Rent Farmland to Family? How to Keep the Peace This Thanksgiving

Here’s how to navigate the holidays when farming is your family business.

If you think disagreements are harder to broach than they used to be, you’re not alone. Last year 57 percent of Americans told Pew Research that talking about politics with people they disagree with is “stressful and frustrating.” This number has risen from 45 percent in the past two years, and anecdotal evidence suggests this trend holds strong.

For those who rent farmland to or from a family member, the holiday season can feel particularly hazardous. When your livelihood is tied up with kin, it can make for a delicate family dynamic. It’s wise to treat this relationship with care at all times, but perhaps especially during the time of year when your family is gathering together.

Even for those who have positive landlord-tenant relationships that have already stood the test of time, it’s normal to feel wary of these conversations, whether you’re approaching the table for Thanksgiving dinner or to negotiate your lease.

Whichever side of this relationship you’re on, here are a few tips to help you think about how you spend your holidays and how to navigate potential conflicts. You may just find that a few of these ideas apply beyond the holiday season and into the rest of the year!

Adopt a positive mindset and remember what matters most during the holidays

The holidays are a time for families to come together, so make quality time the focus of your family gathering.

1: Tell your family that you enjoy spending time with them
It may sound obvious, but it’s never a bad idea to articulate how much you enjoy spending time with your family and friends when they arrive at your house for a special occasion. If you’re a guest, make a point of telling your host how much you look forward to spending time with them this Thanksgiving. Set the tone and be clear about why you’re there.

2: Steer clear of hot button topics (including the family farm)
Like politics, the family business doesn’t have a place at the dinner table. If your family business involves renting farmland, do your best to avoid any conversation around this topic that may be sensitive. Whether it’s the yield, the rent or a question about soil health, you can talk about that later.

3: Look on the bright side
Any day can be improved by looking on the bright side, but this is especially true during the holiday season. During the winter holidays, when folks may be bogged down by small conflicts or the memory of those who are no longer with them, a positive outlook can make a difference in everyone’s celebrations.

If you’re not sure where to start, compliment the pie or your cousin’s haircut. Look for light conversation around happy memories rather than local politics or recent floods.

Remember that emotions are contagious, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can promote positive feelings at any holiday gathering by being a ray of sunshine on a snowy evening.

Even if things get tense, you can avoid holiday family drama

Truth be told, things might get awkward at some point during your family time this holiday season. If things do get tense, you can always …

  • Change the conversation. Pivot away from whatever topic seems to be causing a stir and look for common ground to share.
  • Be honest. This one may feel more intimidating, but you can always lead by sharing your emotions and respectfully ask to continue a tough chat in a different setting.

For example, if you and your brother rent farmland together and he starts a discussion of the yields you got this season, you can simply say that you feel uncomfortable talking about this in a group setting.

Of course, if someone tries to start a conversation that they feel needs to be had, there are strategies you can use to tackle this, too. You may want to:

  • Find a private space to talk (briefly). If the subject isn’t all that sensitive and you feel up for it, you may be able to step onto the back porch and catch up on the business of the day.
  • Set a time or make a plan to have the conversation. If you don’t want to talk about your rented farmland or your farm’s performance at the dinner table, you can always make a concrete plan to have a conversation in an appropriate time and place.
  • Follow-up after dinner. Nothing sets the stage for holiday family drama like a crowded dinner table where all the chairs are tucked in arm to arm. To avoid a toxic family Thanksgiving, you can always offer to follow up after dinner, especially if it’s a conversation not everyone needs to hear.

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If your extended family wants to get more involved in the farm

If your family’s farmland succession plans come up at the dinner table or someone wants to take advantage of the gathering to talk about the future of your family’s farmland investment, approach this the same way you’d discuss any other tough topic:

  • Frame your conversation as a business transaction. Business conversations should happen in a business setting (and not in the den with a closed door). To avoid hurt feelings or anyone suspecting you don’t take their interests to heart, establish a time and place away from family gatherings where you can conduct any business conversations.
  • Remember what matters most. Especially if the farmland in play has a long family history attached, it’s important not to lose sight of who stands to gain from your farmland property management. If you’re dealing with a farmland dispute in which one party is farming the family’s land, it may help to remember that what’s fair isn’t always what seems equal.

If you or a family member is closer to the land and its daily operations, you may feel sensitive around the holidays, especially if folks are swinging by unannounced. Be aware of your family’s relationships with the land and the farmland operations to help skirt any hurt feelings.

Distinguish between business hours and family time

No family business is immune to some politics, but that doesn’t mean this subject needs to be addressed at dinner. While Thanksgiving may seem like the right time to say something meaningful about the farmland in your family and what it’s brought to you all, be tactful and know whether or not the room is ready for this toast.

Whether you inherited farmland with siblings, bought it off your uncle, or learned how to farm from your brother, the time to talk shop should be separate from the times you come together as friends.

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