When machines, crops, prices fail you, remember you still have worth
"You're only as good as your next story."
This is one of the gems of "wisdom" I heard when I was starting out as "cub" reporter in the late 1970s. It was a cliche of the business, a statement mostly true but also with some unintended ill effects.
I thought about this the other day as a young relative was writing a Facebook post about her travails as a freelance writer for an agriculture-related organization in South Dakota. She'd worked and worked on the story until it was 3 a.m., she said.
"Been there," I replied.
I didn't want to tell her how many times in those early days that I'd slept on the floor of the office, writing and rewriting the story into what seemed like perfect prose. I was only as good as the next story.
I stopped pulling all-nighters when I discovered the cure for writer's block. First, I'd make sure I thoroughly understood the story. Then, I'd tell it like I was chatting with a good neighbor over the fence. For most stories, I'd start the story with my "so what" paragraph, and the rest would tell itself — often in a chronology.
I'd realize there are many ways in the English language to tell a story. I only have to find one of them.
Last week, I was driving back to Fargo from a South Dakota assignment, gazing out at the frenzy of activity along Interstate 29, as farmers in the southern Red River Valley attacked their planting activity.
On the vehicle's radio, I was listening to a farm report — first a story about a farm bill, and then one of those dark reports over suicides on the farm. My mind drifted back to an interview I had with Sen.Kent Conrad, D-N.D. He was explaining that a certain provision he was working toward wouldn't quite make it in the form he was hoping for. "You know Mikkel, we can't make the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said.
That's true for farm policy, for journalism, and even for farming.
The premise the farm-suicide story was that with the current farming profitability downturn, more farmers are likely to feel depressed. They needed to talk things out with their spouse, their relatives, friends, family, clergy or counselor,
I've been working on a series of stories about the 1980s and the farm debt crisis. If you lived through that period, you'll remember notable cases of farm suicides, but it wasn't as bad as perceived. State health departments for South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota did a post-crisis study that indicated — surprise — the suicide rate among farmers wasn't significantly worse during that period.
As for today, I think most farmers are concerned about the financial deal. They'd be irrational if they weren't concerned.
The 5% factor
I'm guessing that maybe 95 percent of farmers today are thinking rationally about their decisions, realizing the risks and rolling with the punches. There may be another 5 percent (or less?) of farmers who take it all too personally. In despair, some might self-medicate or worse.
My advice to those folks: You may only be as good as your next cropping/marketing season, but you should also not forget that you're a valuable person — one who has likely has succeeded in the past. Our world depends on farmers for its food and existence.
If you're having a bad day or week — maybe struggling to make your planter work or something else — take a breath and remember that society is already indebted to you.
Get some sleep.
Things will look better tomorrow.