Family land, family expectations, debt and suicide

with Don Fraser
Fraser Farm Finance

This is a big title, big subject, but ... this seems to be a real issue where land has passed from one generation to the next. I have seen grown men crying over their failure to hold family land for a number of reasons.

It seems to cause incredible pain (in the mind) and suffering where somebody has the expectation that they will hold it. Sometimes there is nobody in the family who is remotely interested in taking over the farm. Often nobody wants to milk or take on the hours and debt normally associated with succession and family land.

Sometimes they do, the debt lifts for various reasons, the bank puts pressure on to sell, then the anxiety really ramps up and suicide has been their choice because “what will Dad think if I fail?”.

Some examples

One very sad story I recall is where a younger farmer was battling with overwork, lack of sleep and high debt. His banker mistakenly called him in the morning and apologised and by that afternoon he was gone. The real tragedy was that his wife was easily able to remedy the farm situation and retain it as an investment.

Another case many years ago was where a ‘salt-of-the-earth’ farmer hung on and hung on to his farm well into his 80s. He finally realised he could not manage it, his daughters did not want it, so he was faced with selling a third generation property. He became depressed and died and what a mess there was to clean up.

Inherent expectation

When it is family land there is an inherent expectation handed from one generation to the next. How that is managed by the incumbent is crucial to their physical and mental survival. I often hear noise like:

  • You can’t sell family land
  • Keep this in the family forever
  • Once it is gone you will never get it back
  • Saw my dad sell his farm, went to town and died! (Probably was old and ready to go anyway).
  • What will the neighbours think if I sell?

Transition struggles

It seems like we struggle to own the farm (family land or not), struggle to run it and pay it off, struggle to sell it for many reasons and struggle to retire happily. It feels like it is a Kiwi farming bloke thing.

There are far too many suicides in the rural sector for whatever reason. Maybe some research on what is really going on in the heads of our Kiwi farming blokes might help.

Whatever way you look at it, it is around expectation, unrealised goals, family expectation, family land, often intermingled with debt and health and we have a recipe for disaster.

Awareness is essential

There appears to be a lot more awareness and support out there. The rural GPs are more aware and better briefed; rural professionals are better briefed; Rural Support Trust is doing a great job; the issues are more out in the open, but it keeps on happening.

Solutions required

It is not a solution just to talk about it, become anaesthetised by the numbers and keep on going, there has to be a better way. Maybe there needs to be a think-tank with interested and affected parties? Maybe we need some suitable experienced and qualified people to go and interview the family of a suicide? Maybe they should be looking for common threads?

These could include head injuries, family pressure, alcohol/prescription drugs, debt ratios, relationship issues and the list goes on.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a thread. You will notice I put head injury as number one. I have a sneaking suspicion it may be one of the primary causes. Maybe we need to do things differently? As a nation, we cannot afford to lose 50 of our great farming stock every year.

I am sure there is a connection between family land, family expectation and debt around our shocking rural suicide statistics. We need to do more and look at it differently.


Disclaimer – These are the opinions of Don Fraser of Fraser Farm Finance. Any decisions made should not be based on this article alone and appropriate professional assistance should be sought. Don Fraser is the principal of Fraser Farm Finance and a consultant to the farming Industry. Contact him on 021 777 675. A disclosure document is available on request.


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