Not Yet an Owner

Posted on: March 19th, 2009 by Richard Cressman

My question for Richard

My husband has been working for his parents since high school. We live in a house on the second farm. His parents own everything. My husband is 44. His dad is 65 and has no desire to slow down. They milk 48 cows and his father keeps telling him that both of the farms, cows, and machinery will be his someday. My husband has an older sister and a younger brother who have nothing to do with the farm. His mother does the bookkeeping. My husband has never stood up to his father but complains to me all the time. Nothing seems to be happening about us becoming owners. Years ago I was told to keep my nose out of the farm business so I have had a job working off the farm for the past 11 years. Our son is now graduating from high school and wants to do a two-year program in college and then come back to farm. I am very reluctant to encourage him to come home to farm until this ownership thing is sorted out. How do I go about getting my husband to talk to his parents?


Richard’s Reply

A quick answer to your question is to get outside help and confront your husband’s parents about the future of the farm. Before proceeding, please consider the following. To avoid a nasty confrontation it is imperative that you try and understand some of the reasons why your in-laws have not wanted to take your husband into the business as a partner. The first question to ask is, does your father-in-law have confidence in your husband that he will be able to make the tough management decisions to keep the farm running successfully when your father-in-law steps aside? It is possible that your father-in-law feels your husband is a great worker and gets the work done, but may not have what it takes to manage the business. A second possibility is that mother and father are trying to avoid the decision as to how to treat their other two children regarding inheritances. Most parents feel they need to give some type of inheritance to each of their children. When parents don’t know what to do they often do nothing.

A third possibility could be that your father-in-law is struggling to accept the reality that he is not going to live forever. He keeps working hard and won’t slow down. This allows him to deny the fact he is closer to the end of his working career than he is to the beginning. If this is the case, future discussions must be gentle and sensitive. Denial is a tough thing to confront when you are the person in denial. It can be a very explosive topic to talk about. Go easy here.

Keeping your “nose out of the farm business” has no doubt been difficult. Your son’s interest in a farming career is your opportunity to step forward and help your husband find enough stamina to ask his parents what the bottom line really is and who is going to own the farm and when. Discouraging your son to think of farming if there is no possibility of ownership for him is one thing, but to discourage him at this stage when the possibility may be there in a couple of years would be a travesty.

If your husband will not bring up the topic with his parents, suggest that the two of you go to the accountant responsible for the farm books. Ask for suggestions. Failing that, is there a lawyer who your in-laws have used in the past who could possibly give you suggestions about how to address the farm ownership issue? You can also search out a neutral third-party adviser. If your in-laws are receptive to talking about succession, this could be an excellent venue to keep the ball rolling forward. It may feel like you are walking on egg shells, but please keep moving forward – if only for the sake of your son.

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