July 31, 2009 02:19 AM

The Theory of Relatives

By John Phipps

More than once, I have made attempts (some of which were graded) to wrap my brain around Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. I have virtually no understanding to show for those arduous efforts. I do vaguely recall that time is experienced differently under certain circumstances.

It recently dawned on me that I was in the middle of a hands-on experiment in time comprehension of my own, which stems from the process of integrating my son into our farm business. Time has become relative for me lately.

Over the past few months, my planning horizon has quietly shifted from dates like 2014 (when I turn 66) to much more distant ones. Often now, I wrestle with what a choice today will mean when Aaron is my age (2034!). I mull decisions about actions that could take decades to bear fruit. Most surprisingly, I have made this shift without my usual whiny sense of sacrifice.

Thinking really long-term has not been instinctive to me in my career. In fact, while I did try to avoid "quick and cheap," I often chose to just get by during my watch. This changes in a multigenerational setting. Aaron's return didn't just transform how we operate; it fundamentally altered how our time is reckoned.

Looking back, I can see how farmers who "built to last" and devoted themselves to craftsmanship shared a similar longer view of time. Often, when I am repairing century-old drainage tile, I wonder if the person who installed it imagined my looking back at him
with gratitude.

This virtue could pay off simply because we don't have to rebuild slapdash efforts. However, it does not fare so well with rapidly changing and increasingly cheap technology. Too many abruptly outdated buildings (grain legs are outgrown seemingly overnight, for example) and undersized machine sheds testify to the unseen problem of trying to create to last decades.

Future Flown.
What really colored my thinking, however, was the effect of more education, the end of rural isolation and some really tough years for agriculture. These factors encouraged most of our possible successors to choose careers elsewhere. They took the future with them, in a sense.

Consequently, I have always tried to be respectful of the really long view in farming, but harbored serious doubts about its applicability today. What I did not grasp was that economics isn't the only motive behind such an attitude.

Today, even close family members live essentially segregated lives, fulfilling individual responsibilities alone or as a family only when children are still dependent. It's part of independence and "not being a burden." Some say the advent of Social Security weakened the need for multigenerational involvement, even as it granted new independence to oldsters. However, once achieved, self-sufficiency is an emotional cul-de-sac. It traps us in our own mortality: The world ends when we do. This is not an uplifting background for good business decisions, let alone life decisions.

Beyond Self-interest. When your time frame shifts to beyond your lifetime—and I think that is the watershed reference point—a marvelous thing happens: You can be freed from the tyranny of self-interest. This psychological event has been noted by religion and science alike as the key to abiding happiness and satisfaction.

Judging by comments I have received from other farmers in transition, the surprising joy of setting aside self-absorption in the present is not often figured into the negotiations when our offspring return. It should be—and considered a valuable asset the oncoming successor brings.

Einstein theorized that the passage of time changes as we move ever more quickly. His math may be right, but my experience of time has shifted because I am older and (slightly) slower. Perhaps all these years I was misreading Einstein. Time is not just relative; relatives can change time.

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


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