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Plan beyond your days on the farm

Farming From Afar
Farming From Afar: From near or far, time on the farm can appear both everlasting and fleeting. Each perspective brings challenges.

During a recent harvest trip to central Illinois, I was reminded of an old adage that resonated when my daughters were young: “The days are long, but the years are short.”

When you lack the wherewithal to contemplate anything but diaper changes, night feedings and spit-up stains on every shirt in your closet, it’s hard to imagine ever escaping the exhaustion of early parenthood. That is, until you find your children are grown and living on their own.

Days on the farm can feel just as long. As a kid, I remember busy periods when I saw little of my dad. During harvest, he’d leave the house before the rest of us had crawled out of bed to get an early start on the corn and end his day in a neighboring field, hoping to get as much of the crop out as possible before an overnight rain swept in. Returning home tired and dirty, Dad knew the next morning would bring more of the same, along with the possibility of some unwelcome surprises like broken machinery or unexpected delays at the elevator. 

As Dad aged, he reminisced fondly about those days, however drawn-out and insurmountable they might have been.

“Where did those years go?” Dad asked aloud during the final months of his life that he and I spent together. “Sometimes it feels like I should still be a kid helping out my dad on the farm or walking to the one-room schoolhouse on a cold winter morning.”

While I don’t lean toward warm memories of dirty diapers or sleepless nights from my children’s younger years, I have identified some approaches to managing time while farming from afar. 

Consider the stakes

Discussions about the future of a farm operation should include the role of additional stakeholders outside the family who may figure into succession plans. 

The men who stepped up to help me settle into my responsibilities as a fifth-generation family farmer following Dad’s passing are themselves edging closer to retirement. When my parents invited them onboard as farm operators more than two-and-a-half decades ago, Bob and Fritz were midcareer.

Bob shares that “back then, I wasn’t thinking about when I might retire,” since “I just enjoyed what I was doing and knew I wanted to keep at it for the rest of my life.”     

Bob still loves what he does and plans to stick with it as long as he can, but these days, he also thinks about what’s next.

Gather and ponder

As a non-farm heir living 600 miles away from the family farm, I try not to dwell on the moment when the operators whom Dad trusted step down to make way for another generation of stewards to tend our land. But I also refuse to bury my head in the soil and pretend that time stands still.

Who better to ask for advice on farmers to fill their shoes than those currently entrusted with the job? And while I’m at it, I ask for their thoughts on how the operation might need to change moving forward. Fewer operators with more acreage? A modified contract arrangement? Expanded conservation efforts?   

Give yourself time

One nugget of wisdom that Dad imparted to me is that decisions about the days ahead are too important to rush.

“Don’t wait until you’re leaving this world to start thinking about putting together a plan,” he’d say.

The years will pass quickly, and ground well laid will affect an operation and the people invested in it for some time to come.  

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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