No farmer would sit on the tractor stuck in the mud, going nowhere and refusing to even try.
So why do farm families remain mired in emotional muck that sometimes lasts decades, and still be unwilling to resolve it?
Certified farm family coach Elaine Froese and conflict resolution expert Megan McKenzie use the analogy to describe what they see happening with farm families experiencing difficulties with in-laws in their new book Farming’s In-Law Factor — How to Have More Harmony and Less Conflict on Family Farms.
The co-authors say they wrote the book to help push farm families forward, by resolving conflict that stems from difficulties in relationships with in-laws, as families figure out what to do with the farm.
“Conflict avoidance is one of the biggest problems in agriculture,” says Froese, who has coached over 600 farm families primarily across Western Canada since earning her farm coach credentials in 2003, and who also served the farm community as a professional home economist since 1978.
“If farmers embraced conflict as a business tool management strategy they’d be a lot smarter around not letting the conflicts be unresolved around the farm,” says Froese.
It’s long been self-evident that the “in-law factor” needs to be dealt with if families are to enjoy good quality of life while running a farm business, she said. The issue comes up time and time again — what about those in-laws — with families she’s worked with.
“The message I was getting was, ‘everything was fine until he got married,’ or, ‘we’re just walking on eggshells because we don’t know what to do with her,’” she said.
“I was just seeing a total gap in resources in terms of communication and conflict caused by the in-law dynamic.”
Tools and techniques
Their book aims to provide these families with tools and techniques for improving family communication, says co-author McKenzie who grew up on a farm, now lives on an acreage near Boissevain, and brought her own expertise as a conflict specialist to the project. She has a PhD in peace studies earned in Dublin, Ireland and has worked in conflict resolution in various volatile parts of the world including Ireland, the Middle East and DR Congo.
McKenzie said she sees in the Canadian family-based farm system similar root causes and behaviour patterns that incite conflict elsewhere.
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“At the root of most wars in the world is when you start to see the other person as a kind of an outsider,” she said, adding that the arrival of a new member into the family, such as the daughter-in-law, is often viewed that way.
Plus, like the cause of conflict in larger-scale identity-based conflict, farming is one’s identity, and anything that challenges that identity easily leads to the similarly highly charged reactions, she said.
“A farmer doesn’t just farm,” she said. “He or she is a farmer. It is part of their identity. And any time something challenges that identity, people have huge reactions.”
Likewise, communication can be similarly destructive.
“There are similar patterns around communication problems I’ve seen all over the place, like not being able to have empathy or see something from the other person’s perspective,” she adds.
Froese and McKenzie say the book can help farm families find a way out of their conflict, by learning from the book’s stories, strategies and insights, and tools and techniques or “what’s worked” gleaned from interviews with farm families right across Canada and the U.S. for the book.
Families can move on, and needn’t stay stuck, like the tractor in bad relationships, said McKenzie.
“They’re choosing, out of all the alternatives of what they could do, to just stay where they are, which is stuck,” said McKenzie.
“We are trying to encourage farmers to see they have a lot of options to move themselves into a better situation.”
The importance of peacemaking within the farm families is important from a broader community and industry-wide perspective too, adds Froese.
Unresolved conflict on the farm, when it leads to family breakdown and divorce, can put the entire farm, with its assets and legacy in jeopardy, which, has widely felt impact in the surrounding rural community and for agriculture as a whole, she said.
“One of the biggest fear factors in farming is, ‘is there going to be a divorce?’” she said. “In seminars people always ask me, ‘how do you prevent divorce on a farm?’”
Farming’s In Law Factor talks about that, including chapters devoted to the needs of each of the different in-laws — mother, daughter, father, son — plus extended family, as well as a chapter focused on the culture of agriculture and the rural community and one on how to preserve family relationships even if members decide to exit the business.
The 200-page Farming’s In-Law Factor can be ordered in either hard-copy format (paperback) $30 or as an e-book ($10) here.