Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.


08:31AM Oct 10, 2008

Reality Takes Over

By John Phipps

In this annual chapter chronicling my son Aaron's return to the farm, we find our plucky middle-aged farm couple living the Midwestern equivalent of la vida loca. No kidding. When I last wrote about this topic in November 2007, we could not have imagined the scene on our farm today.

First, the date of Aaron's return jumped from late 2008 to March 2008 courtesy of the wipe-out in housing and its effect on the aggregate industry. Suddenly the farm looked very good. Thank goodness he was here for The Planting Season From Heck. I kid Aaron that he has likely gotten the worst planting season of his career under his belt his first year.

Anyway, after the first six months, here are some discoveries.

Who is this guy? Aaron left the farm for college at age 17 and returned at age 33. In the ensuing years, he has grown and matured, but how the heck was I supposed to know that? We soon realized I was operating from 16-year-old memories.

While hardest on him, I was repeatedly embarrassed by my lack of grasp of his maturity and capability. Luckily we both have a sense of humor, too many other agenda items, and time is curing this disconnect.

The iceberg of working knowledge. I had blithely written last year how I wanted to write stuff down to avoid having to transmit the minutiae of everyday farm operation by tedious lecture. While I did make a decent start, and plan to continue, several factors doomed this seemingly good idea: Aaron returned much sooner than planned; I (as usual) overestimated the time I had to compose this encyclopedia; and the internalized information stored nowhere but my head is staggering.

Seriously, it turns out that what passes for standard operating procedure around here is a mishmash of old habits, barely remembered operating manuals, and "it-seems-to-work-but-we're-not-sure-why.”

A good example is where stuff is kept, as I find when I help a neighbor. Farms do not have a Dewey Decimal System for tools or supplies. While trial-and-error have led us to certain patterns, many other possibilities are equally likely to others.

Then there are my years of working alone—not having to issue instructions, ever. Just when Aaron needs explanation most, I'm least capable of delivering it.

So now we both realize the first year will be tedious. One solution we're using is to simply state the desired result and start over. This has an upside. In reorganizing our machine shop to even the playing field, we've found some tools I haven't seen since 1983.

Just remember, fathers: The organizational logic you think is obvious isn't.

New look. To my astonishment, I learned that neighbors don't just see a son returning home. They look at our whole operation differently. Another generation adds an attractive dimension for landowners, for example. We were able to add rented acres simply because a neighbor knew he (or his widow) wouldn't be faced with another operator decision a few years later.

Getting to know you. We always stayed in touch, but phone calls barely covered the latest news, let alone ideas, hopes and concerns. Now we are blessed with quantity time. Given that men communicate best side-by-side rather than face-to-face (supposedly a remnant of hunting together in the bush), we can learn more about each other working together than we ever could while chattering at a restaurant dinner. Our phone calls are now in the language of business and work, not reminiscences. This, surprisingly, is the best of many good features to date.

Thanks to the unprecedented nature of 2008 for farms like ours, the turmoil of a new family (did I mention a new granddaughter in August?), a new farmhouse and new farm opportunities barely added to the confusion.

Yes, it has been hard work so far to establish communications, manage expectations and provide adequate training. For the first time, however, I'm inching toward the idea that I don't have to control all these efforts. In fact, it often seems things work out better when Aaron takes over. Go figure.

John Phipps,, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report.” For local station listings, log on to


Top Producer, October 2008