When Love and Duty Call

March 2, 2010 06:00 PM

Guest Commentary

Farms today come in many sizes and with multiple management models. Most operations can run smoothly until a health issue arises.

I learned this and many other valuable lessons during my father's terminal illness, which ran its course between September and November 2009—a short time from health to death, but a long time to leave my Circleville, Ohio, farm with its harvest challenges. Fortunately, my valued employees were up to the task. They not only handled harvest but helped me fulfill my father's last to-do list.

My dad grew up on a farm, joined the Navy, attended Ohio State University's College of Medicine and served as a flight surgeon. He became chief of anesthesia at a Columbus hospital. He never knew how to hold a golf club, and he always cut his own grass.

After his so-called retirement, he drove more than 65 miles nearly every day to help me farm. In his 70s, he could outwork 20- and 30-year-olds. We all learned from him, not just about work ethic but about life and that anything worth doing was worth doing right.

There were no warning signs. He woke up one morning with neon jaundice and knew he was in big trouble. He was right; his pancreas and stomach were riddled with inoperable cancer.

Immediately, as a son and a farmer, I was faced with taking care of my dad in his last days and the worry of how I was going to get through the largest harvest in 30 years during a wet fall.

I decided to talk to my employees. Advance preparation for emergencies is vital; cross-training is absolutely necessary. Fortunately, I had done some of that. Loyalty is always nice. Understanding is expected.

I got that and more from my employees. My senior employee told me over and over: "Take time to be with your dad. We will handle harvest.” 

Dad wanted to end his life as he lived it, with quality and dignity. He had 85 wonderful years and said he would not change a thing. I cannot say that about my life. One mistake is not having spent more time with him. I kept saying someday we will go to Alaska.

Dad's Bucket List. Dad had a "bucket list” of things to do before he passed. Some were easy, and some that I thought would be easy were anything but. Some that I thought would never happen, did. There were family issues that needed closure and personal time to be scheduled with many people. I found myself completely and emotionally captured by his requests. I fought an unknown timetable with the certainty that it would be too short.

I had things pretty well organized, but farm basics, such as marketing and my not helping with harvest for six weeks, really tested the system. I tried not to weigh my love for my dad against the demands of harvest.

One day in the midst of this, my dad insisted on going to the farm one last time. It was the most beautiful fall day I can remember: the clear sky, the golden kernels flowing from the grain cart into the hopper bottom trailers. Dad's cancer had progressed to where he couldn't walk, let alone climb a ladder into the cab, so I thought we would just sit in the car and watch the harvest proceed.

When Dad and my family drove to the field, my employees came over and, like the team they are, ever so gently raised Dad up the combine ladder and into the cab. He was exhausted before we left Columbus, but in the field he showed an inexplicable energy and desire to ride in the jump seat one more time.

Because there was only room for Dad and the driver, the rest of the farm family watched from afar. We knew it would be great if he could make it just one round. After several rounds and filling several trucks, they stopped. We all climbed aboard the ladder to get a few memorable photos.

That trip, that one last ride in the combine, was a carryforward moment and a tribute by my employees to their mentor.

I hope that you too can get your farm to such a wonderful level with your employee/employer relationships. That's what makes good businesses grow and great businesses charge into the future. 
Les Imboden farms 4,500 acres near Circleville, Ohio.

Top Producer, March 2010

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