Gut-wrenching decisions can test farmers’ risk tolerance

Some of you will know my background, but most will not.

I farmed in western Manitoba for nearly 20 years. My brother still farms there. I watched it rain, freeze and blow. I watched when it didn’t rain. I watched as insects and disease ran rampant. I watched the stress creep into our lives. Always opportunity, but also, always risk.

Farmers understand risk. Risk could very well be Chapter 1 in the handbook of farming. It’s everywhere and around every corner. It’s part and parcel with the business, and as such, I think many farmers become comfortable with risk.

This has positive and potentially adverse implications. Positive in that there are numerous risk events that are outside of a farmer’s control, so being able to get comfortable with or accept the risk is good.

It can be adverse, though, if that comfort with risk spills over to complacency and hasty decisions.

Risk associated with farming is like a toothache. You go on about your business day-to-day, but you know it’s there because every once in a while, a jolt of pain radiates through your jaw.

Stress associated with risk manifests in different ways for different people, even for people living in the same household and farming together. Everyone has a limit of what can be endured. These limits are often tested when a family faces some gut-wrenching situation.

Like many businesses, we work from a set of core values at Backswath, qualified as being “rooted in a foundation of farm family values.” We identify family, hard work, perseverance, passion, and a love of agriculture as foundational to those farm family values.

Those foundational family values are certainly being tested this summer, largely impacted by weather but also indirectly, by the grain and oilseed commodity markets. I know that there is correlation between the high prices and anticipated tight supply, but it has to be extremely frustrating just the same, to see those high prices seemingly out of reach with poor yield prospects. For many, there will be a feeling that an opportunity was missed.

I listened at a recent peer group meeting as the participants reflected (or lamented) on the year to date. Very dry and cool and an early seeding start. Then some moisture (for some, as snow) followed by very cold temperatures. Then, extreme heat within a day or two of the frost. Can you imagine being a seedling trying to grow in that environment? It would wonder, “are you kidding me?”

For some areas, the weather tempered a bit with some moisture and very warm to hot days through June. Then the scorching weather in July. And extreme drought.

There will be farm families where things have deteriorated into some gut-wrenching situations. Significantly testing farmers’ perseverance and passion are things like the following:

  • Watching flea beetles destroy canola stands where the flea beetles feed on plants below ground and thus are not easily controlled with insecticides.
  • Having to sell breeding livestock due to feed shortages after spending years establishing the herd.
  • Going into default with a commodity advance due to selling inventory to generate working capital, then access to a commodity advance for next year is denied, further threatening cash flow.
  • Having to sell assets to pay down liabilities.
  • Coming to the realization that the retiring generation and next generation are not compatible and cannot farm together, threatening the viability of the farm through transition.

There are obviously no easy answers to these or any other challenges that fall into the “gut-wrenching” category. It doesn’t matter whether the situation has arisen through a circumstance that was outside of your control, or something that has arisen due to a decision made by you or action taken.

Once the situation has arisen, it falls into the category of “it is what it is.” What caused it to happen is history and that can’t be changed. If it’s something that has arisen due to your actions, a suggestion is to spend as little time as possible blaming or berating yourself. Could you have done something differently? Sure, but we all could have done things differently at some point. It becomes less of what happened and what you did — and more of what you’re going to do and what will happen.

Find someone to talk to; someone who will not pass judgment on your situation or how you got there.

Next, identify options. There will always be options. Some will be more appealing than others, but there will be options, nonetheless. There is power in having options.

It can be difficult to identify the options if you’re stuck. It’s the future that you are working toward and not the past that you’re trying to escape from. Certainly, if you’re in a gut-wrenching situation, there will be a past that you would not want to see continue.

Family and a love for agriculture are both future-focused, enduring and something that you can build upon. My sincere wish is that all farm families experience the best outcomes possible no matter the situation.

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