Finding the family farm sweet spot

As we see more autonomy and robots on the farm in the future, will that minimize or reduce the impact of the benefits of being a farm kid? Does it change it? There’s an element of the physical aspect of doing some of the work, which creates some of the long-term character, like picking rocks, but as we see more of those tasks being taken up by robots, how does that impact the benefit of being a farm kid?

My speculation right off the top is that it’s a negative impact: we’re losing some of the character-building jobs, the ‘paying your dues’ jobs on the farm. It’ll be interesting to follow and watch how it unfolds.

I know some people will use that as an argument against having robots on a family farm, but can you afford to? Farming is a competitive business, and you can’t afford to say ‘no robots’ unless you’re going to market your products in that manner to the consumer, but that’s a whole other discussion.

There was a story recently in Axios talking about age and questioning the age of some of the people who are making a presidential run in the U.S. for 2020. Bernie Sanders, who announced his run, is 77 years old, and is five years older than current president Donald Trump who was the oldest president ever elected. So the narrative and questions are whether he’s too old to run for president. There are a lot of older people in politics in the U.S.; Speaker Pelosi is 78, Chuck Grassley is in his late eighties. We have these questions about age and if these people are too old to do this job.

I wrote a story back in 2011 or 2012, and asked the question if there’s a point at which Grandpa and Grandma should stop working. Is it appropriate that a 90-year old should drive a combine? The overwhelming response was to let people do what they want to do — it’s part of the fabric of their existence.

One of the questions in the Axios story was how you combine the skills of someone who has seen it all and has been through the wringer with the up and coming generation. We can identify with this in agriculture with someone who has seen high prices and high interest rates, and low prices and low interest rates over an 80 year life. How do you combine that experience with the eager, maybe reckless, optimism of the people who are just coming back to the farm? The farms who perfect that combination of youth and experience are the ones who really succeed, and not just financially. It’s not just about achieving profits. But where these farms really have success is as a family unit as well.

We’ve done a few Mind Your Farm Business episodes on this – succession from the older perspective, succession from the younger perspective, etc. I’ve said before that there really is a lot of farms that completely bypass the Golden Age, which is the period of time where the youth start to gain some experience, and the older generation start to give up some decision making, but they’re able to work side by side and experience success. This is an extreme example, but talking about grandparents and grandchildren together, with a middle generation as well: but if you can get a sweet spot with grandkids, parents, and grandparents working together side by side, getting along (for the most part) and having success in growing that farm and doing everything else that goes along with that, you’ve really succeeded and figured it out.

One of the things that Axios talks about in the case of the Democrat party is that there are a lot of struggles in figuring out which way the party goes in the future based on the experience and some of the activist youth that are currently in that party. I think a lot of us can identify with that on the farm, for the most part; farms are going a certain direction, doing things a certain way – we know the human condition is not terribly open to change sometimes. The younger generation goes away to business school or comes back to the farm after working another job for a few years, and they’ve got a lot of ideas. And it’s managing those ideas and expectations and change so that it can work for everyone.

I think of some of the ideas that I came back to the farm with after university and I just shake my head and get embarrassed. My dad was so patient with giving me the opportunity to really fail – and notice I didn’t say the opportunity to succeed. He gave me the opportunity to fail and to realize that maybe, in retrospect, that was a stupid idea. I had some ideas that were really stupid and he let me know that, but for the most part he gave me some rope. We were really able to find that sweet spot — and if you can do it across three generations, you’re really cooking.

The dynamics of family farm business are so interesting to me, and I love hearing examples of where it worked and where it didn’t work. You can make it work — we all can — but does it ever take communication. It’s easy to say ‘we need to communicate better’, but it’s another thing to put it into action and figure out how you actually do it.

Are you in the sweet spot? Do you have three generations working together for a common goal, keeping it together in terms of everyone getting along with their own roles and responsibilities, using the excitement of youth and combining it with the experience of the people who have seen it all? Share your story with Shaun at [email protected], so we can celebrate it! 

Related: 

Raised on the farm pays dividends

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