The primary role of a farm manager is to find the best solution to the myriad questions and problems encountered each and every day. Farmers regularly fret over questions like: What will the markets do? Should I buy, contract, or sell today? Has a pest reached threshold levels, and is a pesticide application justifiable economically? Should I be trading or purchasing equipment? Should I be changing crop/animal genetics? Should I participate in a program, and if so, at what level?
Yet many farmers ignore the most important question of all. Why do I farm? Unless you can honestly answer this question it will be impossible to fully realize either your personal or your farm goals and it will eventually result in frustration.
The problem is there is no right or best answer to the “Why do I farm” question. This may sound like heresy to the current farm generation. Not only has it been taught that farming is first and foremost a business, but too often it has also been taught (wrongly) there is only way to measure the success of a business, i.e. the balance sheet.
The fact is, your business success is about achieving your goals, and if those goals are only about the numbers, there are likely other business opportunities that are easier to enter, carry less risk, and yield better financial returns than farming. So, are farmers simply poor at identifying better business opportunities? Or are the numbers actually not the primary reason people farm?
Beck’s Hybrids describes itself as “the largest family-owned, retail seed company in the United States, serving farmers in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, southern Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, southern Wisconsin and Minnesota, eastern South Dakota and Missouri.” In 2013, Beck’s ran a contest asking farmers to go online and post their reason for “Why I Farm.”
There are some interesting lessons to be learned from that contest. First, despite running seven months, and despite prizes worth US$50,000 in seed, only 136 farmers entered the contest and told America why they farm. One has to wonder why so few farmers were willing to state publicly why they farm.
Second, none of the entries listed business, economics, or profit as the primary reason for farming.
Maggie Holt, spokesperson for Beck’s Hybrid, sums up the reasons they did give: “Farmers are not doing it for the money. There is a bigger purpose (for farming) than making money.”
Holt says the stories the entrants told were so powerful, Beck’s decided to professionally produce “Why I Farm” videos to honour the American farmer and to use those videos to connect with consumers.
Since 2013, 21 farmers and their reasons for farming have been featured in short, online videos which have now been viewed by more than 3.8 million people.
The passionate choice
Natalina Sents, an intern at Beck’s, was so inspired by the videos she proposed a “Why I Farm Roadtrip” which would see her spend one year visiting farmers in all 50 states to find out why they farm. In 2016-17 she travelled over 100,000 miles and recorded the stories of more than 100 farmers and their families.
Before embarking on the road trip, Sents compiled a huge spreadsheet of potential farms to visit based on suggestions from the Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bureau, commodity groups and associations. She even worked through Facebook to ensure she would meet a wide variety of farmers.
Out of all these potential contacts, only one farmer refused her request to visit, saying he was not comfortable speaking publicly.
Based on the list, Sents worked out a route that took her to every state in the U.S. She interviewed farmers ranging in age from 21 to 94. They grew a wide range of crops. She noted: “There is a lot more to agriculture than just corn, soybeans, and cattle.”
Sents says: “There were as many reasons given for ‘Why I farm’ as the number of farmers interviewed. They told of legacy farms that had been in the family for generations that they wanted to see continue. They told of wanting to give the same opportunity to the next generation to farm that they had been given. They gave reasons of the rural community, of environmental stewardship, and of the connection to nature as the reasons they farm.”
Most interesting, Sents reports, “I never got a single response of entitlement or money being the primary reason for farming.”
Sents did get lots of farmers expressing satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment in meeting the needs of consumers.
Strategic. Business. Thinking.
This is not to say that profit and economics are not important. Holt and Sents both agreed that money management and business principles are important for the survival of a farm. But they both pointed out profit is not the primary motivation for most farmers.
So what does this mean for Country Guide readers? Actually a lot! It means business management must take the thrill you get from farming into account.
“Why I farm” is equivalent to your mission statement. It tells you why you exist in the first place, and if the business is not meeting the reasons for existence, frustration will develop and it is likely both business and personal goals will never be met.
By contrast, if you know your “Why I farm” mission statement, you can make business decisions that grow your success.
Knowing why you are a farmer is especially important given the changes that are occurring in agriculture today. You need to take into consideration the reasons you are farming when making each and every business decision.
For example, some of the responses for “Why I Farm” centred on a love of mechanics and operating farm equipment. However, we are on the verge of autonomous farm equipment. Investment in autonomous equipment might actually be a very poor decision if the reason you became a farmer in the first place was your love of operating equipment.
Lots of farmers say the reason they get into farming is a love of watching crops grow. So should these farmers be paying for crop scouting, or should they be investing in their agronomic skills so they can walk the fields themselves and find someone else to do the jobs that need doing but that don’t provide the same satisfaction?
If the reason you farm is to see that perfect, weed-free crop waving in the wind in late summer, would it actually be a good decision to switch to organic production because of depressed commodity prices? While organic production might provide better returns, is it worth giving up on the reason you had for farming in the first place?
If your reason for farming is its connection to nature, is draining all your wetlands and brushing all your fence lines truly meeting your basic reason for becoming a farmer?
Rural community is a common reason given for “Why I farm.” So what are you doing to preserve your community? Is expansion of your farm at the expense of the community a good business strategy if community is the reason you became a farmer?
If you farm because you believe a farm is the best place to raise a family, what are you doing to include that family in the farm? An isolated farm can be as much a prison as a paradise for family members.
Likely one of the most common reasons for becoming a farmer is you can be your own boss. This may be true, or are you the boss in name only because you have to continually answer to advisors, banks, machinery dealerships and input suppliers, not to mention the demands of the boss at the second job you require in order to make ends meet on the farm
Country Guide bills itself as Strategic. Business. Thinking. Knowing why you farm is the fundamental basis on which all three of these functions are based!
“Why I farm” is important to consumers too.
Equally important, consumers want to know more than ever before about the food they are eating. And one of the biggest questions they have is why do farmers farm. Farmers who can articulate the love they have for the land and how they see their role as stewards of the land, or how they want to provide the best possible quality food products will earn a lot more respect from consumers than if farming is simply described as a business or job.
Verbalizing the reason we are farmers becomes a powerful marketing tool for farmers and farming.
Most importantly, there is no right or wrong answer as to why you farm. You just have to know with absolute certainty why you farm and take that into consideration in the decision making made each and every day.