A Business or a Way of Life
A Business or a Way of Life

A Business, or a Way of Life?

by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID

Many consultants and agricultural experts are trying to impress upon ranchers and farmers that our work should be a business and not a way of life, that in order to survive we must have better plans and become more businesslike: “Agriculture must cease to be a lifestyle and begin to be a business.”

Granted, to survive financially we have to be as business-oriented as possible, seeing where our money “leaks” are, trying to get more production at less input cost. But farming and ranching can never really be just a business, for the family unit, as it is for big corporations. Yet, if we were to rely only on the “big guys” for our food, America would starve. We need the family farms.

And these smaller family operations will not all survive as business – not in our country today, with its cheap food policy and relatively low prices for the crops we produce. These smaller operations will only continue to survive because the people involved are hooked on agriculture as a way of life, and will find ways to continue in spite of low prices for their product and high costs of their inputs.

We cannot feed America entirely on what the big corporations produce. A vast amount of food is grown by the many family farms and ranches, and the folks with a small acreage, a few cows or sheep, a small dairy. All of our efforts together add up to a large amount of food for our country, and if we all quit tomorrow it would be devastating at the supermarket.

Yet the family farm has trouble making a profit. More and more, someone in the family has to work off the farm to make ends meet. It’s not so much that we are poor businessmen as we are caught in a cycle of low food prices and high input costs. Some of those high input costs are due to our individual situations; we may be a long way from markets and have to transport supplies in and spend a lot of diesel hauling our cattle out, for instance. Sure, there are ways everyone can tighten up an operation, cut costs and possibly increase production, but not always enough to make a truly selfsupporting business because of the built-in discrepancies between price for our product and high cost of our expenses.

Yet most of us will continue to farm, and continue our “unbusinesslike” practices. The advisors who try to help us cannot understand that we are in agriculture not so much for business reasons but because we love the land and/or the livestock and will continue to farm or ranch even if we have marginal places or live in an area that is not optimum (poor soil, climate, etc.) for highest yields or best gain on our cattle.

If we were to depend only upon the farmers in this country who conduct their operation strictly as a business, and who choose to farm or ranch where conditions are the best for maximum production (yield per acre of pounds of beef raised per cow) there would be many tons of food not produced.

We cannot all farm where soil and moisture is best for crops or for producing hay or for grazing yearlings for lowest cost of gain. We make do with the situation where we are. If we eliminated the “marginal” outfits in this country that are struggling to produce food in less than optimum conditions, we would eliminate a great deal of this country’s production.

The fact that many of us survive in agriculture under rather adverse conditions says a lot for the ingenuity, hardiness and determination of American agriculture, our innovations and creativity in using the plant and animal genetics available to us, and the advantages of our free enterprise system; we find ways to do things we want to do, even if we don’t have the best situation in which to try to do it. And as long as we have any semblance of a free system, we will continue.

Agriculture is not just a question of dollars made (careful balance of inputs and all decisions weighed by how they will affect profit or loss). It’s also a question of ethics and stewardship. If our daily work and decisions must be based solely upon “business”, most of us would choose another line of work.

Many of us have less than ideal ground or growing conditions. Yet because of our creative gumption we survive by adapting our operation to fit our environment and circumstances, and by a flexibility in our philosophy of life that enables us to not be bothered by the long hours for little pay. We enjoy what we are doing.

It is not economically feasible, for instance, to keep the crooked-legged calf alive (born with a severe birth defect due to the cow eating lupine in early pregnancy), yet we did. The crippled calf cannot travel to graze or keep up with mama, so she and the cow had to stay home from summer pasture and be fed hay which we are short on. Sure, we will butcher the calf when she gets bigger, but if we were operating our place strictly as a business we would have knocked her in the head at birth and saved ourselves the twice daily unpaid task of feeding and watering her. We’ve donated our time and used up some expensive feed. But the satisfaction of seeing this calf enjoy life, albeit short, is worth it to folks like us who don’t count all our efforts in dollars.

Likewise, the kids’ old horse that is too unsound now to be ridden is put out to pasture for a long retirement (and fed hay every winter), eating feed that would otherwise go to a productive animal. And when the time comes, he’ll be buried on the place instead of sold. Another “loss”. Yet how do you put a value on his years of service and what he meant to the family and to the children who loved him?

Over the years on our ranch we’ve kept a number of “questionable” animals that certainly did not pay their way in terms of money. But they added to our own quality of life and feeling of worth. As raisers of livestock, we are responsible for their existence. They would not be on this earth but for us. So we are responsible for their health and care. It is an entrustment we take seriously; we try to make their stay on our place as comfortable and pleasant as possible, and they reward us with their trust, their enjoyment of life and their fascinating individuality. All of this is an intangible part of being a caretaker of animals and cannot be measured in terms of a “business”.

Many times we do things that are not necessarily profitable, but we do them because we feel compelled – out of duty or conscience or what is best for the animals or the land. Our extra effort and time spent is not what is “good for business”, but rather for our own sense of commitment.

Whatever our crop, be it cattle or corn, soybeans or range grass, if we love what we are doing, feeling at one with the land and reaping a certain satisfaction in doing our best – a job well done (in spite of whether or not we always get a good price or a profit) – we are lucky people. We have found our niche on this planet, found a way to counteract the restless uncertainty of our modern technical society and our environmentally paranoid generation. We have found a way to be at peace with ourselves and with nature.

We have also found a good place to raise our children, where they can learn the realities of life and the responsibilities that make dependable, mature adults. And we will fight to keep this way of life. We are not in this as a business; we are here for the long haul.

There are varying degrees of this type of commitment. Some ranchers and farmers will sell out when conditions become too adverse financially and their “business” is not profitable enough. Some will retire when they begin to grow weary. And many of these early quitters who choose to leave the “business” will have regrets because they miss certain “unbusinesslike” aspects of this lifestyle.

And some of us will stay on the land as long as is humanly possible. We will find ways to augment our income if necessary, in order to continue even when our “business” is losing money. We are committed to agriculture in a way that no businessman is committed to his company, job or profession. This is more like a marriage than a business and we stick to it through thick and thin, for richer, for poorer.

Yes, we may be able to find more ways to make our operation more businesslike in order to survive financially, but please don’t try to tell me that agriculture should be a business instead of a way of life. The bottom line is that we’re here because it is our life, and that is why we will continue to survive, against all odds.