Summer 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Keeping Peace on the Farm

Stresses of two-generation farm families.

Daniel J. Weigel
Extension Human Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
Iowa State University - Spencer

Joan S. Blundall
Consultation and Education Coordinator
Northwest Iowa Mental Health Center, Spencer, Iowa

Randy R. Weigel
Extension Specialist, Human Development and Family Life
Cooperative Extension Service
Iowa State University - Ames

The two-generation farm family is a family with many faces. While the dream of parent and child working the soil together is openly affirmed, perceptions and expectations of each member's role and value often differ. Some two-generation farm families find strength and support by working together:

We consider it a great privilege to have a son and daughter-in-law in partnership with us. We are very proud of them. We think it is important that they make the decisions and keep up with new methods.

Other operations find themselves unable to handle the emotional strains:

They (parents) plan the goals we should aim for, think we should share their values, which clash totally with those of a growing Christian, and are pleased to have us financially under their thumb so they have more power to call the shots.

Living and working in two-generation families can create special problems. This article describes a recent Iowa Extension research project that identified the main stresses these families endure and the coping strategies they used. The study suggests a need for skills and supports that Extension can help provide, as well as raises caution about the possible limits of our efforts.

Iowa Study

Closeness in living and working together makes the two-generation farm family unique. Boundaries between work and family, parent and child, male and female are often unclear. Who makes the final decisions? Where do one's loyalties rest? How are business conflicts separated from family conflicts? This blurring of expectations and roles can be stressful.

In the winter of 1984, we examined several of these issues. County Extension agents from across the state provided names of two-generation farm families. These were defined as father and mother actively involved in farming with their son and daughter-in-law. These families were sent a survey asking them to select problems they encountered. A total of 481 adults completed the questionnaire128 fathers, 114 mothers, 136 sons, and 103 daughters-in-law. Most came from multi-purpose, grain/ livestock farms. The average age for the senior generation was 56.8. For the junior generation, it was 29.4. The senior generation had been farming for an average of 34.9 years and the junior generation for 8.2 years.


The survey revealed the most prevalent stresses these families face and the coping strategies they use. Table 1 presents the rankings, totally and by generation, of the most frequently occurring stresses in the two-generation farm family. Except for "living with tight money," the stresses were related to relationship issues. Problems arose over differing priorities, attitudes, and commitments.

Table 1. Rankings of stresses in two generation farm families.
Stresses Rankings
  (N=459) (N=224) (N=235)
Living with tight money 1 1 1
Farm taking priority over family 2 2 3
Difficulty working as a team 3 3 4
Different views on amount of
time to spend at work
4 4 5
Not being involved in decisions 5 5 6
Not being completely on our own 6 10 2
One member takes more risk
than others
7 6 10
Disagreeing over money expenditures 9 8 9

Table 2 shows the most common strategies farm family members used to cope with stress and the percentage of members reporting using each technique. In two-generation operations, the relationships that develop among family members are key to making it work successfully.1 With good communication, respect, and self-esteem, families can, much more effectively, handle the problems that occur.2

Table 2. Coping strategies in two-generation farm families.
Stresses Percentage using weekly or more often
  (N=465) (N=235) (N=230)
Having faith in God 77.6% 76.1% 79.1%
Encouraging each other 59.3 57.4 61.1
Being flexible to unexpected problems 52.4 51.2 53.5
Participating in church, clubs, or
farm groups
48.5 50.4 46.5
Analyzing the problem 43.6 36.8 50.6
Doing things with others to help relax 41.5 42.2 41.0
Physical activity 37.9 38.0 37.6
Accepting things that can't be changed 29.3 25.2 33.5
Sharing problems with relatives and family 14.9 11.6 18.4

Extension's Role

One of the unique strengths of Extension is its ability to package and share information. Information about strains and strengths within rural families can help individual family members understand that their concerns aren't isolated to their particular families, but rather part of the structure of the farm/family unit. Extension can:

  • Share research information on how farm families are affected by their unique structure. This information is
  • of value to both family members and professionals who work with farm families.
  • Encourage family members to check out their "hot spots" and not make assumptions about the feelings or the
  • plans of others. Communication about dreams, both for the operations and the family, build the team. Anxiety about the unknown often yields pain and divides the family.
  • Help farm families clarify gray areas. The need for estate planning, family goal setting, and the gradual transfer
  • of management within the operation are particularly important. When people know what's expected to happen in the future, they're better able to cope, even though they may not like the plans.
  • Help recognize sources of strength within the farm family. Families are better equipped to ride out the rough
  • spots if they understand and build on their strong coping strategies and shared future. Providing opportunities for families to celebrate what's special and appreciated will bolster the foundation of both the family and the farm.
  • Promote stress management materials and workshops to provide the mechanism for families to learn how to
  • respond to stressors, revamp their lifestyle, and remove themselves from explosive situations.

Extension personnel also need to be aware of the wide range of professionals who work with farm families. Many professionals need support in understanding the complexities of the farm family operation. During this time of rapid transition in our rural areas, clinicians, lenders, clergy, and attorneys would benefit from a deeper understanding of the uniqueness of rural families. As rural families find it necessary to get help from professionals, they may or may not find individuals who understand the system in which they live. Extension has the potential to be a key factor in responding to this need.

A Word of Caution

Our study found a wide range of needs in twogeneration farm families.3

I feel two-generation farm families should have definite goals and purposes. They should work out a definite financial plan for operating the farm. Good planning will eliminate much of the stress.

Families such as these are ripe for help on financial and estate planning, recordkeeping, and goal setting.

Yet, we need to recognize that we may not be equipped to help families where deep conflict exists:

I would never recommend our situation to anyone. I've learned to hate, control my temper and anger, and stay away from other family as much as possible. I dread holidays. I'm embarrassed by my in-laws and their lack of knowledge and common sense. I despise the fact that at 34 I'm still a child!

Families like this are in need of more intense help before they can benefit from our educational programs. Our help might best be in referring this family to counseling.

In conclusion, we believe there's no cookbook approach to working with two-generation farm families. However, if we wish to support and build the strengths of these families, we must be willing to spend the time and effort. It has taken the twogeneration farm family many years to develop the patterns they function within and will take continuing, conscious effort to make meaningful changes.


  1. R. Hanson, Family Members on Friendly Terms While Farming Together (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Department of Agricultural Economics, 1982).
  2. H. McCubbin and J. Patterson, Family Stress, Coping and Social Support (St. Paul: University of Minnesota, Family Stress Project, 1981).
  3. For additional reading on two-generation farm families, see H. R. Capener and A. D. Berkowitz, "The Farm Family: A Unique Organization," New York's Food and Life Sciences Quarterly, IX (No. 3, 1976), 8-11; P. Rosenblatt and R. Anderson, "Interaction in Farm Families: Tensions and Stress," in The Family in Rural Society, R. T. Coward and W. M. Smith, Jr., eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1981); and N. Vester, The Two Generation Farm Family (Alberta, Canada: Rural Development Studies, 1981).