How to find work-life balance on the farm

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Spring begins the busiest time of year on the farm. Summer is chaos. Fall harvest is hectic. Winter is when farmers wrap-up the current season and plan for the next. We may spend less time on outdoor chores in winter, but we stay busy indoors; working on the farm business, networking at Ag conferences, and improving our skills with education.

Life on a farm is often referred to as “the simple life.” Agriculture evokes pleasant images of amber waves of grain, farm kids bottle-feeding a baby calves, and country folks passing time on the front porch. Make no mistake, there is simplicity in unpretentious life on the farm, especially when compared to commuting in back-to-back traffic to cubicle city, but referring to farming as “simple” is simply false.

Farming can be hard, stressful and lonely work. Long hours take a toll on family life. Low margins threaten our livelihood. Farmers are business people whom wear many hats. We are producers, marketers, finance officers, veterinarians, packers/processors, customer service representatives and distributors. We must navigate complicated food safety regulations, volatile markets and farm labor issues. Finding work-life balance on the farm is as big of a challenge as it is in other occupations.

A lifehack is a tip that makes life easier and more efficient. A time-flow worksheet, turning busyness into bonding, and support from family and friends are three farmhacks that can help you find balance in work and life on the farm.

Farmhack #1. Time-flow worksheet

Time management experts suggest identifying tasks, prioritizing, and scheduling time to work on each task. The system works in a controlled office environment, but not on the farm. On my farm in southern Ohio we “make hay while the sun shines” when the forecast shows three dry days of weather in a row.

Grain farmers say the same. Harvest consumes every minute of fieldwork days in fall. One farmer told me he might as well sleep in the tractor during harvest, because a few hours of sleep is really not worth the drive home before he’s back at it.

A time-flow worksheet can help. I made a time-flow worksheet from a cash flow template. I modified the worksheet by replacing the word “cash” with “time”, and listed critical tasks under the months I will accomplish them.  The result is a snapshot of my workload throughout the year. The time-flow worksheet helps me identify potential breaks when I can plan trips or events, and potential problems when I need to find help to prevent burnout.

Farmhack #2. Turn busyness into bonding

Farming is not a typical 9-5 job. There is always something requiring our attention on the farm. Plants and animals do not take weekends off, so we don’t either. Instead of letting busyness take a toll on family life, I turn busyness to bonding.

On New Year’s Eve my husband promised he’d take me out on a real date — the kind you put-on clean jeans for. While enjoying our restaurant dinner, he used his phone to log-in to the barn cameras and saw one of our animals having difficulty giving birth. Our date ended before dessert.  

A similar situation occurred this spring when I splurged on rodeo tickets at Nationwide Arena and planned a night out in downtown Columbus. Unfortunately, we had to cut that date short to treat an animal for mastitis. We spent the evening taking turns applying cool compresses and massaging a goat udder with Vics Vapor Rub.

Instead of stewing in disappointment, we turned busyness into bonding. We celebrated the birth of New Year’s twins, and the full recovery of our dairy doe. Often my husband and I reflect that we are building the farm together and willing to make sacrifices for it. I believe our marriage is made stronger by “busyness” we tackle together.

Farmhack #3. Support from farm family and friends

Support from family and friends makes farming possible. At a recent Ag conference, a farmertte and mother of three told me, “My mom and dad have the kids tonight. The other set of grandparents will take them tomorrow night. We are lucky to have a great family that watches the kids so we can attend conferences and focus on the farm business.”

Our neighbor offers assistance hauling our hay wagons from field to storage so we can keep baling. A friend volunteers his teenage son to help us stack bales. Family friends drop-off food on long hay-days when we don’t have time to make ourselves a nourishing meal. Their encouragement keeps us working hard.

Relationships are a two way street. It is important to add value to others lives when they add value to ours. We return the favor by sharing labor and equipment with fellow farmers. We offer assistance with breakdowns and sick animals — any way we can ease the difficulties of farm life.

Finding work-life balance on the farm is a challenge, but a time-flow worksheet, turning busyness to bonding, and support from family and friends are three farmhacks that help, and give greater meaning work and life on the farm.

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