Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No easy fit with farm families

Working with in-laws and living nearby challenging, book says

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BOISSEVAIN -- A cartoon in the new book Farming's In-Law Factor shows a couple getting married, but it's their families who are taking the vows: "We do!" they say.

That about sums up what happens when you marry into a farm family. The high cost of farming requires most young farmers to work with their parents initially. Women who marry farming husbands, or vice versa, often live near their spouse's parents -- or in the same yard or even house -- and work along side them.

Talk about pressure.

Elaine Froese and Megan McKenzie have crafted a marvellous book showing the patterns of conflicts with in-laws in farm families and how to deal with them. Virtually everyone can see themselves somewhere in this book, whether they farm or not. Urban readers are guaranteed to come away with greater respect for farm families.

In what other sector do you have everyone living so close geographically, and working all hours of the day and night on the farm? You have a family system fully enmeshed with the business system

"In what other sector do you have everyone living so close geographically and working all hours of the day and night on the farm? You have a family system fully enmeshed with the business system," said McKenzie, who grew up on a farm near Portage la Prairie and obtained her undergraduate degree in conflict resolution at Menno Simons College and her PhD in peace studies from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Another thing that can be daunting to a new family member is the huge debt loads farms carry, she said.

Froese said many farming people will immediately flip to the chapter titled Daughter-In-Law (DIL). Froese knows the role from experience, although from positive experience, she stresses. She grew up in an English farm family in Dugald and married into a Mennonite farm family near Boissevain. There are also chapters titled Mother-In-Law (MIL), Father-In-Law (FIL) and Son-In-Law (SIL). The acronyms become second nature very quickly.

But DIL is the most prevalent in-law factor. The DIL may feel isolated and powerless coming into a farm family. Often the DIL isn't consulted on farm matters the family has always dealt with on its own. Or else the DIL doesn't feel listened to. Or the DIL doesn't live up to the work ethic of the family. Then there are the set of unspoken rules every family has.

What if there's a divorce and the assets have to be divvied up? That can sink the farm that has been in the family for generations. For that reason, FIL and MIL will often hold onto the farm ownership for an extended time. But if they hold on too long, that becomes a problem, too.

Froese has been a "farm coach" for 13 years, helping more than 600 farm families across Western Canada and the U.S. Upper Midwest work through conflict, from farm successions to other internal family disputes. Problems can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 20 hours to talk through, she says. She tries to give families tools to work through differences.

"It comes down to being able to settle the conflicts when they arise," she said. One of her rules is the young farm couple live at least half a mile from the MIL and FIL to give everyone a little space.

Froese will often take a referee sweater to her seminars. Who identifies with that role? The MIL, of course. She also stresses farm families need to know when problems arise, they are not alone. It's not like every family is the Waltons.

Froese has seen farm families work very well together. In one case, the DIL and FIL do the farm work, while the son works in the oilpatch. In another couple, he teaches and she runs the farm. "It's amazing when it works well. It's people showing grace and openness."

She's seen family members who end up never speaking to each other again. She's even seen disputes handed down through generations, with cousins not speaking to each other and not knowing why.

"In worst-case scenarios, the most powerful members of the family silence dissension through domination tactics, such as belittling, blaming, yelling, rudeness or stonewalling," the book says.

McKenzie married a non-farm husband and they live in the country. That takes educating, too, she said.

For example, rural people tend to speed on the highways but travel under the speed limit in towns. One of the golden rules? "You have to stop for any pedestrian regardless of whether there is a crosswalk or lights," she explained. "And if you're asked to bring a pie to an event, you're not being asked, you're being told."

The book adds SILs and DILs can leave the gym membership in the city. "If you want exercise, plenty of folks will be willing to provide you opportunities to do so."

The book is self-published and available online for $30 at farmingsinlawfactor.com.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2014 A8

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