The Yin and Yang of Fathers and Sons

Being set in your ways can hinder an otherwise great business partnership

A few days ago I was reminded of the often tricky dynamic that must exist between fathers and sons who farm together.

Don’t' get me wrong. There are a lot of joys that go with the anxieties, particularly the pride of seeing one's offspring make his or her way in the same profession as your own.

I suggested to a friend how glad he must be that the crop was going in so smoothly after the nightmare of 2008 and 2009. Yes, he replied, it was great; but for some reason he was still traumatized and feeling pessimistic, weighed down by the memory of those long, wet springs.

His farming son and partner, on the other hand, was feeling good about everything. "From his point of view things couldn't be better," the dad said. "Alas, the curse of age."

Sounded to me like a nice balance. After all, young people are blessed with resilience to go along with their short-term memories.

A great father-son farming team must be like yin and yang – one is not completely black, one is not completely white, and they cannot exist (or in this case, succeed) without each other.

I got a feel for that last fall when I interviewed farmers who were having success with precision technology. A lot of the farmers adapted GPS, autosteer and other gadgets because their sons loved playing with the cool new toys. Some of the dads found the precision stuff daunting until they realize this was a way to make farming fun for their sons. So they jumped in, gave the kids responsibility for bringing in new technology, and now both reap the benefits.

This makes sense. When I was growing up, my parents needed me to program their VCR. Today I call on my 13-year-old daughter when I need to upload pictures on that Facebook what-cha-ma-call-it. Or set up the Xbox. It's nature's way, right?

If only it were always that simple.

Unfortunately we hear too many stories that make you wonder why the son would even think of coming back to the farm.

Sometimes fathers just don't like change. "The crux of the problem is that Dad is just too darned afraid that Junior’s going to screw up his life’s work with all this new-fangled stuff," a farm wife told me recently.

Her husband wanted to hire an agronomist, because he recognized that agronomy was his weakest area. But he knew that if said agronomist recommended, say, changing to strip-till or no-till, it would never happen – too much change for the old man. No amount of yield data would convince him otherwise.

It's easier to say than do, but the best advice is that both sides have to keep an open mind and appreciate the other guy's outlook. Both sides have their own values and ways of doing things, and they are very likely to be different from each other. Celebrate your differences. If you can get past them and recognize how the other guy's mindset can help the partnership, you're on to something.  

Meanwhile, it'd be great if one of you young guys could stop in and take a look at this iPhone of mine…

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