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Is that the mail?

Farming From Afar
Farming From Afar: A nonfarm heir offers strategies for wading through the mail that comes with managing a farm from afar.

“Has the mail gone?”

That phrase rang out every day but Sundays and holidays inside our farmhouse when I was growing up. We’d peer out the window to see if the flag was down, gauging the precipitation and winds to determine whether we wanted to brave a walk to the mailbox to check.

As a kid, I chalked up interest in the mail to excitement over what the day’s delivery might hold — a letter from a distant relative or the latest magazine issue, perhaps.

Three-plus years into managing my family’s farm from 600 miles away, I get it. Inside that box rests correspondence that keeps our operation going.

As I juggle the farm mail that never seems to stop coming, I’ve developed some strategies for managing what can quickly pile up.

Understand the stakes

Farming is a business of give-and-take. We nourish our soil and livestock so we can turn a profit. Staying on top of communications between ourselves and industry partners is just as integral to a successful operation.

While a birthday card from Aunt Irma can sit on the table for a day or two without significant repercussions apart from a phone call asking why you haven’t thanked her, I’ve learned that mail from crop insurers and grain elevators needs to be opened ASAP. There might be errors that require remedying or information that influences ongoing decisions. Bills from chemical and seed companies are frequently time-sensitive matters, making waiting potentially more expensive as well. Prepay and early-pay options get some paperwork off a busy farm manager’s desk while saving money.

Postal lags in return correspondence can increase an operating budget as well. During the pandemic, for instance, service has been slower than usual in many parts of the country, so I err on sending payments promptly to stay ahead of delays that are out of my control. I don’t have the luxury of dropping off a check in person like Dad did when up against a due date.

Keep records and identify patterns

With each cycle, I develop a better sense of what happens with all that mail. Bills for seed and fertilizer typically arrive toward the end of harvest or early in the new year. Elevator reports stream in as the grain is hauled in — information I’ll need to retrieve when making decisions about marketing.

Before Dad passed away in 2018, he taught me his system for record-keeping to ensure that he knew which bills had been paid and when, how many bushels were harvested in a given year, and what weather events affected reliance on crop insurance during a particular season. My grandparents relied on a combination of paper copies housed in everything from shoe boxes to flour canisters and etchings on calendars distributed by farm implement dealers to keep track of information.

When I stepped in, I developed my own system. I have a file cabinet filled with folders that complement the ways in which I contemplate the operation, and I have added account numbers and descriptors to the farm checkbook to remind me what I’m paying for, including the specific tract or service.

Figure out what works for you

One thing I’ve learned as a nonfarm heir is the importance of sustainability in everything I do. That means trying out different approaches to various tasks until I find one that sits well with my busy life.

While a lot of farmers I know handle much of the paperwork that comes with the job online, that option doesn’t feel right for me. I’m an English professor in my other life, and manage my family’s household expenses alongside my mom’s accounts. I prefer to refer to a hard copy of transactions completed rather than sift through my email inbox or computer file folders.

And since my feet aren’t on the ground in central Illinois most of the time, I try to make face-to-face connections with the people I’ve been corresponding with from afar when I’m in the area. I’ve met plenty of industry folks who are eager to see nonfarm heirs like me succeed for another generation.

These days, I’m the one asking whether the mail has gone. Dad would be proud.

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.

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