Southern Spotlight: Cultivating A Partner

James Banahan

James Banahan

Last year, I took my grandfather along with me to Husker Harvest Days where we watched a forty foot head mow down a field without so much as a sputter.  My grandfather is in his 80s and as we watched, he recalled his own harvest days when they used a six foot head.

This is the change that the last eighty years has brought us: from six foot to forty, from horses to thousand bushel grain carts.  To Roundup.  To biotech crops.  The speed and vastness of progress in our industry over even the last twenty years is almost overwhelming.  What might the next 20 years bring?  What does agriculture look like in 2034?

I don’t know.  Honestly, I haven’t got a clue what that landscape might look like.  What I do know is this: there’s more progress to come and it will come fast.  The next generation of growers will have to be nothing if not extremely skilled decision makers.

And you, you’re likely training that next generation right about now.  That son or daughter, that nephew or neighbor, that young employee that you see driving the planter once your old hands have turned over the keys: that’s the next generation.  And they need your help.

Though they might seem so very different from you, maybe even a little alien at times, they know a lot of cool stuff.  They have iPads and know how to use them for more than just solitaire.  They know how to read yield maps and how to synchronize cattle so that it’s only two weeks of 3 a.m. calving instead of more.

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They have a lot of optimism and energy because they haven’t known anything but Roundup and because the last LDP was issued when they were still watching Saturday morning cartoons.  They don’t remember the 80s like you do, the strain and stress of which time still saturate your every decision today.  They don’t have the wariness that has served you so well.

But even if they are young and weird, they are your succession and they need to be cultivated.  This means that they need to be treated as a partner rather than a hired hand.  They need a mentor rather than an overlord, a Yoda rather than a Darth Vader.  They need to have some skin in the game.  They need your permission to have some skin in the game.

The point of this isn’t to stoke their egos or make for friendly business relations.  The point of this is that one day, you’re going to turn your operation over to them and they need to know not only how to run it, but how to sustain its success and longevity through whatever changes and progress the future brings us.  They will need skills and they will need sound decision making capabilities.

You can start supporting this now.  Give them a percentage—let them try an idea on 2% of your acres or herd.  Give them a responsibility—let them take charge of buying seed or chemicals.  Cultivate their vested interest in the industry and in your operation in particular—let them feel responsibility for it, investment beyond their sweat equity.

You’ve been farming for what?  20 years?  30 years?  That’s decades of learning under your belt.  Decades of mistakes and trials and successes.  Your experience and expertise will make you a wonderful mentor, and your mentoring will make a wonderful partner.  So when the time comes that you do turn those planter keys over, you’ll know that the hands you put them in are prepared and capable, skilled and wholly invested in ensuring the success of your work far into the future.