Saturday, July 4, 2015

Many are called, few are chosen

September 1998

A young (30) farmer from Arkansas wrote me concerning remarks I had made about “paying your dues”. He explained his frustration with his inability to get his farming operation off the ground and expanding to the size he wanted. He also stressed that farming was his dream - one for which he had prepared and worked hard all his life.

I have no doubt as to the sincerity and passion of this young man. His words were eloquent and familiar. I wanted to encourage and reassure this young farmer and others like him that things would work out. And that could well occur. But it would be both patronizing and an act of disrespect to avoid some harder issues.

First, “wanting” is no longer enough. Popular athletic jargon has raised “wanting” to an aerobic virtue. (“He just didn’t want it bad enough!”) Nevertheless, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is farm” repeated fervently, has little bearing on survival. There are millions of young people with intense career dreams - astronaut, pediatrician, actor, politician, executive - who will never overcome the odds to live the only life they think can bring satisfaction. Furthermore, becoming a full-time farmer may be more difficult than any career just mentioned. 

Consider how few slots there are. Fewer than 300,000 farms gross over $100,000 - hardly a luxurious living. This is half the number of physicians, and one-third the number of lawyers in America! (Somehow this fact always disturbs me.) Deciding that one particular style of farming is the sole acceptable future is a mistake. Our industry sanctions this as the proper attitude for farm hopefuls, but it can mislead many to bitter disappointment. Farming is no longer an occupation of last resort or for those who simply don’t choose another.

Second, farm sizes and land ownership patterns make farming an “insider game”. Many are outraged at this statement, but few dispute it. Without strong extended family backing, the possibility for a successful farm career tends to hinge on a “break”. While such good fortune occurs, the vast majority of farmers are in the positions they enjoy because of what their grandparents and parents accomplished and passed on. Our industry has a strangely bipolar view of this. While lobbying for policies to ensure family succession (estate tax elimination), we decry the inability for other young farmers to get a start, ignoring the obvious contradiction.

Third, luck plays a role. It is not fair, of course, but that is the wonderful thing about happenstance. While life is unfair, it also tends to balance out. Don’t ignore the other breaks you may get by deciding what kind of good fortune you will accept.

Finally, farming is not the pinnacle of existence that we tend to portray it. Being a farmer has many positives, but so do thousands of other careers. Inability to achieve a career as a farmer can be a sharp disappointment, but it certainly does not brand you as a failure. Who faults the star collegiate because he did not make the NBA? Remember, magazines publish success stories. Most appealing are the “Hoosiers” stories of overcoming the odds. The odds are still accurate however, and command respect.

On a practical note, I would offer these words to young farmers whose careers seem to be going nowhere. First, are you tracking your progress by internal yardsticks rather than your envied classmate/neighbor? Do you have hard numbers that indicate any progress, however slow, toward your goal? If not, and you have 7-12 years in the saddle, gather your family and consider whether your dream is displacing theirs, and whether you are sacrificing happiness for stubbornness.

Second, can you formulate any credible scenario where things improve in the future? For instance, will you inherit or take over ground (and when?) or will retirement open slots for which you have a chance? Is your future dependent on a shift in government policy or social attitudes? Time could be your scarcest asset. Decide on a “drop-dead” date. 

Third, if your farm is not at least contributing equally with off-farm (especially spouse) income, rethink your goals. If you work elsewhere, play the cards you are dealt, and take the rewards from the other career you are building. Consider a delayed entry into full-time farming after the advanced age of 40 or so.

Single-minded devotion to one narrow career vision can result in missing golden opportunities for fulfillment just because they didn’t look exactly like your detailed fantasies. It may well be that the future of farming, and the farmers themselves, will look markedly different than now. In fact, your group may redefine midsize farming. But in order to do that, your goal must be something other than being “just like Dad”.

Farming is now a career of such desirability that the selection process is both rigorous and continuous throughout your tenure. Those who do not thank God each day they farm need to look hard into the hearts of those who are denied the opportunity.

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