A Father's Perspective on Losing Ground

November 2, 2011 11:57 AM

Jack London, one of my favorite authors, wrote a powerful short story, "Make Westing," in which a ship captain mercilessly drives his crew to round Cape Horn, always a brutal trial for a sailing ship. Success requires inhuman effort and even murder, but the captain’s commitment to his goal is absolute: drive the ship further west.

"Whatever you do, make westing! make westing! It was an obsession. He thought of nothing else, except, at times, to blaspheme God for sending such bitter weather."

I read this story decades ago, fascinated by the grip such a compulsion could have on a man’s thoughts and actions. Success in those times obviously required a different sort of emotional character.

Perhaps Not. Fast-forward to today and seemingly unrelated circumstances. The transition of our farm to Aaron proceeds smoothly, or at least bumps along. After reading about the "transfer tax window," which lasts until the end of 2012, Jan and I did the math and decided to gift two fields to Aaron and his brother Jack. Should land values continue to appreciate, there would be less danger of our modest estate swelling to trigger who-knows-what level of taxation. We had already begun to shift land rental contracts to Aaron. The machinery is being bought out as fast as I can work through my cash-accounting tax hangover.

A few days ago, as we finished harvesting, Aaron mentioned that the fertilizer would be spread the next day, and I realized I had not checked the prices or application amounts.

Then the light dawned: It was no longer my decision or even my concern. And for one brief but startling moment, I experienced a stab of horror: I had "lost" this ground.

Losing ground is my profession’s equivalent of failing to "make westing." For our entire careers, we have lived with the imperative to grow our farm and avoid losing control of our land. Hearing news of a colleague losing ground is an empathetic experience for some of us. We immediately transpose the story to our own farm and imagine someone else tilling "our" land. It is the stuff of nightmares.

The level of competitiveness in our ranks varies, I have discovered. Those who were fortunate enough to secure a large single-owner block tend to be less driven, although in my opinion this is risky, as all good deals come to an end. Those of us who have competed for acres field by field learn to fiercely defend them. Moreover, like sharks, we feel it is mandatory to keep moving (growing) to survive. I have known few business plans where more acres didn’t help.

Despite the fact that it was my own decision and not even the first time it had unexpectedly confronted me, this time it triggered a spasm of dread.

I had long wondered at and privately criticized farmers who could not relinquish control, even to much-loved children of proven ability. In this moment, I realized that my habit of always looking to grow the farm had become an emotional fixation that resists reason, like the ship captain’s.

Perhaps success in our competitive business requires preoccupation of that intensity. Or it might be a signal of my own unbalanced life values. Regardless, it is now clear to me that I will have to work through similar recurrences of that moment of alarm as I grow into my new role in my family and on our farm.

To be sure, it was just a brief moment, not enough to alter our plans. But it suggests I had misjudged the motives of other farmers who have wrestled with this transition before me. Without full confidence in the oncoming generation, or cumbered by extraneous family issues, this disconcerting sentiment might have been even more of an obstacle for them.

Setting aside a powerful lifelong motivation—grow the farm!—is not a trivial exercise. Those who can do so with grace and modesty deserve more credit than we frequently give. And perhaps knowing in advance that putting transition plans into action will trigger such unexpected passions can help smooth the process.

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

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