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3 steps for dealing with unsolicited farm advice

Farming From Afar: How should a nonfarm heir handle unsolicited hearsay about their operation?

Cynthia Ryan

May 28, 2024

3 Min Read
a woman and three men walking away, toward a cornfield and blue tractor
Courtesy of Cynthia Ryan

In a rural community, people know a thing or two about their neighbors, like how long they’ve been farming and whether they’re team Deere or IH.

During her days on the farm, my grandmother Helen acquired newsworthy tidbits about her neighbors thanks to the party line they all shared. Whispers of impending weddings and births and the latest home purchases were broadcast between houses when more than just the intended recipient listened in.

Nowadays, we rely on password-protected communication technologies to boost privacy. Still, the telephone game is alive and well in rural America — and hearty enough, in fact, to reach all the way from central Illinois to Birmingham, Ala.

On more than one occasion, someone back home has rung me down south to report a “problem” with my operation. Here’s how I handle these unanticipated alerts:

1. Do a credibility check. Consider the credibility of the source and the soundness of the message. I begin by asking myself why the bearer of bad news thinks the information is worth sharing.

Is the person a farmer I’ve known for years with a legitimate concern about this year’s crop? Could the history between the caller who hoped to farm said tract and the operator I chose to hire be a factor?

Rather than stressing over someone’s observation that a patchy spot on the west side of one of the fields needs replanting, I listen without commenting on the evidence presented. Often, I find that assumptions stand in for facts, timelines are muddled, and the scope of a problem seems to shift in the course of a five-minute chat. Other times, a perspective worth examining begins to emerge.

2. Think it over. Weigh the consequences of the exchange after hanging up (that’s key). In farming, as in life, potential pitfalls lurk at every turn. Strategic farm managers assess and prioritize problems in the context of larger goals.

It’s preferable to wait until a call ends to reflect on the severity of issues raised by an interested third party. Exaggerated sighs and voiced frustrations shared while the caller is still on the line can exacerbate the situation.

I rely on specific criteria for weighing the significance of a problem to guide my decision-making. Some complaints are primarily aesthetic (a preference for tidy end rows), while others involve pragmatic matters (delaying harvest) or elevate the risk of unfavorable economic outcomes (increased application of nitrogen come spring).

In many instances, multiple categories of criteria come into play, suggesting the stakes might be higher and require more comprehensive, perhaps progressive, solutions.

3. Make a plan. Devise a plan for addressing the issue. Here’s what not to do: Call every other farmer from home to ask their opinion, and/or corner and intimidate the operator of the property in question. Either approach will likely damage your landowner-operator relationship.

Instead, pause and take a deep breath before acting.

For less urgent issues that could benefit from a closer look, schedule an extra visit to the farm. If you lack the expertise to unpack the problem or its significance, do some research. It’s fine to reach out to a veteran farmer you trust for advice, but avoid providing specifics about the operator and field in question.

When direct communication with the operator seems like the best path forward — which is usually the case, in my experience — enter the conversation amicably. Ask about the strategy behind the operator’s approach, keeping in mind that the one working the ground is probably ahead of the game that prompted a neighbor’s long-distance call to you in the first place.

About the Author(s)

Cynthia Ryan

Cynthia Ryan is a farmer’s daughter from Clinton, Ill., and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Following her parents’ deaths, Ryan manages the family farm from afar.

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