The life you change may be your own
By Ken Root
(Editor's note: Ken Root has written for this publication since the 1990s. His career in agriculture spans six decades. He revisits a topic that appears to be a perennial issue in agriculture. This column was originally published in 2006.)
When I was 21, I wanted to farm. I was finishing a degree in agriculture education. My only background was years of working with crops and livestock and a couple of years of construction. Our family farm was barely large enough to entertain my father, but I'd worked for a neighbor through high school and felt that farming was a physically challenging, but attractive, life.
I began to ask active farmers and retired landowners to rent crop or pasture land to me. I met a level of hostility that surpassed my ability to comprehend--their bitterness, caused by lifelong strife and struggle. I was simply told "no" and I had to accept that. Still, I felt emptiness, as I turned to teaching and a career in agriculture communications. I still wonder "what if" someone had invested time and emotion in me and risked my economic failure, just on the chance that a measure of success might come to both of us.
"What if" you picked a young person to teach what you know about crops, livestock or machinery? "What if" that relationship led to a contract to buy your assets and movement of your knowledge and values one generation forward? Surely a feeling of emptiness crosses the mind of a farmer with no direct heirs to take over the land or livestock. Yet the number of farmers who bring in an apprentice to learn the business is minuscule. Why is it that those who profess to love their occupation and criticize the consolidation of agriculture, choose to shelve their knowledge and sell or rent to the highest bidder?
Is it that farmers don't have the interpersonal skills to convey their knowledge, while keeping the relationship businesslike and amiable? I grew up with a farmer father who could only show anger. He brooded over wrongs that had been done to him years before and could not establish nor maintain business relationships that withstood the rigors of time.
There are private and public programs today that help foster a mentoring relationship between two people who have similar goals, but who are on opposite ends of the age spectrum. In Wisconsin, the Lake Area Network for Dairy (LAND) has created five matches of people who want to exit dairy farming and those who want to enter the industry. In one instance, the young man wanting to enter is 21 and the farmer is 52. That's the spread between many fathers and sons, but this type of relationship doesn't have the family baggage attached, which can make it much easier. Human resource specialists say that you have to respect each other to make a business deal work. A difference in age is far less important than a similarity in work ethic and love for the farm or ranch. A farm family should avoid treating the new entry like their offspring, but need to appreciate the priorities of a young person. If the business deal doesn't work out, they should part company as amiably as possible.
Some farmers, rare as they may be, just want to share their philosophy with the next generation. Jim Andrew, who farms near Jefferson, Iowa, is a great example. Andrew is a conservation-minded agriculturalist who practices and preaches "no-till" farming. On a tour of his land, last year, he made an invitation to farmers or wannabes to come work with him and learn how to grow a crop, while preserving the soil and building fertility. "If they want to work with me a while and then take that home to teach their dad, that's fine with me," said Andrew, who is in the Philippines at this writing, working with farmers who are trying to achieve greater yields while conserving resources. He and his wife, Jacque, only have daughters, who aren't (yet) married. Jacque says Jim's working through his options on whether his trainee will be a son-in-law or an unrelated, eager, conservation-minded farmer. Either way, his desire to pass on his knowledge and enthusiasm is very strong.
It is very likely that the next federal farm legislation will include incentives for young farmers. (Former) U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, who personally conducted many listening sessions to prepare for the new legislation, says that at least one speaker came to each event and asked for provisions to assist farmers who want to get out or young people who want to get into farming. In Iowa, a legislative provision to provide financial incentives to farmers who rent or sell to (young) farmers exhausted the appropriation each year.
There is one other realization that must be faced before bringing in a new generation: It is that you will eventually need to pass control to another person. This may be the hardest single act for a farmer, rancher or dairyman, who started with nothing, was given no incentives, battled for land and had to ride the rollercoaster of markets and weather. When you arrive at the point in life that you possess equity, and have won respect, can you be benevolent enough to risk any of it to put a new generation in your place?
I don't know if it's the same to a farmer who possesses knowledge and equity, but I was hired into broadcasting by a 62-year-old man who told me he'd show me the ropes and help me make it through the formative years before he retired. He did so, and I was appreciative of his encouragement. Gail and I felt it an honor to name our son after him. At 101, he remains one of my closest confidants and dearest friends. Today, I look forward to assisting any young journalist who wants my help to learn those things that may be relevant to this profession.
How good would it be to teach a new generation what you know? How empty would you feel if you were to deny your wisdom and knowledge to someone, while holding your possessions with an iron fist, until your health fails and your heir's final tribute is to sell out to the highest bidder?
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.