Learn from lessons past

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I am writing this column as I prepare to attend my grandmother's funeral, and I cannot help but reflect on her life and my grandfather's on the family farm. I have fond memories of the time I spent with them there. However, this place that holds a special spot in my heart is not in our family anymore. Instead, another family owns the land and is trying to scratch out a living in today's farm economy.

When I reflect on how my grandpa managed the farm, I remember that he was extremely cautious and never borrowed money if he could avoid it. Having lived during the Great Depression, there were times when things were pretty tough, and grandma and grandpa survived primarily because they did not have to make mortgage payments. Some of the neighbors were not as fortunate.

My grandpa never forgot what happened to his neighbors who got a little overextended and fell behind in their loan payments. In his mind, the only way to make sure you did not go broke was to make do with as little as possible and avoid using credit. Grandpa's management practice was successful in that he never went broke. Unfortunately, his cautious ways also prevented him from expanding the operation to create an opportunity for one of the children to join the family business and eventually take it over. This lack of growth in my family's farm is what destined it to eventually go out of business.

Set goals to guide business decisions
I don't blame my grandfather's caution for the loss of the family farm. To the contrary, I understand and respect why he made those decisions. After all, grandpa accomplished his goals. He never was forced out of business, and he made sure my grandmother was provided for after he passed away.

When the time came to sell the family farm, it was my grandmother's positive attitude that helped me see that it is not necessarily bad when a smaller farm unit is sold to another farmer who incorporates it into a larger farm. As a result of the sale, my grandmother was able to convert farm land into the cash she needed to live comfortably, while another farm family gained the additional acres needed to boost income or add another family member into the operation. This was truly a win-win situation for all parties concerned, versus a situation where one farm drove another one out of business.

Manage for the future
My grandparents' farm is now owned and operated by a farm family that probably has a little different management philosophy than his. They are a little more comfortable using credit to finance the growth of their operation, and they are probably a little more willing to invest in technology that boosts their productivity and improves efficiency.

Like my grandparents, though, this family faces many challenges, and I imagine they worry that they could lose the farm. However, every producer today faces challenges. That's why setting goals for your business and managing your business with an eye toward the future is so important. Not every dairy will grow to milk thousands of cows. But, dairy producers who set goals for their business and apply sound business-management practices can achieve their goals.

I hope things work out for the family which now farms the place that was so good to my family.

Bruce Jones is a professor of agribultural economics and farm management specialist at the University of Wisconsin



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