Decades ago, I interviewed a farmer who had gone out of business a few months earlier. He'd battled drought, high interest rates and the pressure of being a small operator at a time farms were getting bigger and fewer. He fought the good fight, but he lost. He felt the loss deeply, telling me emotionally that he'd let down his father and grandfather who farmed before him.
When we were done talking, he walked me to my car, shook my hand and said, "The bottom line is, I failed."
I think of that farmer once again as the region's harvest nears the home stretch. Some area farmers will be harvesting their last crop this fall. The reasons vary. Some will step away because of age or poor health or a combination of the two. Some will be forced out because they can't secure operating loans for the 2021 crop season. And some will need to quit because they're drowning in debt.
It's something agriculture has seen often in recent years: Between 2011 and 2018, roughly 100,000 U.S. farms went out of business. Many of those shut down because the owner/farmer reached retirement age, had no family member to turn it over to, and consequently rented or sold to a neighbor. And some went of business because they were forced to financially. Farmers in the first category obviously didn't fail. The question is, did farmers in the second group?
In most cases, only their ag banker — and possibly their agronomist — knows for sure. Only an expert with detailed information about the producer's finances and farming practices can truly assess what happened and why. The rest of us really don't know, and we shouldn't speculate.
Still, in a few cases, it's pretty clear an ag producer made serious mistakes that led to his or her downfall. The list of egregious blunders includes expanding recklessly, refusing to listen to experts, spending lavishly on personal or family luxuries, or some combination of the three. Ag producers who fit into this category seldom get sympathy from their neighbors, and I'm not sure they deserve much.
Far more often, it seems to me, farmers and ranchers forced out of business are in large part the victim of circumstances beyond their control. Maybe they entered ag at the wrong time. Maybe they were hurt repeatedly by bad weather. Or maybe their "in" to farming (the personal connection that allowed them to get started) wasn't strong. In farming, as in life, bad luck sometimes can be overwhelming. These ag producers often get sympathy from neighbors, and I think it's deserved.
One more observation: In my experience — let me know if yours is different — farmers who went of business because of mistakes resulting from arrogance or stubbornness tend to be the ones who complain most bitterly about the "unfairness" of modern ag. Farmers who had to quit because of bad luck usually complain less, or so it seems to me.
And that farmer who told me all those years ago that he'd failed? Not quite knowing how to respond, I nodded sympathetically (it was real, not feigned) and wished him success in whatever he ended up doing. I hope he's had it. I hope his life has been productive and satisfying.
To farmers and ranchers who go out of business this winter: I don't know if you've failed or not — and what I think is irrelevant. What matters is that, as painful as exiting ag will be, life goes on. What matters is that you make the most of it.