On many farms, this isn’t an issue openly discussed in the community, but it’s the white elephant in the room.

Junkin andy
Andy (Caygeon) Junkin’s niche is helping stubborn farmers work better together. You can download ...

It’s not every farm, but within many farms, at some point in the farm’s history, there is someone who is afflicted with a debilitating disease or poor spine.

For instance, I had a son-in-law who was keen to take over a very large, very successful dairy operation. Yet he was afflicted with Crohn’s disease. To say the least, it’s a cruddy disease – but it isn’t a consistent disease. Some days this son-in-law was feeling good, and other days, it was everything he could do to leave the bathroom or the bed.

I made five small changes on that farm that worked well and can work for any farm:

  1. Forecasting. We put a weather station in the front yard of the farm’s homestead. Family members became more attuned to changes in weather systems (barometric pressure) which seemed to impact the son-in-law’s health.

    The father-in-law started paying attention to upcoming changes in the weather and anticipating whether the weather might impact the son-in-law’s ability to perform 100 percent. The two started to plan “big work days” (for example, dehorning calves or cleaning yards) around days when the barometric pressure was favorable.

    The son-in-law worked more hours on the days he was healthy in order to bank hours he could take off for sick days without feeling guilty.

  2. Color-coding. Neither the son-in-law nor father-in-law were extraordinary communicators to begin with. The son-in-law didn’t want his wife or children ever hearing him complain about his health, and he was adamant about this. (You’ve got to respect him for this.)

    However, the father-in-law needed to know his son-in-law’s health status in order to be able to delegate work among his staff and also to be more supportive of his son-in-law’s afflictions.

    The son-in-law grew up with a passionate love/hate relationship with tractor brands. So what we did was have three different hats he wore to the barn. He wore his favorite tractor company hat if he felt fantastic, his most hated tractor brand hat if he felt terrible and any other tractor-branded hat if he felt somewhat sick but could tolerate it.

    It had to be a pretty harsh day for him to wear his most-hated hat. Like a traffic light, this was a coded system of communication he and his father-in-law silently used to communicate without saying a word.

  3. Start time remains the same. The son-in-law was sleeping in on days he was feeling sick, and this irritated the father-in-law to no end. We established the routine that the son-in-law would always start his day at the same time every day – heck, rain or fire.

    This was an hour before his father-in-law showed up to do chores. If sonny was puking or had diarrhea, the evidence was left in the barnyard, and his father-in-law told his son-in-law to go back into the house. The father-in-law gained a new level of respect for his son-in-law trying to work through his pain, and it changed the dynamics of their relationship.

  4. The farm set up a Plan B schedule for who was going to do what when the son-in-law wasn’t in the barn for more than an hour. The son-in-law scheduled his most important jobs for the first hour of his day.

    For instance, they milked the maternity and “sick group” in the first 35 minutes of his day (instead of at the end of milking) so he could do the treatments in the parlor. A less-skilled hired man could milk the rest of the cows and do his chores like cleaning pens if he was ill.

  5. Pleasant. On days when the son-in-law wore his hated tractor brand hat, he was moody because he wasn’t feeling well. The extended family became sensitive to not irritate him about problems that could be discussed another day because he was doing his best to function and didn’t need extra aggravation.

    On the flip side, the son-in-law recognized that just because he was having a bad day didn’t mean the family members around him should be dragged down into that status. He might not be cracking jokes, but he tried to be amicable despite the pain he was going through.

These simple steps changed the family dynamics completely. The father-in-law gained a new respect for his son-in-law showing up to the barn despite his pain and gained a better understanding of what he was going through.


The father-in-law no longer felt he had family riding his coat tails and was proud his grandson had such a good mentor to demonstrate the character of what it was to be a real man. Any fool can show up to work on their good days; few can show up to work and be pleasant on their worst.  PD

Mark Andrew Junkin improves how farm families make decisions together in the years prior to farm succession. Get his book, Farming with Family: Ain’t Always Easy! at Agriculture Strategy or call at (800) 474-2057.

ILLUSTRATION: by Fredric Ridenour

Mark Andrew Junkin