A couple of really smart people told me at the beginning of my blogging journey to never write or talk about money when visiting with people outside of agriculture. The subject is difficult to navigate and often results in negative exchanges. After following this advice for more than four years, last week I deviated and addressed the topic in the middle of a presentation at a local university.
The University of Nebraska @ Kearney offers classes for retired Nebraskans looking to expand their knowledge. For the past two years, I have presented in a class that teaches about agriculture. This group of “students” provides a truly unique audience as many of them are retired college professors who possess incredibly curious minds and no inhibitions relative to asking questions.
After a 45 minute exchange with the class, I prepared to close my talk when an older gentleman sitting in the third row caught my eye as he raised his hand with a question. He had read an article talking about the commodity markets, in particular the negative margins experienced recently in the cattle feeding business. He asked me how I protected my farm financially so that I could make a consistent profit.
My simple answer, “That is an impossible task”, led to an interesting array of facial expressions across the audience. Another hand immediately went up as the audience started to ask more questions about profit, loss, and farmers’ financial sustainability. I thought briefly of the advice from my beef advocating mentors , but decided to go with my gut feeling and answer the flurry of questions.
We talked of the recent economic crisis plaguing beef farmers, the need for better risk management tools for farmers, and the importance of diversity in agriculture as a basic protection tool for long term sustainability. One of the hardest lessons that I have learned in my 19 years of caring for cattle is that regardless of the quality of both my animal care and the quality of the beef that my animals produce, I am ultimately at the mercy of the market relative to making a profit.
My favorite farmer’s grandfather learned many, many years ago to not put all of his eggs in one basket. For that reason, our farm grows a variety of products (corn, cattle, alfalfa, and soybeans) to sell into a variety of markets (traditionally grown as well as organic niche sales). This helps to protect us against experiencing paralyzing losses when market volatility strikes. We also follow the old fashioned adage: save when the years are good so that it is possible to sustain in the years that are bad.
The latest issue of Drover’s Magazine reports that feeding cattle in 2015 resulted in an economic crisis where United States farmers lost a total of $4.7 billion dollars over the 12 month period. The Feed Yard Foodie farm was not immune to this industry wide catastrophe, and the cattle portion of our farm has sustained significant losses since April of 2015. While this has been psychologically difficult for me, our farm business is solid enough that we are persevering in the long run.
When the class finally broke for the day, a woman from the audience came over and put her arm around me. I was truly humbled when she said, “I had no idea that farmers ever lost money. I will pray for you and your family because what you do is important and now I understand just how hard it is.”
I learned an important lesson that afternoon – sometimes compassion and vulnerability trump pride, and the truth is often the very best answer. I do not even know that very special lady’s name, but I will remember her face and her kind words for the rest of my life. Her compassion serves as a reminder that it is okay to be human, and that at the end of the day it’s just money…