For all their strengths, farms are notorious as places where things get left unsaid, and that’s a shame.
Take, for example, the topic of control. Just mention that issue and watch Dad’s jaw muscles tighten and that look come into his eye.
The “work comes first” attitude is another. How many spouses say silent prayers every day as their bull-headed partner heads out for yet another long, gruelling, got-to-get-it-done day?
The popular term is “difficult conversations,” and nothing’s more difficult than talking about mortality, whether that’s preparing for the day you won’t be around or why your work practices could hasten that time.
Yet these topics are exactly what people want to talk about with Leona Dargis. Every time the motivational speaker from St. Vincent, Alta., gives a presentation, people are waiting afterward to speak with her.
“There’s always at least five people, and sometimes a dozen,” says the 29 year old.
“I think it’s because I bring the personal side. And I have a true connection. I’m one of them. I’ve picked rocks and done all the hard work that farm kids do. When I share my story, I remind them that this can happen to anybody. I am happy to help in any way I can.”
What happened was the loss of her parents, Jean and Joanne, and grandmother Anita in a plane crash in 2007, leaving Dargis and her four younger sisters to run a multimillion-dollar operation while dealing with their grievous loss. The lineups after her presentations are testament to her openness and positive attitude. Her motto is: “Life is exactly as you make it.”
“I’d say 99 percent of people want to share their story, whether it’s an experience or just to say they recognize that it could happen to them and they want to be pro-active,” she says.
“I remember one farmer who said he was going to skip my presentation because, ‘what could this young lady possibly say that I don’t already know?’ He said he was really glad he stayed. It was just before Christmas and he told me, ‘when I go home, we’re going to sit down at the kitchen table and have that conversation about our future and what we need to do going forward.’ ”
That response is exactly why Dargis spends so much time on the road talking about feelings that most people wall away inside themselves.
“It all comes down to communication, communication, communication. If something is going wrong, let’s talk about it.”
And people do want to talk. She didn’t believe that at first, but hundreds of those brief but deeply personal conversations with total strangers have convinced her people actually want to talk about buried feelings.
They’re just looking for a way to begin, Dargis says, and sharing her story somehow gives them permission to do that.
People are also open to change, she adds. For example, Dargis always advises parents to tell their kids what is in their will.
“The initial reaction is always, ‘why would I do that? They’ll find out what’s in it when I’m dead,’ ” she says.
“Then I talk about how it will be read, that a will is really your last testament of love and there are likely to be issues. I tell them that if the kids hear it from you and understand your reasons, then they won’t turn on each other after you’re gone. When you put it like that, it really strikes them as something they should do.”
She gets an equally positive re-sponse about putting family ahead of work when she tells the story of how that fatal plane crash came after her parents decided to take time off during silage season for a family event.
“Normally it’s nose-to-grindstone during silage time, but my parents decided we’d have fun that weekend,” she says. “I ask people to think about that. How often as farmers do we fail to pay attention to life around us? If we miss out on friends and family, what are we doing here? What are we living for?”
Difficult conversations? Certainly. They’re about life and being mortal. They’re about change, whether that’s about passing the reins or risky work behaviour.
These aren’t issues that get settled in one conversation, but things won’t get better if you don’t have that first difficult one.
So how do you do that?
Dargis has some simple but powerful advice.
“Just be genuine, just be yourself,” she says. “If it comes from the heart, then it’s irresistible. That’s something I believe in — if what you’re saying comes from the heart, then it will reach out and touch the other person’s heart, too.”