Fair Weathered Farmers

“Tough times never last, but tough men do”. 

I grew up in the 80’s and my first memories were of my uncle’s bankruptcy and my other uncle’s suicide caused by the economic issues of the times.  When I enrolled at Agriculture College in the early 90’s, several high school teachers tried to convince me NOT to get into farming.  I even got called both into the Guidance Councilor’s, then Principles office about this. 

“There is no future in farming” became almost a slogan uttered by everyone.

In Ontario we have had several years of amazing crops, fantastic crop prices and low interest rates.  I believe that I’ve seen the best economic years in Agriculture, that I’ll see in my lifetime.   Within the past five years, enrollment in the Agriculture program at the local Agriculture College has almost doubled.  When I went to the same college in the 90’s, they were seriously thinking about shutting down the program.  It’s amazing how doubling the price of corn can change kid’s interests…

I recently met with a 33 year old farmer’s daughter whom after a bad week at work, had quit her professional job in the city and within a week moved back home to farm with her “city boy” fiancée.  She didn’t know the difference between sand and clay.  In fact growing up the princess had never even driven in a tractor.  Yet she was an only child set to suddenly inherit a $15,000,000 farming empire. 

The incursion of new talent/blood into Agriculture is exciting.  Fantastic actually.  However, at the same time it’s problematic in a big way.  We are getting Fair Weathered Farmers and when times get tough, is there going to be a mass exodus? 

Interest rates spiking to 7% or corn hitting $4 overnight would put most farms into a very uncomfortable situation.  Yet based on historical data, these situations are likely to happen within the next five years.  Or at least a similar economic crisis…. 

Why am I concerned about this?  I see parent’s signing over assets worth millions and they themselves living on a fraction of the wealth they’ve created.  The question is in 10 years time is the farm going to be sold when the next generation faces tough times.  Are they going to look at the problems they face and decide to cash in on family assets, buying a big house in town yet leaving relatively nothing to their children?  If one generation sacrifices, how is it fair that the next generation “lives large” and yet does not leave much to the following generation? 

To be a successful farmer, you’ve got to be successful not only in the good times but more importantly you’ve got to be successful during the hard times.  This starts with setting the realistic expectations for lifestyle.  More importantly it starts with the development of character, excellence in knowledge and passion for farming. 

Is your kid becoming a farmer today, because he would give his right arm for it or because it’s the easiest of all options?  Did he/she quit his job and come home to farm, because it’s much easier and better lifestyle than the other options available?  Is this “do whatever is easiest” character really the best for a successor? 

The management of family wealth in a dynastic context is an altogether ancient and different mindset. 

The question is, do your kids “have it” and if not, what are you going to do to change behavior/mindset?   How are you going to “toughen up” your kids so that they can withstand tough times down the road? 

Tough times never last, but tough me do.  The question is, are your kids tough?  If not, what experiences are you going to provide them to develop the necessary character before the tough times come?