“The family that farms together …” How would you finish that sentence? Your answer could very well depend on what kind of a day you had with the in-laws or how the most recent pre-harvest discussion went with your father. No matter what kind of response you might want to give, just about anyone who’s lived and worked alongside their kinfolk can come to the same general consensus.
That is: Farming with family can be hard. Family business can be hard. That’s reality, and it’s OK to admit that. Working in agriculture, an industry that prides itself on the historic context of being family oriented, makes it easy to feel guilty when the family ties become too knotted, too loose, or break all together.
Farm families find themselves in very unique situations. Sometimes, the farm is the only thing holding them together. Others, it is the very thing tearing them apart. It wraps up a plethora of challenges including business ownership, legalities, and the innumerable socio-economic issues plaguing rural communities, and it ties it all up with the nice little bow of passion and emotions.
It’s difficult to acknowledge and openly discuss the raw ugliness in so many very real circumstances. But maybe understanding that none of us are the first to experience these things — coupled with some honest dialogue — is a small but pivotal step in the healing process.
Transitioning farms between generations has become more complicated than ever before. Even relatively small acreages are extremely valuable real estate, and they come with more expenses, debt and assets than ever before. Dash in a sprinkle of student loan debt and suddenly you’ve got a multi-million-dollar tangle of odds and ends. In many cases, the aid of an extension agent or financial counselor may be necessary in a process that was once as simple as signing off on a deed. This doesn’t even take into account the complex emotional cocktail that comes with passing the inheritance.
Speaking of legalities, what about divorce? The outdated imagery of a happy farmer and his wife tend to exclude the crushing reality that nearly half of all U.S. marriages will end in divorce, and farming comes with some of the biggest marital stressors you can dish out (finances, long hours apart, a shared work environment, doing business with in-laws, etc.). Dividing up a farm business is arguably one of the most difficult situations a lawyer or court might have to sort through, not to mention the battered relationships with family members who double as co-workers. There are some ag law specialists out there who do try and provide resources for farm families tackling divorce, but it is very easy to feel alone.
And let’s not forget the hardships that can simply be summed up as “life.” The mental health crisis in rural America has been discussed quite frequently, but we don’t seem to be doing much better on providing resources just yet. I think another harrowing issue we face are the growing issues of substance abuse we continue to see in our communities.
Alcohol use by youth and binge drinking are notably higher in non-metro areas, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Opioids too have seemed to find a particular home in rural America, and many communities who once viewed themselves as particularly self-sufficient realize they are not equipped to tackle problems of this magnitude. Resources are scarce, and yes, farm families are not immune to watching their loved ones succumb to substance abuse and addiction, making the painful cycle just continue.
Countless personal relationships happen behind closed doors, ugly things we don’t like to think happens in our beloved ag communities. There’s abuse, there’s miscarriages and couples struggling with infertility, there’s the loss of aging parents to diseases of the mind and death stealing away our children far too soon. There’s a plethora more, each and every family has its own tale of woe to share, but many times it is the farm that takes center stage.
Our families and farms seem to be intertwined in an identity crisis at times. So many want to keep up the image of being that “good” family they are known as in the community, uphold a namesake and business tied to it that has been respected for years. So instead they smile through the fights, the struggles, the pain and losses. Support is often either hard to come by or they don’t know how to seek it. There is often no cold cut answer to any of these scenarios and more like them. But I think the first step can be admitting that they are here, they are real, many of us face them and it is time to break the silence.
Jaclyn Krymowski is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a major in animal industries and minor in agriculture communications. She is an enthusiastic agvocate, professional freelance writer, and blogs at the-herdbook.com.