Friday, July 3, 2015

A Business Way of Life

September 1996

By now all right-thinking agriculture professionals know to say that farming is a business, not a way of life. We chant this mantra to show how seriously we take our occupation and to differentiate us from happy-go-lucky predecessors who seemingly wandered aimlessly through tradition-proscribed lives.

I have long suspected there has also been just a touch of condescension involved in this attitude. With far better educational opportunities than previous rural generations, many of us felt we needed to manufacture some distance between ourselves and those who farmed because they had nowhere else to turn. Additionally, those who study, comment on, advise, or inform the agricultural community developed a collective concern that farmers were not businesslike enough in the practice of their profession. For their own good, farmers would just have to start thinking and making decisions based on sound financial principles, rather than accepted farmer habits.

The results of this change in attitude would make them more successful financially, and hence, improve farmer lives. As a result, many of us who firmly embraced the idea of business before pleasure now find ourselves looking for a way to recapture in our lives something we cannot quite identify. Moreover, making decisions solely based on bottom-line figures has been at times both unrewarding and uncomfortable. 

I am now in mid-career, and the realization that great wealth will probably not be my destiny is less troubling than before. The joy I experience in my work stems only partly from the financial reward. While financial success is still an important goal, other aspects of farming are what make the farm the ideal career for me. In fact, these “way of life” factors grow with importance every day

That farming is a “way of life” is self-evident. But then so is teaching, or construction, or refrigerator repair. Here in America especially, people are categorized by their career. It is the second piece of information asked about a stranger. Each occupation has its own special jargon, humor, values, culture, history, etc. Farmers talk in what is meaningless babble for non-farmers, similar to physicists mumbling the latest quantum gossip. All these factors serve to both bind and isolate each occupation. The fact that sound economic decisions are now mandatory to survive in farming does nothing to change this effect.

Moreover, this “farmer role” that we play provides the community support, ethical guidance, and sense of inclusion that cannot be obtained from any amount of money. While it may seem that farming is just another way of getting wealth from the world, relying on that alone will not provide the full range of rewards possible from this career.

A little historical perspective might help. Generations of farmers before us were not blithely indifferent to making money. The game was just a lot different then. Until recent times, the largest single factor in farming success (outside of land) was hard physical labor. Any way that input could be maximized was helpful. Hence, large families, huge meals, long hours, the respect for unrelenting labor, cooperation between neighbors - many of the things that we consider the lifestyle of farming - were actually sound business decisions.   

As the labor input declined in importance with the advent of mechanization, newer business skills were needed. Now we can add some fairly esoteric expertise to the desired mix: risk management, marketing, electronics, economic forecasting, computer applications - and the list grows. While many of us think of these as business skills, they are simply the late 20th century equivalent of the “way of life” traditionally associated with farming. Forty years from now, our lives may be the embarrassingly backward example of a “way of life”.

In the end, to live the way we live, even through changes and trials, probably holds more of us to the land than we would care to admit. The uniform hope that our children may follow us is indicative of our feelings concerning this life. And it has much to offer.

We live with a different set of risks, and hence, rewards that most occupations will never experience. The personal freedom and concomitant responsibility are areas of choice largely unknown for the employee. The wide range of activities from working in the soil like farmers have done for 10,000 years, to locating by satellite provides an exhilarating, boredom-proof combination of tasks. Our successes and failures are physically real and visible, and largely independent of the judgment of others. 

Best of all is the almost seamless combination of career and home that farmers can enjoy. We work “out of our home”, giving an adaptability to our lives that thousands of telecommuters are now discovering. Even with relative isolation from merchants we waste far less meaningless travel time than urban counterparts. With the exception of a few critical weeks, farmers command a flexibility of time that would make highly paid executives salivate. We can work with our children, one of the most valuable experiences that can be shared between parent and child.

What we have here, very definitely, is an admirably integrated way of life - a business way of life. And it’s one of the very best ways to live on this planet. We are not required to choose between enjoying our existence and doing our work well. In fact, the two aspects reinforce each other.  

I feel sorry for everybody who isn’t us.  

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