Friday, July 3, 2015

Paying your dues

February 1998

Nobody likes to wait in line, especially young farming entrepreneurs. But early in our careers, “rules of seniority” seem to retard our efforts to get ahead.
Older farmers often know things before their younger counterparts, for instance - who is retiring, or what land might be for sale at the right price. They know where the off-farm heirs live and how to talk to them. They know which dealers will give special deals and how to get them.

Worse still, geezers get special treatment. Even when they aren’t great farmers, they rarely lose rented land, and then only after extraordinary efforts to avoid unpleasantness. If you are young and clearly more efficient, at least in your own eyes, it seems grossly unjust. The result is that farmers in their early career frequently lapse into a defensive whine about their apparent lack of professional progress. I know I did.

My problem was that I had not learned the importance of “time in the ranks” to create a shared history among peers. Although instinctively I honored this concept by how I chose friends, and who I trusted, it had never dawned on me that it was a legitimate business factor. After all, in business the only thing that matters is the bottom line, right? Not to be guided by cold hard economic logic was almost un-American.

There are considerations that can modify this pursuit of profit that may not be apparent early on. These seemingly “soft” arguments can become iron rules of behavior, and are surprisingly logical when all the information (i.e. history) is known.

One big area of seemingly irrational action is the management of land. Always remember that few individual owners are investors in farmland as the best possible choice for return on their money. Any casual observer can notice the stock market would have been a much better choice over the last several years.

Why do people hold land, then? Inertia, in many cases. Their family owned it, and selling it is more change than they may want late in life (and most land is in “senior” hands). There may be strong emotional ties that outsiders can only guess at. At any rate, purely numeric arguments may or may not carry a great weight with many owners.

This is not as silly as it seems. Knee-jerk reacting to economic signals is no sure path to success, and a pile of money may not be what brings the most satisfaction to an already wealthy population like the US.

If professional prowess and economic superiority are not to be the guiding factors for advancement as a farmer, what is? In my opinion, you are.

Every day, by every word and action, you are compiling a resume that impacts your professional success. Some call this paying your dues, but that implies a meaningless penance. Your experiences in your community and beyond can earn you the advantages that you envy in older generations. There are some things you can do to speed this process.
  1. At every chance, cross generation lines. If you spend all your time with people your age, not only will you remain relatively unknown to many, but you will miss the chance to develop a rapport with older people. This has been one of the great advantages of community involvement - churches, farm organizations, local government, etc. Of course, being in a position to demonstrate your abilities requires some abilities to demonstrate or, even more importantly, the willingness to listen and learn some.
  1. Similarly, trust is one of the valuable business assets that only time can bestow. In order to encourage people to trust you with information or assets, you must invest time with them. My nephew is a bright young lawyer at a large Chicago firm. It was made clear to him early on that the most important role of a partner is not to dazzle with legal skills, but to acquire business. This is done client by client, building a foundation of trust based on personal experiences. While big money can overwhelm this process occasionally, it still remains how most business in America, and especially abroad, is done.
  1. Utilize one of youth’s advantages: the willingness to try. Take advantage of all kinds of opportunities to learn.  There is also a strange skill that develops after moderate experience - knowing what an opportunity looks like. I have never seen a good opportunity that was obvious. After chasing a few such, I have learned that spotting business opportunities is largely a function of imagining what things can become with you in the picture. Until you have some idea of what you can do, via experiences, it is difficult to picture outcomes far enough in advance to beat the competition.
  1. Finally, prepare for good luck. Everyone plans for disasters, but few realize handling fortunate events can be optimized. Almost every successful farm career is interwoven with some good luck that was managed well. Expect your share.

Above all, listen to the ‘Stones.  Time is on your side.

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