Monday, July 11, 2016

Live it, Learn it, Leave it

Family business. 

Some of you see those words and smile. A few will feel proud. Those words might make you feel exhausted. And I see you over there, those of you cringing so hard, your face might stick that way. You really shouldn't make that face. 

Lots of farms are family businesses. 97% of American farms are family farms. Don't be fooled by the LLC or Co at the end of the farm name. Considering the legal, butt hurt, litigatory culture we live in, it is common practice for family farms to incorporate for their own protection. Sometimes we do it for tax purposes or because of the way a family trust is set up. It isn't because we are "big ag" (I hate those words together) or because we aren't farming as a family anymore. Agriculture is a business. It is the livelihoods of 2% of the population and contrary to popular belief, farmers are smart. Farmers have smart phones, GPS, farmers do research, use the Internet, have programs that help decide what to plant, when to plant, what to use that is safe and effective to grow food. Farmers wear many hats and aren't afraid to call a vet or get help from whoever has the knowledge needed. Some farmers have *gasp* degrees. Useful ones even. Who knew?

Family businesses are built. They are grown and cultivated. Someone puts their mind to building a future for their family and they pour their heart and soul, blood sweat and tears into making it successful. A person loves an idea so much that they marry it, and then they have a little family business baby that turns into a legacy. Something that they can pass on to their kids and everyone can be proud of. Whether you are a first generation or tenth generation farmer, a legacy has been left to you and it's your responsibility to continue or expand that legacy. If you are just starting out, the legacy waiting for you is from everyone that came before you. Agriculture is an industry of hard work, passion, sadness, love, growth, emotion, blisters, bruises, heat stroke, and frost bite. If you are first generation, you have been left a legacy, even if it wasn't by your flesh and blood.

The Milkman is the third generation on our farm. He is the second generation to dairy on this land. His dad built our farm, worked his tail off, and passed his legacy onto the Milkman. His brothers took other paths, but each of them have a work ethic as strong as their father. Farming teaches more than plants and animals. It is more than dirt and sweat.

We want our girls to learn everything that agriculture has to teach. We want the Milkmaids to learn a strong work ethic, determination, passion, emotion, and love for the land and animals that God allows us to care for. We want them to smell fresh cut hay regularly. Something about that smell is good for the soul. We want them to see the circle of life, feel the joy of a calf, the excitement of watching it grow, and feel the pain and sadness of the loss. Because that makes life a little more understandable and tolerable. We want our Milkmaids to see the seed go into the ground that has been worked, pray for rain, watch a crop grow and watch a crop fail. We want them to see the silage chopper, pack the pit, and watch the feed dwindle as we keep the mommas fed. They need to know where their food comes from and what goes in to the production, how it gets to the shelf. These are important things that our Milkmaids learn and experience. We are expanding a legacy that we are so grateful to have been passed.

Family businesses are meant to be passed on. Family farms are meant for family to continue. But I don't want my Milkmaids to take the legacy as is and continue. I want them to experience it, but I don't want them to continue it. 

Why, you ask, would I feel that way?

Because they are girls?
Because I don't believe in them?
Because they are too fancy to farm?
*Ha. No.

I would love to see our farm continue on. To see my future grandchildren learn the things my girls have the opportunity to learn. But my heart does not want to see my children continue in this business. Let me tell you what makes me feel this way. 

Did you know that according to the National Institutes of Health, farming has one of the highest rates of suicide?
Do you know why?
Farmers control very, very little of what they do. Two of the biggest factors in farming is pricing and weather. We can't control either.
We get to pay retail for every step of what we do. In crops it is equipment, seed, fertilizer, any pesticide that is required for a yield, more equipment to harvest, and the labor to get it all done. Then we get paid wholesale for whatever we produce. In animals, we pay a premium for quality animals, retail for whatever feed we can't grow (and what we did grow, we paid retail to get) vet care, vaccinations, labor costs, equipment to take care of the animals, the buildings, and in the end we are paid whatever someone else says is the going price. It may or may not be a break-even price, but that doesn't matter. That's the short version. 
When you control nothing, put in everything you have (money and passion), and you still can't pay the bills because there isn't a safety net, you feel like a failure.

Obviously we can't control weather either. A dry year can put a farmer so far behind financially that he just can't afford to continue. An overly wet year can do the same.  Too cold, too hot, an out of season freeze, can end a crop. Just this past winter we saw a surprise blizzard kill an unfathomable number of cows. Those farmers suffered. And an uninformed public spit on some of those farmers for not being prepared.

Which brings me to my next point. An uninformed public. An uneducated public about where their food comes from. It's depressing. Then there is the circle of "educated" ones that have "done their research" based on fear mongering charlatans. You have your animal rights activist that hide their true agenda behind sad puppy eyes, faked bad farmer videos, and they exploit that bad apple that every industry has. We have a platform to share our stories, why we do what we do, and our passion for doing it. Social media, of course. But on that same platform, we have people with extreme agendas and a dollar to make spreading lies and misinformation to scare a public that puts a little too much faith in what they see on the Internet. So you see farmers attacked, in a very public manner, by people that haven't taken the time to ask questions or learn or science. I take those attacks very personally even when they aren't directed at me.

Why else wouldn't I want my little Milkmaids to continue our farm?

I have watched many farmers. Closer than any, I see our Milkman. I see the 17 hour days. I see the 7 days a week. I see the love, the sadness, the stress, the joy, the biggest emotional roller coaster known to man. The family of every farmer has a free pass to that roller coaster. It doesn't ever stop. Sometimes it stays up high, but you know that drop is coming. You know your stomach will be in your throat in a matter of time. The bottom drops out and it is a slow, stressful pull back up to the top. And just like any good piece of equipment, that farm-coaster WILL break down. But being a farmer with many hats, you'll just hop off, lay under it, and fix it up with a screw driver, duct tape, and bailing twine. You'll hope it holds together so you and your family can hop back on and go again.

Speaking of breaking down, lets talk about the toll farming takes on your body. The Milkman is 36. He is one knee surgery in and I'm fairly certain another one or two before long. He is physical, all the time. In and out of a tractor, up and down the steps in the barn, the shoulder pain and arthritis to come from putting milkers on cows repetitively. He is 36, but has worked himself hard enough to have joints like a 55 year old. And every day, he gets up and goes at it again. Of course, he refuses to go to the doctor when he is hurting or sick because who has time for that? And when he does he has to wait. Waiting is not his strong point. He just presses on because that's what you do when you farm. According to the pedometer on his phone he averages about 23,000 steps a day. I'm doing good to get my 10K most days.

When I think about the Milkmaids putting their bodies through that kind of stress it is a punch to my gut. I don't want them to work their tails off, get attacked by people that don't understand, break their bodies down, and possibly not even make a dime.

But wait, there's more.

The unnecessary regulations and costs that come with it. Farmers are the original stewards of the land. We were green before green was cool. We recycle...oh lawd the things we keep because we might be able to use it later, the ingenuity farmers use to make something useful from something broken. Haven't you ever watched an episode of pickers? Most of those places are old farms where the classic farmer/hoarder kept everything to reuse.
We can't grow crops if our soil isn't just right, we don't have water if we don't care for our rivers and streams, We can't survive if we don't care for the resources that are God given. We all need some guidelines, we need scientific research to help us do better, but we don't need to pay $74523 (yeah, I made that up) in permit fees.

Let's talk about the city coming to the country. I don't mean just to visit, either. Our farm used to be in the country. Rural. Boondocks. Back 40. It used to be secluded except for the other farms touching each side. Today within a mile of my house there are probably 6 new houses that wouldn't cost less than 2 kidneys, a left leg, right arm, and your first born. The price of land would never cash flow. And when people from the city decide they want a slower paced life they end up wanting the city to follow them. I have a Wal-Mart 4 miles from me, gas stations, pizza joints, and a soon to come DQ. Not that I'm complaining, I like convenience as much as the next guy. But, when the city comes to the country, the city doesn't like the smell. It doesn't like to be careful and drive slowly behind the tractor, combine, chopper, or any other farm equipment. The city is scared of fertilizer and pesticides. The city forgets that it is in the country. And the bigger our little area gets, the closer the city comes to our farm. Guess what...the farm smells funny.

All of these things are real life for the Milkman and me. They are real for the Milkmaids, but only through the eyes of children. I am hesitant to go against the grain and say that I don't want my kids to pick up the legacy and run with it, but it is my true feelings. I want them to learn and experience. I want them to teach others, I desperately want them to go into the agriculture field and carry our legacy in another way. I just don't want them to bet their lives on the same things we bet ours on. I don't want them in one of the highest suicide rate jobs. I don't want them to pay retail to produce a wholesale product under circumstances they can't control. I don't want them to ride the same roller coaster we ride. I want more for them.

Heck, we all want more for our kids. And if in the end our Milkmaids can find a way around the city encroaching on us, the extreme toll mentally and physically, the cheap shots from those who don't understand, and they want to farm, love this land, feed the world, and carry on our legacy, I will support them. I will understand. Because farming, dairying, doing God's work, is born into you. You bleed it. Your soul longs for it, and it isn't something you will find true happiness without. The Milkman and I love what we do. We love our life. And we know how hard it is now and how much harder it will become. We will be thrilled if our girls expand the legacy we have been blessed with on the land we care for. But if they don't, the family business can change. Our legacy can live on because we will teach them what that legacy is made of.