Farmers, you could learn a lot from a Twinkie

Is your farm any different than J.C. Penney, Sears or Kodak or Hostess?

These three brands, once rock-solid companies that dominated their markets, are crumbling. Hostess filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization back in January, followed a week later by Kodak. J.C. Penney and Sears have struggled to transform themselves as major retailers (J.C. Penney created a mess earlier this year with a new pricing strategy, and as a result of shoppers’ confusion, the retailer posted its second consecutive quarterly loss).

Kodak used to be the name in photography, so much so that we even call treasured scenes a “Kodak moment.” And Hostess? So you’re telling me that Twinkies don’t really last forever?

Elm Ridge Farm by itself may not dominate public consciousness like one of these major brands, but collectively, agriculture — food and farms — does. So what can we learn for our own farm’s success from the failure of these giants?

1. It’s never business as usual. Just when we think we figure out our place in the world, something disrupts our flow.

Get used to it. I don’t think there’s ever been a static period of time in history, let alone agriculture.

The bigger question is how will you as a farm owner/manager/chief cook and bottle washer get out in front of those changes. Are you willing to change how you do things? Are you willing to learn new skills? That computer, that smartphone, could save you money.

The bricks-and-mortar retailers lost ground to the likes of Amazon and other online retailers. But they could’ve cornered that market as well. Why didn’t they? It’s easier to do things “they way we’ve always done it.” It’s Newton’s Law: “An object at rest stays at rest.” The rest of that axiom, however, is “unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

Your farm will always be acted upon by some unbalanced force. Don’t let it dictate your direction.

2. No farm is an island. The minute we think we farm in our own little, independent bubble, we’re toast. It’s arrogant and short-sighted, and shows no understanding of the interdependence we have with the 98 percent of the U.S. population who don’t farm.

Today’s society is about connections, whether they’re online or face-to-face, and that’s a major implication for agriculture today. J.C. Penney lost sight of its connection with shoppers. If it’s able to rebound, you can bet it won’t make that mistake again.

3. Don’t react, create. If you really want to control your farm’s destiny, don’t try to figure out what’s coming around the bend, it’s too chaotic and unpredictable. You can’t control what you can’t control — weather, markets, global competition — so control what you can.

Management guru Jim Collins says the truly successful leaders accept full responsibility for their own fate. They make things happen.

In the dismal milk market of 2008 and recession of 2009, the Rynd family, which farms in Crawford County, Pa., decided to get out of their old tie-stall barn and build a new freestall dairy barn and milking parlor. It was a huge investment for the two brothers, Dennis and Jim, who are both in their 60s.

Why on earth would they want to saddle themselves with so much debt at this stage of their lives? Because the other option was to quit milking altogether. The farm had reached a point where it could no longer sustain three families (Dennis’ son Brooks, 36, had joined the farm in 1996). They decided to create their future.

4. Keep reinventing. There are always bumps in the road. Keep swerving. Or figure out how to add better shocks.

5. Question the unquestionable. If people think it’s absolutely impossible, if something is deeply embedded into your farm psyche, don’t be afraid to question it. Disrupt the norm.

Maybe Hostess could’ve made a healthier Twinkie.


By Susan Crowell

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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