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Published January 07, 2013, 10:40 AM

Lessons learned

Sons and fathers, agriculture and journalism

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Years ago, when I was a college student, I returned one weekend to my family farm. It was calving season, and as soon as I arrived home, my father drafted me to help him check the cows and newborn calves.

We found a heifer in labor, her unborn calf at serious risk. My father, an experienced cattleman, knew what to do. A little while later, the heifer delivered a healthy calf that probably would have died without my dad’s help. I complimented him on a job well done. He just shrugged and said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I should’ve learned something.”

Years later, when I was a longtime journalist, a young photographer and I covered an ag story. A potentially thorny situation arose; my experience allowed me to resolve it successfully. Any other experienced journalist would have succeeded, too. But the fairly green photographer was impressed and complimented me. I thought for a few moments about how to respond. Then an old memory clicked in. I shrugged and said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I should’ve learned something.”

That’s usually how it goes with sons and fathers. We don’t always realize, at least not right away, what they’ve passed on to us.

As I grow older, I understand more fully how much my father taught me. He retired a dozen years ago after a lifetime of farming and ranching in north central North Dakota.

Lessons used on the job

Most of the things I learned from him have nothing to do with ag journalism. But there are three lessons I draw on just about every day at work.

The first is that the financial decisions farmers make in good times can be more important than the ones they make when times are tough. Taking on too much risk and debt in good times can lead to disaster later on. Every time I work on a story about soaring land prices or something else tied to the current ag boom, I wonder what will happen if times turn tough.

The second ag lesson from my father is that new farming practices aren’t necessarily good or bad. Anything new should be evaluated on its own merits and treated accordingly. Every time I work on a story about some change in farming practices, I try to understand both the potential benefits and shortcomings.

The third ag lesson from my father? Growing up, watching him day after day, I learned that farming is both punishing and rewarding, both frustrating and satisfying. I benefit from that every time a farmer tells me of a challenge he faces or a victory he’s won.

There’s not enough space here to list all the nonagricultural lessons my father taught me. Nor is there enough space to mention all the good and useful lessons I’m too stubborn to put into practice. That’s sometimes how it goes with sons and fathers.

But whatever changes occur in my life, there’s one constant: the older I get, the smarter he gets. That’s usually how it goes with sons and fathers.

Congratulations, Dad, on your 77th birthday.