How to Deal with Extended In-Laws on the FarmWhen we think of in-laws, we often think of daughter-in-laws, mother-in-laws, and father-in-laws, but in-laws also include the sister-in-laws and brother-in-laws who may also be involved with the farm or are impacting you from afar. In larger farms, cousins and steps-relatives may also be part of the mix, along with multiple generations including grandparents or uncles. So, beyond the nuclear family unit, they are many configurations that you need to be aware of and become part of the communication web.

The critical thing is that when you are marrying, you are also becoming part of the extended family web. Some folks don’t realize the negotiating or impact that the extended family’s expectations can make on their family and the business vision.

One daughter-in-law shared that the marriage of a younger brother really changed how things worked on their farm. The new bride wanted nothing of a farming career while the daughter-in-law and her hubby, the older brother, have embraced farming’s lifestyle, including late-night decision making. Thus, the relationship between the daughter-in and her brother-in-law was shifted, as did the dynamics of the farm. The old passion and focus for all things farm now had to be negotiated with the brother-in-law’s new urban-focused bride.

One of the challenges with sister-in-laws and brother-in-laws is that they are often compared to each other in terms of what they’ve accomplished, their work ethic, their children, and their relationships. Comparison and the implied competition may seem harmless, but it is actually quite destructive. Competition wears down self-esteem and can be emotionally draining as farm team members try hard to please the “judges” instead of focusing on working together as a team. As Marilee Adams author of “Change your Questions, Change your Life” encourages, you can choose to have a learner mindset and not get caught in the judger pit.

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Often family gossip from the extended family focuses on a sense of judgment and competition, which is not helpful to resolving unrealistic expectations. Family gossip can be curtailed when folks not longer participate in it or choose to focus on the positives. Instead of talking about what people are doing wrong, how about choosing to focus on accomplishments or ways to be supportive?

The reach of the extended family in decision making on the farm may be global. Some immigrant families still lean hard on the elder wisdom of grandparents across the pond. This has angered the adult grandchildren and their spouses who are trying to have open, honest, respectful conversations for their business futures, without the judgment of the elder generation. Secret family interventions usually lead to more conflict and lack of trust. So be careful how you embrace the wisdom of the elder generations: do it openly.

David Chilton, the author of “The Wealthy Barber,” has suggested that Canadians are suffering from “granite counter-top syndrome” as a measure of success. If you have granite counter-tops in your kitchen, you have arrived! This is a great word picture to compare the value differences in farm sibling-in-law relationships that cause competition or friction. Your daughter-in-law from a meager background may be frugal and willing to live on less while her sister-in-law is only happy when she has granite counter-tops in her designer kitchen.

Things to Remember With Extended In-Laws

Values or Cherished Beliefs May be Different in Each Family Unit

It is not our job to convert others to our way of being as long as what they are doing is not harmful or damaging to others. It is our duty to be respectful to others and accepting. The question of “how much is enough” is a curious driver on farms. Some folks choose to live simply, and others are driven to always acquire more. This is a good conversation starter when you are re-visiting the business plan for growth of the farm. Often siblings and cross-generations make assumptions what “should” be enough for someone else. Judgments about lifestyle abound and these judgments can be very destructive and stifling.

Many Farms Depend on Cash Flow Injection from Off-Farm Work

The reality is that the involvement of spouses and family members with time committed to the farm may vary depending on the demands of the off-farm employment. There needs to be a discussion about fair compensation for time. Respect needs to be given for the choices made. There are only so many hours in a day, and long days on the farm may be the norm, but it is up to individuals and spouses to agree on the balance between work and family time. Be sure that the compensation for labor is fair regarding money, skill, and time.

Also, consider there are some in-laws who do not want any involvement at all in the farm business. Is this okay with you? People are happier when they are following their passion. If a farmer’s spouse draws very clear boundaries and keeps away from the farm, they may not know all the workings of the business. They cannot expect to be making decisions about the farm, as you can’t have people parachuting into the decision making process. In some cases having someone who is not happy on the farm, yet is forced to be involved may deter the future generations from engaging in the farm.

For a great read on boundaries, see Cloud and Townsend’s book: “Boundaries.”

Distant Relatives Can Have a Big Impact on the Farm Dynamic

Distant relatives like uncles and cousins can have a big impact on the dynamic of farms and families. The willingness to be positive, flexible, and have collaborative decision making is key. For example, some farming uncles treat their nephews better than some fathers treat their sons. The extended family can help out by selling land at a fair family price rather than full market value. Equipment sharing is another example of how resources can be shared via the extended family to give a “leg up” to the relatives. I caution that even with the right intentions, help from the relatives can not be taken for granted, so have basic rental and land lease agreements in place. I have also seen the chaos of accidental farm deaths or other complications create strife between the in-laws and cousins when no formalized agreements or contracts were produced for clarity of expectations.

Extended In-Law Relationships Can Be Cultivated

For example, it is important that your adult child is able to connect with his or her in-laws. One mother-in-law said “I make sure my daughter-in-laws know they should always put their families first when it comes to holidays because we get to have them all the time, so we are willing to share for holidays. The daughter-in-laws are really good at including us and giving us time for the holidays, too. We make sure our daughter-in-laws get time with their family because we get to have them close by all year long.” We know one innovative mother-in-law who has made a tradition of having her daughter-in-law’s parents for Thanksgiving to keep a solid connection with the other side of the family.

Sometimes conflicts between extended in-laws are more deeply rooted within previous generations, passed on to the new families. Some of these “old” fights do not need to be continued, so if you can figure out where the root of the problem lies, you can address the injustice, and choose to move on. Often we take on systemic problems or hostilities with other relatives without understanding why the conflict is being allowed to continue.

“Back in the 1930’s the great-grandfather did not approve of the marital choices of his children, who descendants now avoid each other in the local grocery store. These cousins need to decide if they want to continue expending energy on this conflict that really has nothing to do with them or choose to relate well to all the clan.

The founding generation made an ownership agreement with two sons that is unfair given the sweat equity of the older more involved brother. There is conflict between the siblings that is rooted in the inequity of the agreement. Mom and Dad will only allow a 50/50 split, regardless of the many years of input of the older son and the hours of labor his spouse contributes without compensation. This unjust agreement perpetuates the conflict between the in-laws.”

-An excerpt from Elaine Froese and Dr. Megan McKenzie’s new book “Farming’s In-Law Factor.”


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