The farther North Dakota farmers travel away from their home state, the more likely they are to have a conversation with someone who is curious about their job. A vacation, they soon learn, often comes with a host of questions. Here are a few of the most common ones. If you are a farmer, you’ll probably remember the last time you were asked. If you are just curious, perhaps you’ll understand some of the basics the next time you sit next to a farmer on an airplane.
1. How great is it to be your own boss?
If you ever overhear this question being asked, you will also likely hear the farmer happily reply that they could never see themselves doing anything else. That’s because farmers are entrepreneurs at heart, and most are grateful to serve as caretakers of the land. In many cases it is the only job they’ve ever imagined themselves doing.
They love the freedom of making their own business decisions and the ability to operate on their own schedule (often a busy one). Of course, this role doesn’t come without its fair share of trials and tribulations. Dealing with the constant battles of uncertainty in crop yields, fluctuating markets, delays, and unpredictable weather can certainly make a farmer’s role as boss pretty stressful. After all, every decision regarding these challenges is theirs to make. They don’t get any help from the corporate office – they are the corporate office! At the end of the day, however, farmers appreciate the sense of fulfillment they get after successfully harvesting a crop they’ve cared for an entire growing season.
2. Doesn’t modern technology do a lot of the work for you?
Advancing technology has transformed every modern business, and farming is no different. While today’s farming practices are certainly different than they were in years past, the biggest impacts of new technologies have been on operational effectiveness rather than overall labor.
Farmers still do all of the same things they have always done; they just utilize current technology to do those things more efficiently. For example, farmers are now able to steer and control equipment such as tractors and combines via GPS technology. The equipment itself is also much larger and more efficient than in years past. As a result, practices like harvesting, planting and cultivating can all be done faster and more efficiently.
Wireless and GPS technologies are also helping farmers analyze data and monitor crops. Drones, for example, provide framers with the ability to get a bird’s-eye view of their fields at a moment’s notice.
With that being said, crops still don’t plant or harvest themselves. Modern farmers are still firing up their high-tech combines at 5 a.m. and eating dinner long after the sun has gone down. The methods may have changed, but the required effort has mostly stayed the same.
3. Farming is big business, right?
By looking at the size of many modern farming operations or the cost of a new tractor, it’s easy to see where this misconception comes from. It’s no myth that farming requires significant capital. However, the balance in a farmer’s personal checking account is generally similar to that of the folks in town.
Some years are better than others, but the lion’s share of a farm’s yearly income goes right back into the operation. There are obvious expenses like machinery, fuel, maintenance and employees, but there are also an abundance of cost factors that are less obvious. For example, common fungicides used to control and prevent Fusarium head blight (scab) and other fungal diseases in wheat can cost a farmer nearly $50 an acre. With the average North Dakota farm planting about 1,500 acres a year, you can see how those costs can add up quickly.
“Managing a farm successfully takes a keen understanding of things like balance sheets and income statements,” says Matt Beneda, ag lender at First United Bank in Park River, North Dakota. “It’s not just planting and harvesting, and it never has been. Fortunately, choosing good partners – a good bank, for example – helps a lot.”
4. What’s going to happen to the farm once you retire?
This is a tough question for any small business to answer, especially one that has been in the same family for multiple generations. After all, do farmers ever really retire? To them, the farm is much more than their job. It’s their legacy and way of life. Passing it on to the next person (or generation) isn’t as simple as just handing over the reins and calling it a day. It’s often a lengthy process with a plethora of tough decisions and financial factors that come into play, especially if there are multiple people involved (or who want to get involved) with the operation. These implications are just a few of the reasons why it’s especially important for farmers to have a plan in place before the time actually comes to retire.
“Succession planning takes teamwork for farmers,” says Beneda. “Most of the time it involves a financial planner, a banker and an attorney. The goal is always the same – to create the best circumstances for the family and the farm itself. It’s more personal than a lot of other businesses, but there is something very rewarding about helping two generations of farmers to realize their dreams.”
Do any of these questions sound familiar? They probably do if you are a farmer. The next time you see a banker from First United Bank, feel free to ask them some questions of your own. Many of them grew up on farms themselves, and you may have more in common than you expect.