Farming with Family through the Tough Times

Christine Gelley, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, Noble County, OSU Extension

There are days where every farmer wonders what they got themselves into. Days where the work ahead is overwhelming, the kids are sick, the cows are calving, your 4×4 is stuck in the mud, and to top it off, you are running low on stored feed and stored energy in your soul. Farming is tough. No doubt about that.

When the weather and the markets are uncooperative with your plans, the stress can pile up on the farm and on your family. One temporary way to deal with that stress is to be thankful for what you have. Someone out there always has it worse than us and we should be thankful for the things we have each day, instead of dwelling on the things we do not.

This past winter at the American Forage and Grassland Council Annual Conference, a beef farmer named Buron Lanier of Piney Woods Farm in North Carolina, shared a story of forage tragedy and triumph that can help put ‘thankfulness’ into perspective.

Mr. Lanier had presented at last year’s conference about the efforts made to convert his farm from KY-31 fescue to novel endophyte fescue. A significant portion of his farm is dedicated to silvoculture, combining the production of pine trees and feeding stocker cattle. With great effort, he progressed into a 365-day grazing system. He had no need to feed hay and very little supplemental feed. The system was working marvelously.

But this year he had a different story to share. Hurricane Florence hit the East Coast in September 2018. Mr. Lanier had just started stockpiling his novel endophyte fescue for the winter when his farm became submerged by hurricane waters for over 5 days. The water levels were up to five feet in most of his pastures. He lost over 75 percent of his newly converted pastures. His neighbors also lost their KY-31 pastures and many of them lost their homes as well.

Due to his 365-day grazing plan, Piney Woods Farm had no stored feed. Mr. Lanier was devastated by the destruction, but his home was still livable, his cattle alive, and his family safe. Donated hay and feed were his saving grace. He has since learned how to feed cottonseed and plant by-products and low quality hay. Despite the set-back, he intends to re-establish his pastures back into novel endophyte fescue and begin again.

At the end of his presentation he shared that when something this devastating happens, you question all your motives for farming. He had retired as a successful entrepreneur and started a new venture, grazing stocker calves and farming trees. Why was he doing this? He was doing it for the future of his family, agriculture, and our country’s ability to feed itself. He determined that it is worth it to carry on.

The take home message that stuck with me from Mr. Lanier was that you never know when devastation is lurking around the corner. In a business like agriculture, that devastation could be caused by weather or a market crash, or by the most common two factors, death or divorce. Appropriate insurance, business structure, and succession planning can help soften the blow if or when an unfortunate event comes along. Planning for the unexpected can help prevent complete devastation of the family farm.

Wesley Tucker, an Ag Economist for University of Missouri Extension, also shared his personal story about the beef business at the conference. His was about building his farm from scratch with no land of his own. He created a system that worked economically, but in the long run, it has not worked well for his family.

When he first started, he was single and had time to run from one rental site to another checking cattle. After starting a family, he took his daughter along with him. She enjoyed helping move temporary fence and riding in the truck. His daughter is now ten years old and according to Mr. Tucker, “she hates the farm.” He continued to say, “I have failed because my daughter hates the farm. She hates it because instead of spending dedicated time with her, I’m checking cows before and after work.”

The take home message of his story was to be smart and economical, but don’t forget that your time has value too. You should be careful how you spend it before it is gone.

The story that struck me most directly at the AFGC Conference was that of Dr. Jason Salchow, a veterinarian and custom grazer. Dr. Salchow drove the point home that success in farming is like a crockpot, not a microwave.

He said, “Everyone wants quick results, like a microwave. But, nothing good comes out of a microwave. A crockpot on the other hand, that’s what the good stuff comes out of, but you have to cook it low and slow.”

The past 20 years have been a long rough road for Dr. Salchow, his wife, and five children to get to where they are today. Currently they farm as custom grazers. They own the land and graze it with other people’s cattle. All their clients make monthly payments for their grazing services based on average daily gains. Clients maintain the liability for animal health and the Salchows maintain the liability for the land.

His wife maintains the records and he maintains the pastures and cattle. They are making money, they have gained the trust of their clients, and they are expanding. He continued to share that expanding would be a lot easier if his family’s farm hadn’t been separated by the previous generation in a divorce.

The leading cause of farm fragmentation in the U.S. is not urbanization, but rather death, divorce, and a family that cannot compromise. Dr. Salchow lamented over the loss of the American family farm by saying, “If you want to be successful on the farm, go home and love your wife. We have to be better husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. There is no success outside the home that can compromise for failure in the home.”

A fellow member of the audience tied Dr. Salchow’s comments back to liability insurance, to say that the best liability insurance you can hold for your farm is a good relationship with your family. That is the glue that holds the farm together.

From my perspective, none of these presentations were about the animals or land as much as they were about relationships with your neighbors and your family. Success in agriculture requires capital, but it is built on perseverance and trust. Trust takes time to develop and perseverance is what drives the crockpot approach to success.

Take the time to build trusting relationships with your family, neighbors, and clients. Don’t take them for granted. Make time for your family, especially when the times are tough. Offer to help your neighbor before they need it. Do your best to meet the needs of your clients, but don’t neglect your family to do it. Those relationships are better than insurance for your current struggles and future successes. Through the muck, through the mess, treasure the people who are by your side.