Prairie Farmer Logo

How non-farm heirs juggle farm and life

Farming From Afar: All farmers wear many hats, but the challenge of knowing which one to put on and when can be particularly challenging for “non-farm farm heirs.”

Cynthia Ryan

March 14, 2022

3 Min Read
hat collection hanging on hat rack
HATS: Like her dad’s hat collection, Cynthia Ryan has to juggle many different hats — and responsibilities — as an off-farm heir. Cynthia Ryan

Every farmer I know wears multiple hats. What radio broadcaster Paul Harvey said in his famous poem “So God Made a Farmer” rings as true in 2022 as it did in 1978. Maybe more so.

Today’s farmers still milk the cows and plow the fields and wean the pigs and drop everything to help a neighbor and make it to town for school board meetings. They also operate machinery requiring expertise in computer technology and take on side jobs to survive the soaring costs associated with 21st century agriculture.

As a non-farm farm heir, I’m admittedly not on the ground 24/7. I live 600 miles away from my family’s Illinois farm, and apart from the quarterly trips I make to the Midwest to check on our operation, most of my “farm work” is done remotely. But as others standing in my shoes know, that doesn’t mean the job is easy.

The label “non-farm farm heir” tells just part of the story. Some who inherit a farm have never visited the place that is now all or partially theirs. They may choose to learn what they can about the business of farming or hire a farm manager to handle the details — or sell, often to the chagrin of other family members, as well as the operators who are invested in their decisions.

Others, like me, were raised on the farm but sought different pastures — sometimes greener, but not always. We have a deep tie to the land, with memories of our parents making a living there while modeling a work ethic that made us “kids” successful away from the farm.

Hats off the farm

You might say that my current position allows me to “have my cake and eat it, too.” From Birmingham, Ala., I’m able to hold onto the farm while pursuing a career as a university professor. I am undeniably blessed.

Still, there are so many hats to wear. Farmer. Teacher. Writer. Wife. Mother. Daughter. Breast cancer survivor and advocate. Most days, I’m donning one hat after another.

One of our operators calls to ask about a seed bill, while I’m scrambling to finish up a report that’s past due to my department chair.

As I’m running down the stairwell to teach a class to a crop of pre-med students, a neighbor from Illinois texts to let me know that a tract near our home farm is up for sale.

An ER physician alerts me to my mom’s arrival from the nursing home following a fall that resulted in a broken femur. Since I’ll need to facilitate Mom’s care as she wrestles with advanced Alzheimer’s, I throw some items in a bag before heading out: a stack of ungraded student papers, bills that arrived in the mail that morning along with the farm checkbook, a phone charger and a toothbrush.

My daughters — one 1,200-plus miles away in Denver and one just a couple of hours from Birmingham — FaceTime my husband and me to see what we’ve been up to. They fill us in on their busy lives and ask for advice on everything from schoolwork to friendships. Our conversation ends and I turn back to my laptop to work on the next chapter of a book I’m writing about the life I was born into.    

I schedule health checkups and cancer education events around the seasons that dictate where I’ll be and when at the university and the farm.

And then there are opportunities like the column you’re reading, a chance to let my worlds collide in a way that is, I hope, more poetic. To acknowledge that I, like my parents and their parents before them, will always wear an assortment of hats.

It takes unflappable determination to keep pushing through. So God made a farmer who would appreciate the chaos and look forward to doing it all again the next day.

Ryan is a farmer’s daughter from Clinton, Ill., and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Following her father’s death and mother’s relocation to her Alabama home, Ryan manages the family farm from afar. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.



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.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like