Ron Hanson: Strengthening relationships in family businesses
“How do you take a family farm business, pass it on within a family from one generation to the next, and still be family – still have family Christmas where everyone is happy to see each other?” asked Ron Hanson, professor of agribusiness at University of Nebraska-Lincoln in his presentation, “I Only Need A Minute Of Your Time,” given at the Third Annual Ag Women’s Day on June 12 in Brookings, SD.
“These are the issues that nobody wants to talk about, but if these issues are in the family, they will certainly arise when an estate is in transition. I focus on farm women because usually women outlive their husbands, and they have the burden of dealing with these issues alone,” Hanson said.
Hanson quoted a letter from a South Dakota farmwife that appeared in Successful Farming 20 years ago. She wrote of her struggling marriage: “At this point in time, with all the anger and hurt I feel over the years, I really don’t care about my marriage anymore. Sometimes my husband will ask me, ‘Whatever happened to the sweet girl I married?’ And, I always tell him, ‘She died. She died.'”
Farm families have so much to worry about – feeding cattle, baling hay, planting, harvesting and making repairs – that sometimes the farm becomes more important than the family. Spouses can feel taken for granted, and this can lead to problems.
“What many of us don’t understand is sometimes in relationships – love, caring, affection – can die,” Hanson said. “You take everything that hurts so badly and tuck it away where nobody can see it. You lock the door and throw away the key, and that’s your insulation from being hurt. When I was 16 years of age, everything I loved the most in my heart was taken away from me – my farm, my 4-H, my FFA. One night, one argument, between my mom and dad and my grandparents destroyed everything; we lost our farm, and in the process, we lost our entire family. That was 48 years ago. If you came back to Illinois to visit my family, it would only take a moment for you to see that nothing has changed. Sometimes in a family, love, feeling, caring and affection can die. Why do I work with families on relationships? Because, I’ve already been there.”
Hanson was able to make light of a difficult topic with a bit of humor.
“When you look at relationships, particularly on a family farm and in a farm marriage, I have discovered the best test of that marriage,” he said. “Simply let a husband and wife sort livestock together … When I write my book, I’m going to dedicate an entire chapter to hand signals. Read my lips from a half-mile away. Or better yet, know what I want before I know what I want. Anybody have a husband like that?
“When is the last time you told your spouse you love each other? You need each other? Most importantly, you appreciate each other? There are some couples out there that have forgotten what those words sound like.”
Hanson told the story of Lisa, a farmwife who creatively made a point to her husband about their lackluster marriage.
“There are very few people who have actually changed my life, but I’m actually a different person than I am before because of one farm wife named Lisa,” he described. “One evening, Lisa’s husband Jim came home from chores. There in the kitchen was a candlelight dinner made just for him. The children were already fed and in bed. The house was quiet and dark. And, there on that kitchen table was a beautifully-wrapped birthday present for Jim. They sat down together, shared that dinner, and when they finished, Lisa reached down and gave him the present. Jim shook it, and he noticed that the box was light. He opened it up and saw there was nothing in it.”
Lisa’s point was that Jim had given her nothing for her birthday, and she had given him the same gift, but wrapped it.
“I had an extremely hard time dealing with that family situation because Jim divorced her over that present,” he said. “He never found it in his heart to forgive her for that embarrassment. An 11-year marriage with three small children ended over an empty box. When you look at relationships within a family and a marriage, be awfully careful of those empty boxes. Be careful about taking someone for granted. So many times, within a marriage, the person we rely on the most is too often taken for granted. And, the words, ‘I love you. I need you. I appreciate you’ are spoken when it’s too late. It doesn’t even take 10 seconds to say these words, and they don’t cost a dime. Yet, these words aren’t shared often enough.”
Hanson’s speech was relatable to the nearly 170 farm women in attendance at the one-day conference. He closed his presentation with some pretty strong words for farm families to keep in mind: “A strong relationship is a caring relationship. I want to remind you how important that is. Don’t take those you love for granted. Don’t take life for granted.”