The family farm is more than a business. For many Hawaiians, it is a way of life passed down generation to generation. Most families want to see that tradition continue, but often fears about causing conflict or making a difficult situation worse prevent families from openly discussing a transition plan to help family members operate the farm when a death or a crisis strikes.
Even in the best of circumstances, it is not uncommon for the head of the family to feel uncomfortable about discussing personal matters such as finances, current health issues, or the idea of retirement. Added to that, it is rare for all family members to be in agreement concerning what should be done with the family farm. If you or your family members have difficulty talking about what to do, the Hawaii Agricultural Mediation Program (HIAMP) may be able to help. We know that there is never a good time to open a potential can of worms and so the discussion gets put off time and again with no final decisions ever getting made or the family is left with handling the fallout from decisions that were made without anyone being given the chance to talk about what they think would be the best thing to do. In the end, an opportunity to bring the family together is lost and sometimes, family members remain angry with each other for years afterwards.
Where HIAMP Comes In
Transition planning must start with the willingness to communicate with family members. In all families there are times of harmony and times of contention. When unresolved disagreements fester over time, communication about even the most routine issues breaks down. No matter where the breakdown has occurred, HIAMP can assist farmers in a wide variety of conflicts and dis- agreements. You may have heard of HIAMP handling disputes involving USDA programs, contracts, credit problems, wetland issues, and problems with neighbors. What you might not know is that HIAMP can also help facilitate conversations to get your family talking about farm transfer issues.
How Can a Facilitated Conversation Help?
When conflict blocks important conversations from occurring or being constructive, using a mediator from HIAMP can help. Perhaps in your family important conversations end without resolving anything; or some family members feel like they have to shout to be heard; or almost everyone gets along, but there is one family member in particular that starts the conflict and brings things to a painful stop.
A mediator can create a safe space for your family to talk openly and communicate effectively. Sometimes the mediator will speak to individual family members separately, in groups or all together depending upon your family’s unique inner dynamics. Helping family members openly and productively talk about issues allows family members to clear the air, feel heard and have an opportunity to explain what they are thinking and why they feel the way that they do.
Assumptions that family members have held regarding the farm can be explored as can what each person hopes will happen. This allows the family members currently in charge of the farm to better understand what everyone else thinks is important, what each expects will happen and what each is hoping for. Once the information has been shared, better decisions can be made. The ultimate goal is to help family members reach consensus—or at least something that they can all live with regarding what will happen. Even if not every family member can get everything they wish for, at least everyone gains a better understanding of one another and a more complete picture of what will happen down the road in a process that feels safe, clear, and constructive.
Once the dispute has been discussed and a consensus is reached among the family members, HIAMP can refer your family to local community organizations that have experience and offer concrete help in drafting a farm transition plan. These organizations assist family farmers in transition planning by helping you develop good business plans, understand the elements of sound financial management, and estate planning. With all of these elements in place, a transfer plan can be put in place and re-visited regularly to ensure that it is meeting current needs.