Over the years, several nonfarmers have asked me how to tell if a farmer is doing a good job. I always gave a polite nonanswer: it seemed to me that the questioners were trying to check on a relative who farmed, and I wanted no part of their family intrigues.
But here, in a general context, I'll offer up my humble opinions. They're based on several factors: watching my father, a successful, now-retired North Dakota farmer and rancher; the MBA I earned four decades ago; and observing many solid and a few not-so-solid agricultural producers as they formulated and executed their decisions.
These traits of a successful ag operator. I think, apply to big and small ones, ones who raise either crops or livestock, and both conventional and organic producers.
Volatile weather and prices make ag inherently and unavoidably stressful. Federal ag programs can reduce, but never eliminate, the stress.
Successful farmers find methods to manage stress, while still doing their work in a timely way. Maybe it's spending a little time with friends, or watching a sporting game on TV or in person. Whatever it is, find something that works for you.
Minimal complaining, bragging
In my experience, good farmers tend to brag the least about their accomplishments and also to complain the least about their challenges. Likewise, poorer farmers tend to brag the most when things go right and to complain the most when things go wrong. There are exceptions, of course, but I think there's definitely a correlation between success/failure and bragging/complaining.
Listen to specialists
Ever-evolving science and technology make it impossible for farmers and ranchers to know everything — or even most things — about modern ag. So be sure to listen to agronomists, ag bankers, Extension officials and other specialists. Every farm and every farmer is different, and specialists' advice won't always fit what you're doing. But following their advice will help you to make good decisions much more often.
Luck, good and bad
I once thought that good farmers make good decisions and consequently enjoy good luck while poorer farmers make bad decisions and consequently suffer bad luck. And, in fact, that's usually the case.
But not always. Weather and prices are so volatile that a spate of bad luck occasionally can overwhelm good decisions and a run of good luck can bail out poor decisions. It's not fair, but farming has never been fair. Never will be, either.
Modern farmers need a connection, an "in," especially for farmland, to get started. Relatives, usually parents, often make financial sacrifices — in some cases huge ones — to support beginning ag operators. Free help from neighbors and relatives, especially at planting and harvest, can be vital, too.
Learn from peers
Wherever you farm or ranch, there are talented, successful farmers and ranchers nearby from whom you can learn. Watch what they're doing and figure out if you can incorporate it in your own operation.
Whatever small success I had in ag journalism came in part by learning from other journalists, with former Agweek and Forum of Fargo-Moorhead colleague Mikkel Pates topping the list. Thanks to Mikkel and the others for their unknowing help.
Astute readers have noticed the shared element in the traits I've mentioned: humility. Successful farmers and ranchers know they're not in it alone. They realize they need contributions from others, in one form or another, and occasional cooperation from the volatile and often unfriendly world in which they raise and market their crops and livestock.
That realization doesn't guarantee success, of course, but it surely will help.
Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at email@example.com.