Saturday, August 30, 2014

Losing the farm: A survival guide

Losing the family farm. Losing any farm really, has to be one of the hardest things anyone in agriculture can go though. It's right up there with losing a family member and the grief and loss people go through can be just as devastating. 

For many it is not the property we are losing but ourselves, particularly in the case of properties that were held for multiple generations. After you introduced yourself to someone from your local district the inevitable question would follow "Are you related to (insert your family name) of (insert your properties name)?" Instantly your quality was known and your character was established, the questioner knew where you had come from and measured you by the reputation of your family.

For most of us it was a title that was worn as a badge of honor. 

A farm is never "just a place of business" it is a home in the truest sense of the word. Every place has a memory or a funny story attached, treasured time spent with family, triumphs and victories or days you would rather forget are always there in plain view, its a living photo album. Kids grow up in the mud and dust, often working alongside their parents, who watch as they turn into men and women before flying the nest for a few years.

Few people understand the love of the land that drives many farmers on year after year. A friend of mine in the finance industry once asked me why I wanted to be a farmer. When I gave him my answer he offered me a cautionary tale of another farmer he had as a client. The client by his own account had just had "a good year". My friend tallied up the money made and asked the client a few questions about the hours the client worked. Imagine the clients surprise when my friend informed him that during this "good year" he had been working for $4 an hour! Many of us have stories that ring similar to the clients. I gave up a job on a potato harvester at $11 per hour for a job on a cattle station that paid $250 a week with a minimum of 60 hours a week and no overtime pay.

Despite the snarling from some people about the "loaded" farmers and "landed gentry" few farmers are in business purely for the money. There are plenty of easier ways to make money but farmers thrive on early mornings, putting a coat on and carrying on through the rain or putting up with the dust, the heat, the cold and the isolation.

In short, we do it because we love it.

That is the main reason it is so hard to lose a farm. 

Dealing with the decision

 When the decision is made, whether it was your call or not, you are going to go through a range of emotions that are going to play hell with your decision making. My advice would be to hold off on making any other major decisions for a few days to a week. 

Let things settle and sleep on other big decisions. Go and blow off some steam if possible. Blasting a few feral animals off the face of the earth with a rifle 2 sizes too big for the game I was hunting or some time spent flat out on a motorbike are two of my personal favorites but go with whatever floats your boat.

The Black Dog

It's a fact that losing a property is one of the major triggers for rural suicide. I don't wish to dwell on this issue much except to say that if you "think" your at risk you are, don't muck about. Give your guns away temporarily and avoid working alone. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, it takes real guts to front up and tell someone that your struggling with whats going on. There are plenty of free services out there to help you get over the danger period and many of them are confidential. 

Use them.

As someone who has lost a close family member to suicide I can't stress enough the damage this can do to families. If you think your family has it rough saying goodbye to a cherished property, imagine how hard it will be if they have to say goodbye to you at the same time.   

Don't internalize the failure

This would have to be the hardest thing to avoid. John C Maxwell in his book Failing Forward repeatedly states that you should "never let failure from outside get inside". If a farm has been lost there has been a failure somewhere. A failure in succession planning, business strategy, weather contingency, markets or poor government policy are perfectly capable of ending an agricultural business on their own, let alone two or three of them combined together. 

Whatever the reason for the demise of your property, blaming yourself or obsessing over mistakes made by someone else is only going to create bitterness. If you were responsible for the business decisions that resulted in the current situation then any time spent tearing yourself to pieces is wasted energy. You also run the risk of putting yourself in a position of second guessing your judgement when you still have other critical decisions to make. The last thing you need is to make another poor decision because your too busy belting yourself  up mentally for a previous bad call. 

If the loss of the property is a result of someone else' decision then any time spent being angry or hateful toward them is not going to help you or make you feel any better, nor is it going to help you to waste time on wracking your brain to find things you "could have done" to salvage the situation.

However the circumstances have come about, time spent trying to mentally change what "is" is wasted energy and time that can be put to a much better use.

Plan your next move early

The most effective use of your time, once the farm is definitely sold, is to plan your next move. Farms can take months to settle and that means you might be faced with a lot of idle time as the operation winds down, livestock are sold and the clearing sale completed.

Put the time to good use by considering what your going to do for a living once the farm is gone. If you are considering going contracting for other farmers look to take on a few small jobs to get you into the swing of your new profession and test out the equipment you intend to use.  

Having something to look forward to is a big step in getting through the loss of the property. It provides a light at the end of what is otherwise a very dark tunnel.

Some people might be lost as to what they could do, thinking that farming is the only thing they know and that contracting is not an option.

Take heart, your in an industry that is screaming for skilled labour. Even if you can't find work locally there will be an opportunity somewhere. If you don't want to work in agriculture you will be shocked how well your other skills translate in the outside world. Chances are your tractor or truck driving skills will be very attractive in the mining or construction industries for example. Regardless of what practical skills you posses, if you have ran a farm you have run a business and will approach your work from the perspective of a boss. You will be employable. 

A word on leadership

Every farmer I have ever met is a leader.
Yes I am talking about you. If you are running a farm you are a leader in the truest sense of the word because you are capable of leading yourself. No-one tells you when to get out of bed in the morning, plant your crops, milk your cows or pull the lambs off their mothers. You make that decision yourself and you live with the consequences when you make a bad call. You have to organize and lead other people, agents, truck drivers and contractors. You can think for yourself and form your own opinions, that alone is incredibly valuable in an economy where any job that can be written into a manual or completed by a 'robot' is being outsourced or shipped overseas at an alarming rate.

If you've been a farmer then you most likely see the world like a boss would, you understand that everything has a cost attached and that showing up is not enough. You have to be productive.

You may need to brush up on other soft skills to properly fill a leadership role in another industry (offering a co-worker a cup of concrete is not appreciated in the outside world, even if they need it) but don't let that hold you back from improving yourself. Courses about improving your people skills are readily available, as are many other courses on aspects of personal development. Books on body language skills are helpful, as are NLP courses. 

Clearing Sales

I have been to clearing sales with reserves and I've been to clearing sales without reserves. I recommend you do the clearing sale with no reserves at all. Even on big expensive equipment. As soon as an item is passed in the buyers seem to put their hands in their pockets and keep them there. If your looking for people to get excited enough to bid on expensive items then you have to offer them the tantalizing prospect that they may get a bargain. 

Take as little away with you as you possibly can. Especially if things are particularly raw. A new set of fencing pliers will twitch up wire just as good as that old pair that "built every fence on the place". If it's going to bring painful memories every time you pick it up, it's not worth keeping. 

Bikes are probably the most tempting thing to keep over from the farm, especially old ones that might not sell for much but will "probably come in handy". 

They are money pits at the best of times.

Batteries die after a few months of sitting and other essential parts also seem to wear amazingly fast considering the bike hasn't moved an inch. 

When I finally went to sell one of my own farm refugees, a 250cc quad bike, the diff blew up when the buyer came to test ride it and I had to scrap the quad for a fraction of its value. I have other bikes which I kept for fun and to do contracting jobs with but they are aging fast from doing little. My advice, let them be someone else' headache.

Sell everything you possibly can. A few dollars here and there for the nick knacks that are hanging on your shed wall will add up to serious money at the end of the day.

Don't Linger

I stayed on the farm till the very last moment, swagging in the main house after my grandparents had moved out and only moving the last of my gear off the day before the place was settled. There were hundreds of little jobs that had to be done, gardening, cleaning up for the new owners and so on but not much real work. The cattle had all been sold weeks ago and the clearing sale had left us with no machinery, only my own tools to complete the final act. 

Those last days I felt compelled to be there. To soak up every last second I could before the curtain fell. 

Don't put yourself through that. 

It's just not worth it, there's too much time in those long days to think dark thoughts and brood about the loss. 

Move out as soon as the livestock are sold and the clearing sale is done, hire a professional cleaner to go through the house and a gardener to tidy the rest. 

If you must go back to say goodbye one more time then make sure you take someone with you and get a few photos but don't delay the agony any longer then you have to.

The Aftermath

When the papers have been signed and you've taken that long, slow, final journey down the driveway, your likely to feel like you've just laid a close family member to rest. For the next few months you'll probably walk around feeling like you've lost a limb.

If your not immersed in your new career and you find there is time enough for brooding over the loss my final tip is to find someone in need and help them. Help a family member that is short of people or volunteer with a local charity. Helping others is one of the best gifts you can give yourself, it gets you outside of your own mind and increases your self worth exponentially.

You Will Survive

 You should never judge a person by their failures, judge them by how they bounce back from failure. 

History is littered with successful people who have picked themselves up off up the floor time and time again. Abraham Lincoln went broke in his 20's and worked until he was in his 40's to pay back all the people who invested in the business venture that ruined him. Paul Eurlich took years of trials and nearly went broke trying to develop a cure for syphilis. Thomas Edison tried 10,000 times to perfect the light bulb before he got it right.

Now it's your turn to pick yourself up.

Farmers are built to survive, it's what we have always done through drought, flood and fire. 

I don't know you and I may never have the privilege of meeting you but I know that you have the strength to get through this. That the same strength, tenacity and courage that has carried you this far will carry you into the future. I know that the same strength that carried the pioneers through in the old days beats within your heart because we shed our blood, sweat and tears across the same land they opened up and love it just as dearly. 

You won't just survive, you will thrive.

If I had to pick one song that has kept me going, it is Stan Rodgers: The Mary Ellen Carter





  1. Wow, this made my eyes prickle with tears, for your loss, courage and generosity of spirit. Congratulations.

  2. I'm sorry to hear about the tragedy your farm faced, Jim. Nevertheless, I love the fact that you chose to thrive from that loss rather than plainly surviving it. As they always say, when you've hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. Keep your chin up! Knowing how strong and motivated you are to grow from that discouraging situation, I know you'll quickly be able to pick yourself up. Anyway, I hope all is well with you these days. All the best!

    Clifton Johnson @ Insuring TheProduct