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Why do you farm?

Whether it's passion or purpose, your answer is growing more important than anyone thought

Go to any school graduation and you can expect to hear the graduates being told to follow their dreams and find their passion, and that if they find a job they love, they’ll never have to work a day in their lives. It’s a popular message. A recent survey at Columbia Business School found 90 per cent of its graduates say pursuing their passion is an important goal.

If any occupation has taken this message to heart, though, it is farming. Ask any farmer why they farm and you’ll hear about their love for livestock or the joy they get from growing a crop.

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But is passion for farming enough? Should a passion be the reason you farm? It’s worth looking into.

In the recent Harvard Business Review article “Three Reasons It’s So Hard to Follow Your Passion,” author Jon Jachimowicz suggests passion shouldn’t be your primary motivator. In fact, he claims, too much passion for a job may actually be detrimental.

It is a message farmers and farm families need to consider.

Jachimowicz is assistant professor of business administration in the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School, and he makes three key points: “1. Passion is not something one finds, but rather, it is something to be developed; 2. It is challenging to pursue your passion, especially as it wanes over time; and 3. Passion can also lead us astray, and it is therefore important to recognize its limits.”

Jachimowicz says pursuing passion is simply chasing what gives us joy. And if we are focused only on what brings us joy, we can miss opportunities. As well, when we focus on joy, we are actually less likely to find fulfillment and we are more likely to quit.

In speaking with Jachimowicz, it’s clear these points apply to farmers and farming too. “Passion isn’t everything. Passion is what gives us joy. But farming is characterized by setbacks. Everything isn’t going to be great all the time. It won’t always be fun. Many other jobs pay more money than farming. The reality is, passion wanes over time.”

Jachimowicz also pointed out passion often leads to overconfidence, which can then have an impact on the decisions farmers make. Farmers may ignore the advice and feedback of others, or even fail to even seek out advice.

Farmers may be overconfident in their abilities and capabilities. Salespeople and input suppliers can exploit a farmer’s passion, promising results that may make you feel good, but which are not really needed or provide benefit. And farmers can be frustrated by consumers, co-workers and suppliers who do not share their passionate intensity.

Instead of focusing on what you love, Jachimowicz says you should focus on what you care about. At first glance, many would argue this is the same thing. However, rather than just focusing on doing what makes you happy (which is what passion does), Jachimowicz claims, “concentrating on what you care about aligns passion with your values and the impact you want to have in the world.”

He explains passion is fulfilled by day-to-day experiences, whereas doing what you care about requires you to define and acknowledge the real purpose for what you are doing, and to continually work toward fulfilling that purpose in life.

Jachimowicz sums it up in a quick sentence: “If you have a purpose and are driven to fulfil that purpose, passion will develop.”

The purpose of farming

Most farmers are quick to talk of their love for their farm, livestock, crops or even just the lifestyle itself. But if you ask the average farmer what their purpose in farming is, you will likely get a blank stare in response.

That’s a problem. Too much of the farmer’s focus is on what makes them feel good rather than on the products they are producing and the impact they are seeking to have in their business, community and world.

Dr. John Ikerd, emeritus professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri wrote a paper in 2006 that may be even more applicable today. It begins: “During the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, I recall being unable to understand why many farmers committed suicide when confronted with the inevitable loss of their farms. I now believe that they had lost their sense of purpose in life. They thought they were meant to be farmers, and if they could no longer farm, they could see no reason for living. They were right, at least in a sense; if our life has no purpose, it makes no difference whether we are living or dead. If we aren’t meant to do anything in particular, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do. Had these farmers thought more rationally about their purpose in life, perhaps they would have lived to fulfill it.”

In the article, Ikerd acknowledges farming today is a business, and in order for any business to survive, it must produce something that the consumer values and wants.

Given today’s high grain stocks and low prices, it is easy to lose your passion for farming if your primary motivation for farming is to simply make money. According to Ikerd, “making money is not a purpose for living. Money is always a means of acquiring something else, something to make us happy. So in finding our purpose, we need to focus on what would actually make us happy, not just making money.”

If your purpose for farming is producing a specific product for an identified market, there are opportunities today. Or the purpose may be to produce higher-quality foods or producing foods in a more economical, environmentally friendly or sustainable way. Or your purpose for farming may simply be a desire to increase productivity to feed a hungry world. Or it may be focused on stewardship of the land and improving the soils and wetlands while producing food.

Purpose is what you really care about. It will define how you farm.

Ikerd warns against compromising your principles and what you really care about in the quest of business and economics. Instead, he says you need to build the farm business adhering to your values and purpose. That is when you will truly find passion and happiness in farming.

“I’m passionate about…”

Passion for farming is firmly imbedded in rural culture. Hard times are endured, downplayed or simply ignored. Above-average production and high prices are boasted about and celebrated to the point these good times are expected to be the new standard. The rural lifestyle is championed and urbanites are often targeted for criticism. Rural youth are bombarded with messages that passion for farming is the norm.

Since 2014, Wheatland Accounting in Fillmore, Sask., has awarded scholarships to high school students who are pursing either a degree or diploma in studies geared towards operating their own farm or employment in a position serving agriculture. According to Kelvin Schultz, president and owner of Wheatland Accounting, the winners of the three scholarships awarded annually are selected partially based on a one-page written essay or a one- to two-minute video explaining why they are passionate about agriculture; what drives them to choose this industry for their future; and their vision of the future of agriculture in the province.

Without question, we need to attract (and keep) well-educated youth in the agriculture industry. So it is great that Wheatland Accounting rewards deserving students with financial assistance each year. And there is no question passion is an important consideration in choosing a career path, so this is not in any way a criticism of Wheatland Accounting’s requirement of an “I’m Passionate About…” essay or video. (All winning essays are posted on the Wheatland Accounting’s website.)

But what intrigued me was that while all the scholarship winners were very explicit about their love for agriculture, many also outlined the impact they hope to have within agriculture in the future. So I contacted two of the 2014 winners to see if they differentiated between passion and purpose and if their passion or purpose has changed since graduating from university.

Michelle Ross of Grenfell, Sask. began her essay with: “I am pursuing a career in agriculture due to my intense passion for our farm, the amount of incredible opportunity in the sector and because I have an ambitious vision for the future of the industry.”

She attributed her passion to her upbringing on her family’s crop and dairy farm, and one sentence in her essay really jumped out: “I am determined to provide safe and environmentally friendly food for the growing demands of an exponentially growing population.”

True to her stated purpose, Ross has worked as an agronomy summer student for a local co-op, and over the last two summers as a technical development associate with BASF. Currently she is employed as an agronomy research associate at IHARF.

When asked if passion or purpose is more important, she replied: “Both. You have to love farming because farming isn’t easy. There is lots of adversity such as weather to deal with. At the same time farmers are working for the greater good. Passion and purpose go hand in hand.”

Ross’s intention for the future is to return to university for a master’s degree in agricultural economics.

Danean Edgar grew up on a Wolseley, Sask. grain farm. Her essay was unique. Most applicants referred to their own passion for agriculture multiple times, but the two times Edgar wrote about passion, it was about the passion of others, saying “Growing up on a family farm, I have seen firsthand the passion for farming and have developed an interest in this industry,” and “The industry of agriculture is filled with passionate, hardworking people whose success is dependent on the operation that they run.”

Instead, Edgar’s essay focused on the impact she wants to have in agriculture. She clearly stated her goals of working in agronomy and input sales to help farmers be more productive. She also expressed her desire to become an advocate for agriculture.

Not surprisingly, after university Edgar accepted employment as an agronomist with Central Plains Co-operative Ltd. and in 2018 she became the knowledge and innovation co-ordinator at Federated Co-operatives Limited, following her stated purpose.

When asked about passion versus purpose in farming, Edgar admitted she never thought she would be a farmer, but she wanted to make an impact in the industry. She felt having a passion is important for those who want to farm because farming is more than a job. “Farming is hard work, long hours, and it is a stressful industry so farmers need that extra drive and determination,” Edgar says.

She also believes most farmers have a purpose even if they don’t express it in those terms. Some farm to produce better foods for the consumer, some are focused on stewardship and want to improve the land for future generations, and other farmers are business focused.

There is a lesson to be learned from these two young people. Passion for the industry is important, but having a purpose in what you do is critical. Maybe farmers need to spend a little more time thinking about what they truly care about, not just the joy and personal rewards that farming provides.

It could change the way you farm and actually increase your happiness and fulfillment, especially in tough times.

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