In agriculture, we employ a straightforward method to determine success: Success = big + rich. This is why articles about producers must contain 1) dimensions, such as acres, head and employees; and 2) wealth signals, such as elaborate farmsteads, shiny equipment and celebrity.
These parameters sufficed in a profession that was just rising above humble origins. Although there have been rich farmers before (trace who built the grandest houses in Midwestern small towns), in the 20th century, "farmer" and "well-to-do" rarely appeared in the same sentence.
"In the 20th century, ‘farmer’ and ‘well-to-do’ rarely appeared in the same sentence."
Nonetheless, farmers have moved up the scale of financial achievement. A good number of us are accurately labeled successful. But, as sociologists point out, when many are winners, success means less.
At the same time, those of us who are better off than we ever imagined have our own questions. Success is not synonymous with happiness. Life goals are frequently sacrificed to obtain "big + rich," which are too often the only descriptors that come to mind when a successful farmer is named.
We have all encountered someone considered to be successful and come away unimpressed, forcing reconsideration of our own standards. Success should be made of sterner stuff. I suggest we update our criteria to match the times and realities.
Success 2.0. The farmers who achieve true success—by my definition—in the 21st century will be those who are led by these guidelines:
Be understated. Discretion bespeaks both self-discipline and modesty. In an industry filled with voices "telling their stories," the attraction of dealing with self-promoters has palled. Diplomacy and tact are welcome practices, encouraging trust. With ag subsidies declining, public exposure has less payback. With our relative prosperity, publicity only makes us an easier target.
Embody calm and confidence. Those around you will be reassured and able to do their jobs without distraction, increasing effectiveness during routine and unexpected events. Confidence will stem from investing in proven anchors such as land, reciprocal loyalty and rational expectations.
Employ superior information management. Untiring information intake, such as continuing education in the tangential expertise that is rare in agriculture, will provide a broadened perspective and crucial moments of advantage in an increasingly volatile environment. Data from personal ties across professions and geographies will help identify obscure opportunities early.
Tolerate and exploit high failure rates. All outcomes will be treated as equally useful, without assigning blame. Mastering the art of mistakes will be a key skill.
Be contagious. The truly successful will foster the success of those around them—not just employees and partners, but friends, suppliers, customers and family. Instead of soaring with eagles, we should raise them. Shoulder responsibility for the community. This will occur without any expectation of acclaim or payback.
Avoid confrontation. The tribal attitude of "us versus them," which provokes contests of intractability, will be sidestepped to avoid wasted energy. Success will balance autonomy with low-friction linkages both along the value chain and between peers.
Tolerate risk without depending on outside aid. By self-insuring as much as possible, returns and options increase. This will promote decadal, even generational, planning while your competitors are still thinking in terms of years.
Employ consistent courtesy and civility, especially during opposition or negotiation.
Respect time off work. Eighty-hour-week boasters impress less than those who can accomplish more with a balanced lifestyle.
None of these aspects of success precludes being big and rich, but more farmers discover these rewards are best seen as coincidental artifacts of more consequential aspirations.
John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For local station listings, log on to www.USFarmReport.com.
- February 2013