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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

Who's running the farm?

If you're a fan of irony, you may enjoy this column. You'll read what a 58-year-old bachelor and journalist has to say about the respective roles that Upper Midwest farm couples play in running their farms and ranches.

Let's back up a bit. My Aug. 13 Agweek cover package looked, in part, at the growing number of "primary" farm operators who are women. Primary operators are defined as the person making day-to-day decisions on the farming operation, as opposed to "secondary" operators who do not make daily decisions. I briefly noted then that primary and secondary operator designations probably don't fully reflect the decision-making on most farms in which husbands and wives are involved.

I'll expand a bit here. In my many years of writing a great many ag stories, a whole lot of smart people, both men and women, have told me that farm couples tend to specialize in running their farm. Common sense, as well as what I've seen in person, supports that: there are only so many hours in the day, and there's simply not enough time for both members of a farm couple to be good at everything. So the two of them tend to parcel out the duties and specialize.

Generalizing is always risky, especially when gender is involved, but it's not uncommon for women to focus on bookkeeping or marketing or both and for men to concentrate primarily on actually producing the crop. Though there's frequently some overlap in duties — women help in harvest, for instance — there's definitely specialization. Again, it's not just me saying that; it's me repeating what a lot of smart people, both men and women, have told me through the years.

Farm women, I've been told many times, tend to focus on marketing because they're often better at it than men. Men's egos push them into unwisely and unsuccessfully trying to sell grain or livestock at a market peak; women search pragmatically for a good average price that offers the best shot at profitability. True or not, decide for yourself; I'm just passing along what others have said.

That specialization — each in his or her roles — complicates the primary operator designation. So does the extent to which important decisions, such as whether to buy more land, often are made jointly.

Other factors are in play, too. Do one or both of the farm couple have off-farm jobs? (If so, it could affect day-to-day decision-making on the farm.) Do they have young children? (I've been told many times that women remain the primary caregivers for at-home children, potentially limiting the woman's decision-making in the farming operation.)

Yes, I'm a 58-year-old bachelor and journalist, rooted in agriculture. But it seems clear even to me that farm couples generally divide — and sometimes share — decision-making in ways that can make determining the "primary" operator difficult, if not impossible.

I'm not knocking the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that tracks primary operators. NASS, which relies on the person filling out the questionnaire to determine who's the primary operator, is trying to quantify something that in many cases simply can't be quantified.

So who's really running farms and ranches in which both spouses are involved? Even if the answer could be laid out neatly and nicely, I'm not interested in learning it.

Who's running their farm is nobody's business but their own. (Other than their ag lender has legitimate interest, too.)

And who's making daily farming decisions is vastly less important than making good ones. The quality of the decision, not its source, is what matters.

To all spouses operating farms and ranches together: However you split and share decision-making, good luck.

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