Perspective: Our Plans, Our Dreams

November 14, 2012 10:14 AM

Through the years, I’ve cherished and raised my budget–cash flow spreadsheet from a pup. First banged out on VisiCalc with an Apple II (64K! two floppies!), it was the numerical picture of my hopes for our farm.

With time, the model became more sophisticated as newer hardware and software aided my analysis and my own skills improved. Today it’s a multiple-page forecasting program to test new possibilities and map our future.

"Ask a farmer how he sees
his operation in 10 years,
and he will usually respond
with vague evasions."

As constructs of our imagination and logic, such detailed plans are inevitably speckled with flaws. While math errors are soon made plain by reality, dubious assumptions and approximations persist. The alternative, using a "canned" spreadsheet and university averages, minimizes these faults but presumes that one size fits all. Even those who know their skills are weak want plans adjusted to their lives, not the other way around.

Thus, discussions with our loan officer reluctantly take place, knowing he might point out doubtful aspects of our plan. What we fail to realize is that this seeming criticism is really anything but. We are so blind to the flaws in our dreamconstruction that even helpful remarks seem like  unwanted remodeling.

The problem goes deeper than just finding the right estimate for corn production. These plans are born from our own hopes. Having invested hours of our best effort and thought, none of us is eager to have others critique our vision.

Our plans provide a glimpse of our secret ambitions and, as such, reveal much about our  priorities. They imply our enthusiasm for the future or, sadly, our despair. They expose our  imperfect grasp of how the world truly works. They are fragile extensions of our pride.

More importantly, long-range plans are a good way to combat short-term volatility, but our mental pictures of the distant future are even more susceptible to error. To others, they can seem  childishly optimistic or beyond our talents. Ask a farmer how he sees his operation in 10 years, and he will usually respond with vague evasions. The question is our profession’s version of "Where is this relationship headed?"

Consequently, we don’t easily share these ideas. So it was for me as we began to transition our farm to the next generation. After months of debate to get everyone on the same page, it became clear that I had to share The Plan.

In a what-the-hell moment, I e-mailed my spreadsheet to my sons and braced for the impact. The first response was puzzlement. Some mathematical connections that are obvious to me don’t necessarily pop out to the casual observer. In fact, many of my techniques are not accepted in the outside world where such models are shared.

Helpful improvements and mildly embarrassing corrections were politely put forward. To my utter shock, the improved budget worked … better. More importantly, seeing my actual numbers clarified their understanding of my decisions, even when they did not fully agree.

Our discussion about the farm’s future became more fruitful and efficient once we had the same numbers and objectives in front of us. The momentary awkwardness of financial disclosure gave way to collaboration and new ideas to reach our now shared goals.

Plan by Committee. As plans necessarily become more complex, I think we harbor ever-deeper reservations about their ability to withstand outside scrutiny. This applies to blue-sky discussions of our hopes as well as to elaborate budgets and decision aids. An interconnected, high-volatility world means a wide-open field for planning disagreement.

Perversely, this might be the most useful tactic: multiple minds building the plan. Businesses find validity in crowdsourcing; the process of articulating joint hopes might also give our dreams greater authenticity.

If you learned nothing else from the articles in this issue, it should be that farm planning has been pushed to the proverbial next level as a result of economic and political factors. Whether we ask distant friends, trusted family members or hired professionals, we need second opinions to help fortify our dreams. This is not the time for one-man plans. 

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