Perspective: Step by Step, Side by Side

August 8, 2012 08:05 PM

While we all make snap judgments about the character of others, our initial opinions can be altered by experience. It might take some time, but prolonged contact under diverse circumstances often revises our first impressions.

Since my son Aaron returned to the farm, we have been developing an understanding beyond our father–son beginning. Working together shines a different light on personalities than is seen in social contexts. The Life of the Party might not be the guy you want on your committee or the other end of a bin sheet. It is shared time in the trenches that spawns esteem.

For example, we often adjust our opinion of an acquaintance after slogging through a common effort. Perhaps it was a school consolidation campaign or renovating a church camp. Such "peer evaluations" are powerful and long-lasting. At funerals, I have heard testimonies like "You can say one thing about Jim—he wasn’t afraid of hard work." For a profession that grudges awards, this is a significant accolade.

Thus, it is regrettable when farmers overlook how rare teamwork situations are for fathers and sons. Only a privileged few ever have the chance to work in tandem. For most others, shared times center on amusements such as golf, watching the game, family visits or social events. These are not activities to be dismissed as trivial—time together is time together. But for men, at least, sharing the same work environment can deepen the connection between them. Add in those incidents that test their combined competence, and you have memories with unique bonding power.

Having worked with both a father and a son, my comparison of the two relationships is a snapshot of where our profession has changed most. The measure of performance on the farm during my career has progressed from physical prowess and effort to mental agility and decision-making toughness. The standard by which my father judged me is not the right yardstick for evaluating Aaron. That can be hard to remember when it is the only ruler you have.

During the past four years, I’ve seen Aaron from this perspective with decreasing emotional distortion. More than a dutiful son, he now is a dependable partner as well. Shifting between family and teammate roles gets a little easier each season. Meanwhile, respect is earned, not just inherited.

What a remarkable gift this is in any father’s life. Many fathers struggle to understand what their adult children do every day. We want to understand in order to provide the peer respect that our gender craves from our work. Nonetheless, I observe many who work with a son who can neither relinquish authority nor set aside competitiveness to enjoy the blessing.

The Trip Is the Destination. Our division of labor is becoming less vague. Aaron manages details and virtually all operations. My contributions are shrinking down to long-term strategy, forecasting and getting off the stage as economically and smoothly as possible. To my surprise, the last task has proven most challenging.

Best of all, albeit in a strange way, we have now faced enough problems and outright failures to deflate the drama of those events. Damage control is a familiar drill, and we now realize tomorrow will come.

Even though my life is unlike what I imagined when we began this collaboration, I attribute it more to unimaginable developments in our industry and my own pessimism than poor planning and execution.

When people ask how we are managing our transition, I think I often disappoint by replying, "We’re plodding along, side by side." For me, the trip has become the destination.

Once the latest revision to The Transition Plan becomes secondary to the simple satisfaction of working together, you start to reclaim real lives from anxious defensiveness. Such road maps might be important, especially early in a partnership, but to my mind, the mark of success is how seldom you refer to them.

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

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Spell Check

8/18/2012 06:29 AM

  Excellent post, John. As our family develops our transition plan, one of the most valuable parts is our ability to communicate, which we started when our children were very young, with periodic Family Meetings, where we used Robert's Rules of Order which I learned in FFA, so our meetings were very orderly and effective, and we took minutes. Everyone got to make motions, and with a "second", we discussed the issue, and voted. We have 30 years of minutes, including the one from 6-yr. old Aaron about 12-yr. old brother Eldon, a "Motion that Eldon not give as many wedgies" which passed by majority. What a treasure those minutes are, and a great tool!

8/23/2012 02:09 AM

  John, Thanks again for writing what is going on in our family life as well. Here in Lancaster County, Pa. the same could be said for our family transfer. It is gaining traction, and sucess is a possibility. Mistakes are made and new management better accept responsibity to pick up the pieces and move on. Wheat has become a player in our crop rotation and with yield check well above 110 bpa, dad can not argue that the new managment does in fact have something to offer. 110 bpa wheat sold at $9.00 /bushel and dobule crop beans likely to yield in excess of 40 bpa at $16.00 . That translates to $8.15 a bushel on 200 bushel corn, and we will not make that here this year. Our sons have wheat management at a higher level than I ever operated. My satisfaction was being able to provide the equipment necessary to achieve this level of production, then stand back and watch them make it work. That included being up at 4am waiting for daylight to do their own fungicide treatments with our airblast sprayer. Then go to school or the office in suit and tie by 7:30. My biggest frustration is digital communication in lieu of face to face. Seems we are missing something, but that seems to be the new normal. Still trying to enjoy the destination. Planning on starting to shell corn over Labor Day weekend and the corn planter and splitter is set to follow up immediately with prescription cover crops; including tiller radishes to enhance the notill options going forward.


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