The Unwritten Rule – Why is it a sin to move on in agriculture?

Selling the farm was the hardest thing I have had to do. 


Notice I did not say the worst, I said the hardest. 


I grew up immersed in agriculture. The smell of the dirt, the first time driving the pickup on the gravel roads, the first time falling asleep on the floor of the combine. These are all things that I still remember very fondly in my childhood. 


But the misconception is that these memories are only due to the industry I grew up in; the reality is that it was the “who” was sitting beside me in the pickup, or who was covering me with his jacket on the floor of the combine, that mattered.


Living on a multi-generational farm you spend most of your life with your family. You eat together, you work together, you celebrate together, and in a lot of instances you holiday together. This is why the term “family farms” continues to be the lynchpin of agriculture. This is why the big, bad, “mega-farm” is not seen as a hero but a villain. I believe we continue to attribute the greatest things in our lives to agriculture when in a lot of instances, it is family.


I had an epiphany while recording the last podcast with a guest who may be one of the most interesting stories of change and adaptation that I know. On the recording, we talked about his transition at the age of 42 from overworked, high stress, addicted to the game, high risk, and in a way “missing” family man to a retired, health conscious, and dedicated father and husband. I never actually intended the conversation to lead that way, but he surprised me in the interview.


What most didn’t get to hear was the conversation after we were done.


“You know, I was scared to tell my dad”.


Some, like me, found pulling the trigger was the most challenging part of moving on from the farm. Not him; he talked about how by that point he had already decided that his life was not how he wanted it, and deciding to dedicate his time to family and other endeavours was the right journey. The hardest part was the fact that for two weeks he hadn’t told his father that he was no longer going to carry on the “family farm”. I would say he did not appear to be afraid of much based on his aggressive growth and risk in the industry, he was scared to talk to his family.


This is where a large part of the mental health issues in agriculture are present. Farming is stressful at the best of times, with risks such as weather, markets, and policy that we may be able to insure against but really don’t have control over. On top of all these things you add on the fact that you CANNOT fail. The family farm is a business, and just like any other business, it can be bought or sold for the betterment of your personal life.


I went a little further and asked what his father said. 


“Good for you; most farmers continue to work long hours and miss out on family until they are long gone. Then at that age, the reasons or purpose to retire are gone. This is why farmers never quit, nobody gives them a good enough reason”. 


Even as I type this, I get goosebumps. I remember when I told my father the decision was to leave the farm. Family is more important than agriculture. If you don’t agree then you are already too far down the rabbit hole.


Businesses are bought and sold every day. When it comes to a lot of our investments at Hebert Group the main reason to build a business is to sell it to somebody bigger. But farms are different – or are they? 


I have always commented that farmers are entrepreneurs, and as entrepreneurs, the focus should be on return. This could be a return on profits, return in equity, return of free time, return of relationships and family. But there must be a return.


As advisors, we have these conversations more openly than ever in the past. Blame it on land values, blame it on the stress and pressure associated with agriculture, or blame it on the fact that some of us made that decision and it has shown others that it is okay. Agriculture is changing (although at the speed of a snail). This is why I see consolidation and other business mergers and acquisitions as normal in the industry. In the past it was seen as a sin, in today’s day and age it is the benefit of performing better than others.


In the end, you can call it an unwritten rule, or you can just disagree with me and say that farming should never change. The moral of the story is that I am seeing individuals pick family and freedom over the stress and pressure being put on our next generation of farmers. We have considerably fewer young people coming back to the family farm, and a lot of this is being blamed on the way the industry is changing. But maybe we need to look in the mirror.