I know of a farmer who thinks life has treated him unfairly. He's angry that the family operation he took over was smaller and less prosperous than most of the surrounding farms.
His neighbors aren't sympathetic. They say his family gave extremely generous financial terms to help him get started and subsequently provided a great deal of free labor. The neighbors also say his farm would be more prosperous if he made better decisions and, in any case, that he knew the size and financial condition of the farm when he decided to take over.
I try hard not to make sitting-on-the-sideline evaluations of who's a good farmer and who isn't. But I'm sure of this much: There's absolutely nothing fair about who farms and who doesn't.
Everyone in modern agriculture, whether they're a Farm Bureau Republican or a Farmers Union Democrat, agrees that a would-be farmer needs an "in," a connection to an existing farmer, to get started. Farmland is finite and limited, and a future farmer or rancher needs a link to get access to it.
The "in" is usually a close blood relative: parent or grandparent, aunt/uncle. Sometimes it's an in-law, the close blood relative of a spouse. And occasionally it's friendship: for example, when a soon-to-retire farm couple, with no blood relatives who want to farm, takes a liking to an unrelated would-be farmer.
All of us involved in area ag know people who wanted to farm and would have been good at it — but never had a connection. We also know of cases where two siblings wanted to farm, but the family operation was big enough to support only one — forcing a difficult decision on which of the two received the opportunity. And we all know of cases where aging farmers are reluctant to offer an opportunity because they worry that the would-be farmer lacks the right skills to succeed.
To avoid possible confusion (and angry emails): I'm a big believer in property rights. Farm owners can pass on their operation to whomever they want. But what's right isn't always fair.
It isn't just access to land that's not fair. Some beginning farmers get generous financial terms from their "in"; some do not. Some beginning farmers receive considerable free help from relatives; some do not. Some beginning farmers take over successful operations; some do not.
Nor is there anything fair about the natural ability with which farmers do their jobs. Some ag producers are smarter than others. Some have more energy. Some have a stronger constitution. Some are better with finances or mechanical issues.
If you're looking for fairness, look elsewhere than ag. But if you have the passion to farm or ranch — and a connection that can allow it to happen — make the most of your opportunity. Though inherently unfair, farming and ranching can be a great way of life.
What do you think?
I'll close with these twin questions:
What obligation, if any, do farm parents have to help their children enter farming? What right, if any, do farm kids have to expect their relatives to help them start farming?
Drop me a line with your answer. (My answer to both is "None, but it can get complicated.")
Jonathan Knutson welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at Box 6008, Grand Forks, ND 58206-6008. Email him at email@example.com, or call him at 701-780-1111. Knutson is a staff writer for Agweek.