated with success in farming include: tolerance for adversity, willingness to take chances, capacity to work alone and to trust oneself. In short, successful farmers tend to be highly competitive.

Predecessors who were less industrious, inventive, competitive and lucky usually were less able to pass along opportunities to own land to their successors, making it harder for their children to continue an agrarian way of life.

How can children who want to farm handle competition and resentment? It takes enormous humility and character to manage sibling competition and feelings of anger and resentment.

When helping farm families settle disputes I frequently hear one sibling proclaim about another, “I’m a better farmer than he is.” Other common statements include: “He doesn’t work as hard as I do; Dad feels sorry for him;” or “Mom likes her better.”

Usually parents avoid making comparative judgments and recognize such statements fuel resentment and drive wedges in family relationships. Children are prone to draw their own comparisons anyhow, through observation of parental actions or they form their own impressions about their siblings.

Whenever a parent or child verbalizes comparisons, usually one person feels wounded emotionally, while the other feels superior. Verbalizing comparisons, even if accurate, almost always is unproductive. It’s best to keep impressions to ourselves. And our impressions might be inaccurate.

Sometimes one or both parents clearly favor one child or one child is a better farmer. It is often easier to settle family disputes when the resentments are out in the open because we all know what needs to be resolved.

Siblings who inherit this situation must be particularly understanding toward the one getting the short end of the stick. Generosity toward that person wins respect and builds personal happiness.

We must call on our better angels. We have to reach deep within ourselves to diminish our wish to compete, to recognize the strengths of our competitive siblings and to avoid hurting them even when angry.

It also takes sensitive understanding of our motives. It is easy to say or act out how we feel without considering the effects of our statements on the recipients.

It’s hard to be respectful when we want to fight, but when we follow guidelines for managing competitive urges, we can resolve differences with our siblings. In the process, we develop personal character and strength to endure future episodes of conflict with family members or others.

Here are guidelines for managing competitiveness that I have found useful in farm family situations.

- Admit you need to learn more during family discussions;

- Restrain from one-upping others in the family;

- If upset, ask for time to sort out your thoughts but always come back to continue discussions;

- Find areas of personal interest that do not compete with your siblings, even if it means attending different social functions, churches, organization memberships, meetings, and engaging in different activities and friendships;

- Continue to honor family events such as weddings, holiday gatherings, birthdays and family traditions and behave civilly when together;

- When farming together, conduct business meetings regularly that follow rules of decorum; I will provide additional recommendations about conducting farm business meetings in next week’s column.

- Recognize your sibling’s strengths and compliment him or her;

- Keep in mind that having siblings in the farm operation with diverse strengths can advance its overall success;

- Keep in mind that forming separate farming operations is an option if all else fails.

Eventually competition dissolves and siblings can become genuine friends who respect each other’s differences.

I thank everyone who contacted me about dealing with farm family conflict. Your stories and questions led me to reflect further on these matters. I hope I have helped. Be sure to read next week’s follow-up column.

Rosmann lives at Harlan, Iowa. To locate previously published columns, check your newspaper website or visit: www.agbehavioralhealth.com. Use the website to share your thoughts with him.