Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Three Factors In Long Term Farming Success

April 1, 1996

Any farm or ranch family in agriculture today deserves recognition for the farming success and family management that has enabled them to survive. Millions have left agriculture since the 1920s. Today’s two million or more farmers represent the creme of the crop.

Agriculture has changed over the years. The factors for families leaving agriculture are many. New technology, price risk in the marketplace, the high cost of investment in land and machinery, extreme weather fluctuations, the challenge of doing business as a family, and bad luck and timing have weeded out marginal operators and good ones too.

Why have some farm families survived while others have left? What is the secret of their success? How did their parents survive the great depression? Over the years, how have they been able to survive the various weather and price shocks to the ag economy?

Most of today's farmers owe a debt to the management practices and commitments made by their parents, grandparents and past generations. At various points in the history of their farms these families adapted to the changing conditions and weathered the downturns of bad years and bad prices. I believe there are three reasons why they were able to keep the farm going.

1. Management by values. Each successful ag enterprise has guiding management values that they pass on from generation to generation. These are organizing principles for doing the farm work or how they do business as a family. They pass on the wisdom of farming from one generation to the next with an accumulated store of wisdom making each generation a little more wise. These practices gave the farm a special edge to stay in business and to distinguish them from other farms in their neighborhood.

Do any of these expressions sound familiar? "We work hard." "We do it right." "The chores are done at a certain time." "We get things done on time." "Get the crop in and out on time." "Fix it before it is put away." "Don't slop in a crop." "Keep the fences mended." "The buildings are always fixed up." "We are careful about debt." "The machinery is always ready to go." "We always keep an ample supply of feed on hand." "Our fields are clean."

Perhaps the genius of an operation is careful fiscal management and record keeping. Perhaps it is early adoption of new technologies. Perhaps it is keeping up with new developments from neighbors, universities, and farm shows. Some families have a history of being good judges of cattle. Others may have a knack for marketing.

They understand overriding values and management practices and may not require much discussion on a farm family. It is just the way they've learned to do business.

2. Conservative management. Another reason families stay in farming is their patient, long term view of farming. One or two bad decisions can be fatal. The world of the family farmer moves in months and years, not days and weeks. Survival depends on patient operators with established routines who try cautious innovations. Success is not measured by income but by survival, self-discipline, patience and persistence.

The apprenticeship is long. They respect the wisdom of the older generation. Their very survival is evidence that they have made the right decisions. With all the variables that go into farming, it takes years to get a full perspective on the factors that affect success.

Economic realities dictate that the farm has to become more productive and efficient. Risk-taking within rational limits is necessary to develop more resources for family use. They combine a conservative management style with a willingness to adopt new practices without major exposure to risk. They are farmers who are "doing something," who follow the proven successes of more aggressive "pushers" and "plungers."

There are times when opportunity costs are too great or risky to undertake. Families with a conservative use of credit and modest entrepreneurial goals survive the down years better than those who take high risk strategies.

3. Intergenerational harmony and cooperation. Another reason for a family’s longevity is their clear commitment to keep the farm in the family. Parents groom successors who will become good managers in their own right. Fathers in these operations are good, kind teachers who give plenty of "hands on" experience. They delegate well and tolerate mistakes.

These parents are generous in their sacrifices to cushion the entry of the next generation into agriculture - providing the opportunity while sharing in the management. Over the generations, the family develops a track record for getting along and establishes congenial ways of working out their differences.

Parents encourage experiences away from the farm as a part of their children’s preparation and commitment to come back and be a part of a family operation. When they come back, the family has attitudes of respect and appreciation for each other's skill and work. There is fairness and genuine give-and-take in the management decision-making process.

Part of survival depends on family harmony outside of the actual farming. There needs to be clear boundaries and cordial relations between generations. The daughter-in-law is treated as a full partner in the business. The young family’s home and social life is respected and separate.

The survival of a family farm depends just as much on human relation skills that the family has cultivated over the generations as their successful and proven farming practices.