Farm families urged to deal with risks before a crisis hits

Part 2: This series looks at how farmers, agriculture consultants and service providers are professionalizing agriculture by integrating the many skills required by today’s complex and challenging industry.
 You can follow the entire series here.

Thousands of farms have been wrecked by an f-word that has nothing to do with farming.

It’s “family,” and it’s not always family fighting that’s the problem. Instead, it’s the myriad misunderstandings that can make a functioning family farm fall apart in the wrong circumstances.

As a new generation of farmers take over farms across Western Canada, they are grappling with the undiscussed business left by older generations as well as trying to sort out their own affairs.

As farm family planning expert Elaine Froese told a group of young farmers gathered in Winnipeg a few months ago, dealing with some family issues might not be as far off in the future as the “young” farmers of today think.

“The average widow’s age in Canada is 56,” she said in an interview.

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“I have five female friends under 60 who have become farm widows.”

Those include a 33-year-old and a 35-year-old.

An entire industry has been developed to clean up the business, financial and family messes left behind when a farmer dies suddenly or is unexpectedly forced out of farming. However, experts such as Froese have been trying to get farm families to deal with the risks well before crises hit.

Farmers are becoming more like professionals in their work, taking a more thought-out approach to whole farm management and involving expert help before disasters strike. This has allowed advisers and counsellors to focus more on helping farmers avoid problems rather than deal with them afterward.

Farm succession is talked about a lot, but Froese said there are many elements that people seldom think about until too late. That can include creating a “personal wealth bubble” outside the farm so that some of the mess around wills and asset distribution doesn’t cause so much farm disruption.

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Disability and mental instability can also create sudden management issues that aren’t covered by a will.

“Disability is almost harder because they’re not dead, and you don’t want them to be dead, but what if they can’t make decisions,” said Froese.

Thousands of farm families have suffered poor communication, undertook little planning and fell apart over unresolved issues.

Younger farmers and progressive older farmers are now trying to treat their farms more like businesses and themselves as professionals. As a result, they are finding risks they never thought about before.

It might make for a less easy farming lifestyle, but worrying a bit more now can create a lot less stress and destruction later.

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ed.white@producer.com