Is Optimism the Key to Farm Success?

With farmer optimism at an all-time high as we move towards the start of the 2017 season- a look at why optimism might just be the most important personality trait of successful farmers.

If farming was easy, everyone do it. In a world where we farmers depend on luck, rain/weather, and a variety of other factors that are out of our control, this industry is not for the faint of heart. "Hope for the best but prepare for the worst" takes on a whole new meaning on the farm. But even now, at a time when commodity prices are low, input prices are high, and belts have been tightened for 3+ years, there is reason for hope in farming.  


For me, each year necessarily begins with hope and optimism- that market prices will go up or that yields will be just a little bit better. If we're afraid of investing; if we think we won't get anything for our crop, if we're afraid that turning the bull out with the cows and heifers won't yield us some ROI with fat steers and heifers, then we’d quickly go out of business. Our success depends on our optimism. 

Even in the face of no price control, high capital demands and input costs, equipment breakdowns, injuries (farming is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world), hard work, long days, loneliness, depression, fluctuating land values and rent increases, livestock disease and death, and banking and balance sheet issues, we keep farming. In my opinion there has never been a better time to be a farmer. Today, we're producing more food, fuel, and fiber with fewer inputs than ever before! According to the USDA, in 1940, a farmer could feed about 19 people a year, but today that number has climbed to around 155, and all of that with 2% less inputs on average. And the sky is the limit in terms of animal and crop genetics, equipment, apps, technology, livestock vaccine innovation, soil health and conservation, and more. The future is here, and it's a fascinating time to be in the field. (Not to mention how lucky we are to get to work with our families, and with Mother Nature, every day.)

The recent history of US agriculture is spotted with tragedies, but the bigger lesson of history is that we always come out into better times. In the 1980s, inflation and market corrections caused interest rates to climb to 21%. High interest rates sent bottom lines into the red- and a lot of people lost their farms. Then the drought of 1988 hit. It was one of the most expensive droughts in US history during which crop yields fell by nearly 50% in a single year, and the US farm economy lost around $10 billion. Farmers that survived learned a hard lesson- that even careful and successful farmers can go out of business under the wrong circumstances. Even the biggest farms, ones that seemed untouchable, could have exceptionally bad years. And they learned that farming requires a positive outlook, good budgeting and business sense, and frankly a lot of luck.  

If you ask anyone who has years of experience successfully running a farm, they will surely tell you how important diversification is. If one commodity tanks, you should have something else to balance the equation. On our farm, in addition to several crops and different livestock, we also do some trucking in the fall and own a small agribusiness. I write, travel and speak about agriculture, and sell my meat at local farmers markets. Diversity helps us stay hopeful during the hardest times. Ask any older relative or farmer and they'll all tell you, "Things will get better, they will improve! They always do." 

For me, staying hopeful is one of my favorite aspects of farming. I love the challenge a new season brings- to try to improve every year, to have fewer losses in both livestock and crops, or to try and use inputs more efficiently. Every spring, we go in thinking "this is going to be the best crop ever." If we didn’t, we couldn't do this at all. 

When tough times get you down, remember it always comes in cycles. The hard times will always get better. With good business skills, cautious money management, and some good, old-fashioned luck, that extra effort and positive thinking will get us through. So it goes in the famous video "So God Made a Farmer," remember to wipe away your tears during rough times and say "Maybe next year." Ask any farmer and they will most likely tell you we do this because we love it. The outdoors, working with animals, being a caretaker of the earth... The farmer really is the eternal optimist.

The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.