Farm Progress

4 lessons learned from a lifetime of listening to farmers.

Mike Wilson, Senior Executive Editor

January 1, 2018

4 Min Read

A new year brings a blank slate, full of promise, risks and potential disappointments. Maybe even a few failures. Generally you get all of these with any given growing season, right?

Farming is a perfect canvas for those who like adventure, because it’s a sure bet this year will be like no other, no matter how long you’ve been at this game. You put together a game plan and execute, managing the risks as best you can.

After three-plus decades of dishing out advice, I’ve learned a few universal nuggets I want to share as we launch 2018. It’s amazing what can happen when you pay attention.

The best, most profitable farmers are life-long learners. I recently read a story where the author was baffled at why farmers went to so many meetings. He considered them a waste of time. By far, among the thousands of people I’ve interviewed and written about, the most successful operators embrace new ideas and are constantly learning how to improve their business. Winter meetings are one way to do that.

This may seem pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people still see learning as something they left behind in high school. There’s a reason why the best U.S. farmers attend the Farm Futures Business Summit, The Executive Program for Ag Producers (TEPAP), or their local university extension meetings. They don’t spend much time in coffee shops. They spend a lot of time listening...learning…and acting on what they learned.

This will be even more important for young farmers as they ramp up to become lead decision-makers. If you’re doing it right, young farmers in their 20s and 30s should feel like they’re earning a whole new degree once they are out in the workforce.

The best operators are not shackled to the past. I recently spoke with Annie Dee, who manages, with family members, Dee River Ranch, a 10,000-acre operation. Several years ago the family sold land in Florida and re-located in Aliceville, Alabama. Despite starting over in a new area, the business is thriving, by any standard. Why?

“Some of our success is due to the fact I didn’t grow up on a farm and I didn’t have to do it like daddy or granddaddy did it,” she told me. Countless farmers say they succeeded because they felt confident to try a new approach to old problems.

The best farmers learn from mistakes and move on. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve learned from them all,” says Dee.  She had zero experience on those Alabama soils, but after a few years of failure she learned what worked. She made adjustments. As a result, fields that had been 2% in organic matter are now pushing 7%.

I heard the same lesson from another female farmer a few years ago. Emily Cooper was just 23 when she started farming with her father and brother in southern Indiana. "I want to be the best businesswoman I can be, and the way you improve is through mistakes,” she told me.

Who is that smart right out of college?

The best farmers control what they can and leave the rest to Mother Nature. The best managers do whatever they can to control the things they can control, and stop losing sleep over everything else. While farming can seem frustrating at times, there are plenty of things you can control. You can control expenses. You can control working capital. You can drive a 10-year-old Volkswagen instead of a fancy pickup truck, as Iowa farmer Wayne Johnson once told me. You can make agronomic changes that boost soil organic matter, which then lets your soil feed your crop, lowering fertility bills.

“I want to control every aspect of agriculture I can control,” Annie Dee told me. “I can’t control weather, but if I can put fertilizer out there and build the soil up with no-till and cover crops to sequester nutrients, the soil can feed the crop. If I keep that soil healthy it keeps the plant healthy, and the plant will better resist disease and insects.”

Control what you can and leave the rest to fate. You’ll sleep better as you enjoy another farming adventure in 2018.

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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