There comes a point in every farm kid’s life where they think about going back to the farm. Whether it happens when they are really young or at some ‘turning-point’ in their life, they all think about it. For me it was after taking my first full-time job after college.
After graduating from UW-Madison, I relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina to work as an animal pharmaceutical salesman. It was a unique opportunity with great benefits and a short drive to the sandy shores of Myrtle Beach. Nearly a year into the position, the party was over and I was looking for a ticket back to Wisconsin. This was my time my ‘turning-point’ and opportunity to consider returning to the family farm.
While planning my move back to the Midwest, I received a call from a friend about a position that had come available for Dairyland Seed, a company I had interned with during college. I took the advice and scheduled an interview. A job offer was made that same day and it was time to make a decision: farming or go to work for Dairyland Seed.
So I did what every farm kid does when they don’t know which way to go – I took a walk down memory lane. Growing up on the farm leaves lasting memories, good and bad, that sustain the test of time. Riding bikes down the back farm lane to get the cows home, sitting on the bunk-line feeder as it traveled back-and-forth feeding cows, swinging with my brothers from the milk pipeline when dad wasn’t looking, unloading small bales of hay on the hottest days of the year and bedding cows with the same bales on the coldest days of the year. The sounds, smells and feelings all came to life.
Memories of growing up on the farm keep the spirit of farming alive in every farm kid. However, the harsh reality of life brings a challenge that dampens this spirit and challenges the guarantee of similar memories in the future.
College debt, limited investment capital, volatile commodities, sibling conflict, land-access competition and amazingly-unique opportunities complicate the decision for a young person to return to the family farm.
The decision was obvious for me. I wanted to join a first-class team that would challenge me to grow and develop as a leader. The chance to provide great seed products, agronomic support and farmer-focused service was this amazingly-unique opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. In addition, I had college debt that was a high priority to reconcile.
Sometimes it’s not a question about going back to the farm, it’s a question of how to bring the values of the farm with you.
The decision to not return to the farm was very difficult for me. It doesn’t mean that I won’t farm in the future, but for now I must seize the opportunity God has placed before me. I am as confident today as when I made the decision nearly six years ago because my choice was based on the principles I had learned growing up. My parents modeled the world-class leadership I desire by the way they ran their business: our family farm.
And yet, you left. It is why family farms are disappearing across the country. In the near future the majority of seed sales (your profession) will be to the largest of farms. The seed companies won’t be handing these accounts to the seed sales reps. They treat these are Inside Sales and are usually handled by senior management who are not paid on commission, but on salary.
Your desire to pay off college debt is admirable. I put forth though that college debt is precisely why you did not return to the family farm. The cost of higher education is not just dollars. It is also the lost years of building a farm. You see a farm is built over many decades, not years. Unless you become independently wealthy the chance of buying into a farm life is virtually impossible.
You will most likely watch your family farm be sold in the future to either someone who IS wealthy and wants to develop the land, have a rural estate or be picked apart by the neighbors (at which point it will be off the market for the rest of your life).
While I don’t begrudge your choice (it was yours to make), don’t be naive and think your choice, the same made by many young people, is exactly why the family farm and it’s beloved experiences growing up are quickly becoming extinct.