New Woman on the Farm: Swiss Farm Forum

I needed a discussion group like this one 30 years ago – when I first married Robert and moved onto the Swiss family farm with him. Not just with him, but with his mom and dad, and on the weekends several of the siblings. The siblings I could handle – I was the oldest of seven kids myself. But living and working on such close quarters with my in-laws was often difficult for me, even though the Stamms are a wonderful family.

Multi-generational farms make for idyllic pictures, but can create some tension.

It’s not much easier to marry into a Swiss farm today. That was the topic of the farm woman forum I attended last week. Of the 16 participants, half belonged to the older generation and half to the younger. It was good to see several mother-in-law/daughter-in-law constellations in attendance. The discussions were lively, open and honest.

Marrying a farmer even in Canada isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It usually means living in a rural, sometimes remote location, far from things like music halls and fine dining. For an urban woman with a good job, it might mean giving up a whole way of life, if the job can’t be transported to the farm. But rarely, in Canada, does the move also mean living in close quarters with his family.

I lived in the Neuhaus until I was five years old, together with my parents and three siblings, my grandparents, and my uncle's family with two children.

In Switzerland the parents usually both live and work on the farm, as has been the way for generations. The young couple frequently live in the same house, in a separate apartment. The yard is small, compact; the house often part of the same building as the barn. Land is at a premium. There’s no extra room for two yards, for large lawns and bushes between the houses.
When a woman marries into the farm she enters a well run operation where everyone knows their place. Somewhere she must find hers. For those already on the farm, it means opening their hearts and minds and making room for her. On both sides, the move asks for understanding, tolerance, and a willing to make concessions and be flexible. Even in the best of families, there will be conflict and hurts.

“If you want it to work, it will,” said a participant. “But both sides have to want to, and be tolerant.” Married 34 years, she’d lived 27 years in the same house as her in-laws, sharing the main entrance. Now her daughter-in-law will be moving into the house, and the younger generation will take over the farm.

Making it work takes good communication. That was the main point that came out of the forum. Have regular meetings; sit down together, no cell phones ringing. Create a good atmosphere for discussion. Don’t wait until a conflict is so big it goes out of control. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help if necessary. Be open. Don’t stay quiet to keep the peace.

We laughed a lot. Here’s a problem we discussed: “The two apartments have a connecting door. The mother-in-law keeps appearing without knocking in what was her old apartment. What does the daughter-in-law do?” Some of our answers: “Lock the door!” “Put a big closet in front of it.” “Cement it shut!” But we did agree to discuss it with the mother-in-law first. The young women at my table all claimed they wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense.

“There’s still so much to talk about!” one woman lamented at the end. Hopefully they will all make a point of talking about these issues with everyone involved at home.

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