The next few months won’t be easy

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“We learn from experience. A man never wakes up his second baby just to see it smile.”

– Grace Williams

Welsh composer


An impromptu hallway conversation with reporters Andrea Myers and Kristy Alger focused on the bleak outlook for milk prices. I recounted a conversation with Ohio State’s Cam Thraen, who predicted prices will stay low until at least midway through 2003. The word “shake-out” was also spoken, and its grim implications for some milk producers who won’t be milking cows at this time next year.

The industry economists prefer to call this period an “adjustment.” Whatever. It still hurts.

And, unless you’ve gone through the same thing, you can’t begin to understand what these producers – and farmers in other sectors who must make the agonizing decision to walk away – are going through. Don’t insult them by saying, “We know how you feel.” No, you don’t. I don’t either.

It’s a rare farm that isn’t facing tougher economic times these days. And it seems trite to say, “Farmers have weathered these storms before.” They have, yes, but each setback drains a little more equity, saps a little more optimism.

Grasping for any sound advice, we could simply take a page out of a business management book: “The challenge is staying the course and doing more right things so you at least limit the pain and position your company for a recovery,” says University of Michigan business professor Noel Tichy.

Focus on “your clients,” or what makes your farm money. You can cut costs, but you also have to consider making strategic investments, because short-term decisions have long-term implications. Cutting back on feed can hurt milk production potential, herd health and reproduction, for example. You can’t shortcut your way to profitability.

In the May-June 2002 issue of Successful Farming, consultant Peter Reese wrote an excellent article, “Whatever it takes: Seven decisions you must make now to stay in family farming.” (I’d be glad to send a copy to anyone who requests it.) In it, he outlines three principles for survival: a will to succeed; a way to move forward; and someone to walk alongside.

The will to survive won’t guarantee you will, Reese says, but without that personal and family drive and commitment, eventual failure is likely.

Then, translate that will into action with a plan, a way to move forward, not the “plan-on-the-planter approach.”

Finally, Reese wisely adds, you don’t have to go through this valley alone. Turn to your accountant, an extension agent, or a consultant for insight and encouragement.

I’ve probably used the line before from an old Up With People song (whose title I don’t even remember): “As I open the door, the morning light shines brightly, the sun slowly melts the sparkling dew. Taking the best of the days gone by me, I won’t look back, but walk on through.”

Most of the problems we think we have now pale to problems we’ve overcome in the past. Take the best of what you’ve learned and walk on through.

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