Full confession: I lead a double life, helping run the family farm and doing something completely different for the remainder of my time. Writing is my livestock, says my father, who, when he was taking over the farm, had cows and hogs to keep him busy and drawing an income over the winter months.
The bulk of the fieldwork is done for the year, capping a summer filled with steep learning curves, new environments and old relationships. The cultivator I have waxed poetic about in previous columns is now waiting for spring in the closest thing the farm has to a long-term parking lot, a straight line of implements parallel to the tree line. Farming, at this time of the year, becomes cerebral: watching the markets, planning what crops the farm is going to grow next year, tracking the harvest in South America and, in my case, writing.
Many among the young farmer set also have professional careers that, on paper, have nothing to do with agriculture. And, in many instances these diversions are a good thing. In my case it’s too early to tell, but I am guessing that exercising the non-farming part of the brain (if there is such a thing) every once in while benefits the farmer and the farm similar to the way crossword puzzles are hailed to do to everybody. Writing forces me to think about different things in a different way and stay as sharp as possible, which I’m hoping will help stave off the potential dulling effects of our long, cold winters. And, I trust, staying aware of things in general will help me learn the business side of running a farm.
I’m not yet making decisions of consequence on the farm, but I am observing that fall is when the farmer will start reflecting on what varieties yielded well, which crops to grow next season, and when the best time is to sell un-contracted crops; not to mention deciding which tractors or implements to repair or replace. The farmer must be sharp, and, at this point in my new career, I need the attention of all my available brain cells to learn to remember the important details of selling crops and making contracts.
My dad and I chat at length and frequently, over coffee, about the crop market and what a farmer should watch for and whose advice is worth listening to. These considerations are more complicated than the average city slicker will likely ever know, and they require a mental acuity I hope to acquire over the next few years. The big picture is starting to form, albeit slowly.
I am starting to see context for why a selling-price fluctuation of $1.00 can cause a lot of stress. And I am starting to get a sense of all the costs that eat away at potential profit margins, though, like I said earlier, I am nowhere near knowing at what price my dad should sell his soybeans to make the most money. These are, I’m guessing, almost reflexive calculations for the seasoned farmer. I get nervous, in a good, manageable way, about keeping track of the all the input costs for each field. Fuel usage is not something I have ever subtracted from my gross, annual income, at least not in an obvious way.
The business of running a successful farm is daunting for a newbie like myself. I am very happy my dad enjoys talking about these things and, so far, he doesn’t mind repeating himself now and then.