Family roles: Son’s future can be uncertain

Farm Forum

We are continuing the discussion of the roles and relative importance all family members play in the family farm. This month we will consider the son(s) who choose to remain on the farm and not seek opportunities elsewhere.

To outsiders, remaining on the farm for a career may seem to be a bit of an easy way out. Not having to go out into the great big world all by yourself and take the risks necessary to get ahead in a very competitive job or business market. It may also appear that all the son is doing is taking on the role of a very glorified hired man. In reality, he may feel like low level hired help depending on how much and how quickly Dad relinquishes increments of control. The son has to be willing to work his way into a business where the leader often considers him the “dumb kid” no matter what age or level of maturity and competency he attains.

Let’s use a simple analogy for comparison purposes and make the assumption a young man is offered a starting position job. It will be immediately established what is expected of him and what his compensation will be in return for performing the required duties — meaning a steady paycheck that does not fluctuate due to uncontrollable circumstances such as weather or market conditions. There will also be set days and hours in which to work and if asked to deviate from them, he will be paid extra. If he meets his base requirements, he can generally be assured that he will have a source of income for as long as he chooses to work. Should he exceed the requirements, there will be rewards in the form of career advancement and subsequent pay increases. Insurance and retirement benefits also need to be factored in. So, by putting in reasonable hours of effort he can fully expect a steadily increasing wage, cover his family’s risks with insurance, and be guaranteed a retirement income.

This same young man starts out working for Dad. He has little idea of what he will get paid as this depends on conditions beyond his control. Including what mood Dad is in. Asking for a “raise” can result in a nasty family argument. He will be required to work long and varied hours. Holidays and weekends do not get in the way of farm-work. Traditional benefits? All but unheard of. Guarantees that he and his family will eventually be rewarded for hard work and sacrifice with significant ownership in what he has helped build are totally dependent on what his parents put on paper.

So, what we have is a vital component of the family farm, that quite frankly in many cases, has absolutely no sure idea of what his future holds for him. A stressful situation that can and does cause strained relationships and often goes unvoiced.

This is just as stressful on the parents. They desperately want to do the right thing, but are often troubled as to what the best course of action is to keep everyone in the family happy. There are often other children that need to be considered. Some may have contributed to the farm, some may have not. Others may have had special needs or circumstances that the parents have paid for and these need to be addressed as well.

This is exactly why unbiased and experienced outside help should be sought in helping all interested parties sort through it all and come to workable solutions.

Dennis Foster has been helping families with financial and estate planning needs for 25 years. He welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at 605-887-7069 or