If your workplace relationships have grown strained and difficult, working with human resources personnel to resolve the conflict or changing jobs are two options to resolve the problem; however, these may not viable solutions for people working together on a family farm. PA Farm Link recently offered a webinar featuring presenter Jess Peters, a dairy farmer from Pennsylvania. She and her family own and operate Spruce Row Farm, milking 270 head of registered Jerseys and farming 500 acres. Peters frequently speaks on mental health and relationship topics relating to farming.

“This is something we don’t talk about enough in agriculture,” Peters said. “We don’t talk a lot about how hard it is to work with our family. We don’t want it to get back to our family. We all think it and feel it, but we don’t say it out loud because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Outsiders tend to view farmers as very traditional: working together, eating together, going to bed early before rising to start all over. Many admire the work ethic and conventional lifestyle of family farming.

“It puts pressure on us because in the same breath, the same people who say that say if they had to work with their family they would die,” Peters said. She believes the struggle is widespread, as 97% of farms are family farms.

“The tough relationship for me … is the parent/child relationship,” she said. “It’s really hard. When I hear of a child going back to the family farm, I seek them out and tell them it’s hard. You’ll feel completely inadequate. There’s a difference between growing up working for them and coming back as an adult and working for them. There’s a whole lot of different emotions. You’re coming in to take over part of the farm and your parent or parents don’t want to give that up.”

Part of the struggle is that parents don’t want to see their children make the same mistakes they did; however, sometimes that has to happen for growth to occur. The parent/child relationship also changes as now the children are also adults and coworkers.

Sibling clashes can also make working together challenging. “We can be more sensitive to our family than other people and take it personally,” Peters said. “I’ll say things to Cole, my brother, that I won’t say to others. It’s not right but it’s true.”

The hardest part is communication, Peters said. “My brother and I have an unspoken thing where we can go through an entire milking without speaking, just pointing and grunting.” Other times, when they try to communicate, friction arises.

“Working together is not easy, but it’s the only job where I can say ‘Bite me’ and go to the house and not get fired,” Peters said. “When you work with your family, you can have those fall-apart moments and come back and make it work. Our family knows us better than anyone and they’ll forgive us more.”

Her father tends to work through plans mentally and then tells his children what he wants them to do. While that worked when they were children, they’re grown now.

Working with family requires clear communication

Jessica Peters

“It’s easy to keep following that pattern,” Peters said. “It’s hard for my dad to not be the one to come up with the plan. In planting and harvesting, you’re trying to plant 500 acres of corn at the same time you’re trying to put heifers on a pasture, check fences, vaccinate and deworm the whole herd and haul the manure pit for spring. Dad will come up with a whole plan and if Cole and I talk about it first and come to him with a united front … it works better.”

The family finds that little jokes and pranks help them bond and get along better. “There’s nothing more important than finding the fun when working with your family,” Peters said.

She encouraged farmers to try becoming uncomfortable about aspects of family relationships that they need to face. Something Peters has struggled with is giving and receiving praise. “If you’re doing what you’re supposed to, to me, that’s just doing your job,” she said. “My dad is very much like that too. I’ve had to be uncomfortable and say ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re doing a good job.’ It’s hard to acknowledge the good.”

She also does not typically respond to texts or photos that do not require a response. Instead, she assumes the sender knows she received it; however, some family members think differently and feel as if she is ignoring them or disagreeing.

Peters has learned that separating farm life from personal life helps keep her family close.

“We are surprisingly good at separating the farm from the personal,” she said. “We can be screaming at each other in the barn and minutes later, we’re all eating together. If you can leave it at the farm somehow and find a way to separate the two in your mind, your relationships will be better for it, 100%.”

A Farm Credit meeting that included what she calls “The Wrench Story” changed her life and understanding of her relationships. The story involved a father and an adult child walking through the workshop when the father spots a wrench on the floor. He says, “Hey, pick up that wrench.”

“I can take it two ways,” Peters said. “‘Does he think I’m some kind of idiot who wouldn’t pick up the wrench?’ or ‘He just wants to make sure I’m picking up the wrench.’ One of those options will leave me brooding for a week. It’s enough of a thought that I would legit spend a week thinking Dad thinks I’m an idiot and hates me. Or I can pick up the wrench, move on with my life and both of us will never think of it again. I spent so much of my life living in that first option. I know there are legit issues that tear families apart. But there are so many giant family conflicts that start with that stupid thought.”

In cases like this, one person feels pain and rejection and the other person doesn’t even know. Resentment can build for years as the injured party nurses hurts that were founded on a single, small misconception.

“You can choose how you feel about the things they say about you or to you,” Peters said. She discovered that when she stopped making sarcastic comments and taking others’ comments so personally, “it changed how I interacted with my family. I was a happier person, and they were happier people.”

She has also learned that because she chose to live with and work with her family, she needs to fight for that relationship every day.

“After I heard the wrench story, I realized my family is more important than my pride,” Peters said. “Sometimes you have to choose your pride, but for the most part, it’s my family. I don’t just love my family; I like them. I don’t know where that happened. I know we’re not in the majority about that and that makes me sad.”

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant